Steven Singer teaches 7th and 8th grade in Pennsylvania. He went through this spring’s crash-course pandemic conversion to online learning with his students while coaching his eleven-year-old daughter through her classes. Singer says online learning didn’t go well:
Kids didn’t have the necessary technology, infrastructure or understanding of how to navigate it. And there was no way to give it to them when those were the prerequisites to instruction.
Not to mention resources. All the books and papers and lessons were back in the classroom – difficult to digitize. Teachers had to figure out how to do everything from scratch with little to no training at the drop of a hat. (And guess what – not much has changed in the subsequent weeks.)
Let’s talk motivation. Kids can be hard to motivate under the best of circumstances, but try doing it through a screen! Try building a trusting instructional relationship with a child when you’re just a noisy bunch of pixels. Try meeting individual special needs.
A lot of things inevitably end up falling through the cracks and it’s up to parents to pick up the pieces. But how can they do that when they’re trying to work from home or working outside of the home or paralyzed with anxiety and fear? [Steven Singer, “Trapped on a Runaway Train to a Public School Disaster,” Gadfly on the Wall, 2020.06.30]
Given that we have squandered the sacrifices everyone made this spring to control coronavirus and are seeing the pandemic resurge on nationwide selfishness, we have no evidence that we as responsible parents and citizens can reopen our schools and crowd kids and teachers together in physical classrooms this fall.
Thailand, a nation with nearly 70 million people, has seen just under 3,200 coronavirus cases and 58 deaths. (South Dakota, with a population of less than 900,000, has seen nearly 6,800 cases and 91 deaths.) Even with coronavirus under control, Thailand is bringing kids back to the classroom only under strict mask and social-distancing requirements.
Many U.S. school districts that have announced their fall plans recognize that caution requires partial reopenings in a hybrid setting that will still rely on remote teaching for at least part of each school week. But are school districts and their states making serious investments in overcoming the barriers Singer experienced along with every other teacher and parent this spring to helping kids learn online? Our Governor Kristi Noem says she will continue to push for expansion of rural broadband (another example of Noem’s inability to frame her coronavirus response in anything other than her old tropes), but she hasn’t announced any use of the feds’ $1.25 billion in pandemic relief to help schools buy good laptops or tablets or video hardware or software and to hire a mega-Geek Squad to provide installation and training in every student’s home. We haven’t poured money into hiring 10,000 teacher aides (one for every K-12 teacher in South Dakota) for the summer to scan every worksheet and textbook into Google Docs and help create new online materials. We haven’t invested $500 million in doubling our K-12 teacher corps to cut in half the number of students with whom teachers have to build those vital relationships in the trying circumstances of pandemic, not to mention cut class sizes (and chance of contagion) in half and facilitate social distancing.
And beyond the classroom, we as a state and as a nation are not implementing long-term policies (expanded family leave, protection of parenting rights during remote work, universal basic income) that would ease economic burdens and allow more parents to stay home and dedicate more time to helping their kids learn online. Instead of revolutionizing our economy to support real family values, we remain stuck in our old thinking that the only way to solve our problems is to rush everyone back to work.
Singer concludes that we’re stuck with online learning for the coming school year:
We can’t reopen the classroom until it is safe to do so.
It is not yet safe. It does not appear that it will be in August.
COVID-19 cases are not trending downward. We do not have adequate testing to ensure that it is doing so. And we have no vaccine.
We have to protect our children, families and teachers.
A crappy year of education is better than mass death.
We will pay for it, but that’s the best we can hope for – that we’ll all survive long enough to make it right somewhere down the line [Singer, 2020.06.30].
We could make it right this fall. We could take serious steps to rein in coronavirus the way Thailand and New Zealand have. We could invest heavily in all the changes in K-12 education and in the economy to make online education work (and it can work! It can! Like everything else about responding to a pandemic, it just requires attitude adjustments and a lot of work). We could spend all the time we’d like to spend at the bar and the street dance coaching our kids through conic sections and economics at home. (What? You haven’t read economics or conic sections since high school? Then maybe, pandemic parent, you ought to bone up.) We could enact policies that make it possible for more parents to stay home and help our kids through this national emergency (because, really, isn’t our kids’ health and learning more important than any percentage point of GDP?).
We could. If we were a serious nation with serious family values, we could.