Op-Ed: Why Starting the School Year Remotely Is Our Best Bet

Starting the year remotely op ed hero image

Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in this article.

In too many school districts, the desire for face-to-face learning has taken precedence over the health and well-being of students, teachers, and their families. In the throes of a pandemic, there are national, state, and local authorities who are blindly following political pressure to OPEN THE SCHOOLS, dismissing the potential danger of sending students, educators, and support staff into enclosed spaces for extended periods of time where COVID-19 can be easily transmitted.

There are so many challenges to face-to-face teaching—full- or part-time—that there is not enough space here to address them all. In speaking with teachers and leaders across the country, I’ve been struck by their yearning to be with students and their deep concern about how educators and students will be adversely affected by a COVID-19 outbreak in their schools.

Among the most striking developments is that some states are forcing schools into full, in-person schooling, as directed by the president, with the risk of losing small but consequential funding if they do not comply. This is likely to hurt the poorest districts, populated by Black and Brown children and their families, who have been hard hit by sickness, death, and economic loss. It is distressing to witness this dereliction of duty. Schools should be harbors of safety for our most vulnerable communities, not spreaders of disease.

Whenever I led schools—and I led four of them—we always started with safety: physical, psychological, and academic. Children and adults do not experience impactful learning without feeling safe, period. The 2020–21 school year may prove to be the least safe and most dangerous on the books. With schools already opening throughout the South and West, and with the Northeast to follow, uncertainty reigns.

Children and adults do not experience impactful learning without feeling safe, period.

By this blog posting date, schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee have had COVID-19 cases in their schools, forcing them to go into emergency protocols. Only a few days into the school year, and districts have traded shooter drills for contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine. By the way, all these safety measures can adversely affect students’ state of mind and raise anxiety levels, thus hurting their ability to learn.

“I’m really worried about kids’ and families’ mental health and stress,” says a school psychologist. “There’s not enough emphasis on this…it’s so demoralizing.”

The health of staff has been an afterthought. Across the nation, teachers are grappling with the decision of whether or not to report to school. Some educators have underlying health conditions, making them more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19. Others may be caring for compromised family members, to whom they may carry the virus back with fatal consequences.

Several teachers have told me they will either retire early or utilize the Family and Medical Leave Act in order to stay healthy for themselves and their family. In one case, a 60-year-old teacher was forced by the superintendent’s office to choose retirement two weeks before the school board would even vote on face-to-face learning. Consider that for a moment: A school district that does not even know if it will be conducting in-person learning asks a staff member to retire, just in case. Who does this most benefit—the teacher, students, or the district, and to what end?

On the flip side, new teachers’ passion and enthusiasm may help them set aside their own personal health fears, as they prepare for their first or second years in or out of the classroom. As always, these neophytes need to be nurtured, not disregarded. They must be tapped for their passions and innovations, and for their familiarity with current research, having just come out of a competitive teacher preparation program. New teachers will also need their colleagues, mentors, and leaders in order to develop and grow—wherever they teach from. If there was ever a year when schools must adopt an “all for one, one for all” mindset, this year is it, as all educators are sharing in the uncertainty usually felt only by their newest members.

Leadership at all levels has spent necessary but inordinate time creating protocols, policies, and procedures that have nothing to do with their main mission of teaching children. In many cases, professional development has been canceled because of rising infection rates. This raises teachers’ unease. It is hard to learn when you’re worried your job may kill you.

One assistant superintendent vented his frustration at trying to acquire personal protection equipment for staff. The vendors the state provided were either sold out or couldn’t deliver before the school start date. Even if he could find PPE, the cost has become prohibitive for his district, which has a poverty rate over 50%. Instead of planning professional development, he was counting masks in an auditorium when we talked.

The Case for Remote Learning

The most cautious school districts and states are buying time before the start of the school year by either delaying start dates or going fully remote with a plan to reconsider face-to-face learning at natural transition points like a term’s beginning or following school vacations. Learning exclusively through a device or even learning packets for those students without technology or connectivity is less than ideal, but it is the best approach when COVID-19 cases are now at much higher levels than when schools closed in March.

Districts that are responsive to their stakeholders are offering remote learning as a choice for the entire school year. If districts can keep a percentage of students learning at home, namely those who have the technology and family support to do so, this can leave space and time for some students to come to school. These include children of essential workers of all varieties, those with specialized instruction needs, and those who might come to school to access technology if need be.

Remote learning also provides teachers with a safer way to teach without exposing them to health risks for the most vulnerable. Schools that provide remote learning resources and opportunities could easily become exemplars of best practices to be shared across the district as well as centers of collaboration that can be transferred to in-person experiences.

If districts can keep a percentage of students learning at home...this can leave space and time for some students to come to school.

None of this is perfect or permanent. It will be here for our current school year in some form. Districts are in the unenviable position of creating what’s best as determined by their boards, community, and state education agencies without any case study or experience to tap into for guidance. Everyone is making it up as they go along, hoping for the best.

Unfortunately, the consequences are already setting in for all stakeholders afraid of what this school year will bring. Students suspended for taking a photo of a packed hallway where few were wearing protective masks, social media announcements of teachers quitting, and the creation of private learning pods are certainly sobering early markers of the school year. (The suspension was later rescinded but predictably some students tested positive for COVID-19.)

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the education world will reflect on the plans and remedies they have offered for the 2020–21 school year. My hope is that we have fully prepared, adjusted when necessary, and moved forward with greater empathy, compassion, and innovation in the best way we know how. All stakeholders deserve the opportunities to participate, listen, and create the best climate for teaching, learning, and leading. At this early point in the school year, any and all forms of remote learning are the best options.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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