The Corner

Education

Our Cobbled-Together Backup Plan for Schools Is . . . Not Much of a Substitute

Mathematics teacher Roshan Raj Tui Tui records his session for students during the twenty-seventh day of the coronavirus lockdown . Bhaktapur, Nepal April 19, 2020. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

Every parent, teacher, and school administrator is muddling through the best they can, but I suspect Bethany Mandel is speaking for a lot of parents when she observes that our nationwide forced experiment in homeschooling or distance education is not working well for a lot of families.

Sitting inside staring at a computer screen for six hours a day? Most adults have a hard time in online meetings for that long for one day; it’s completely unreasonable to expect it of a child for months on end. And it’s leading to behavior issues, too. On one recent Facebook thread about screen time–generated outbursts, one mother wrote, “This is a major conflict in our family because we do not believe in this amount of screen time, and the kids thrive without it. Yet it is expected in order for online learning to occur.”

Vast swaths of our society were built on the expectation that the kids would be at school while the parents were at work, and vice versa. Most of us are now in week six of this, although most school districts had a Spring Break week in there.

Here in my neck of the woods, the attempt to roll out a distance-learning program that allows students to see the teacher live has run about as smoothly and satisfactory as the rollout of Healthcare.gov:

Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote in a message to families that the district would “move away from Blackboard . . . as a tool for face to face instruction.” He said students and teachers would continue to use the technology to “access instructional resources and supports.”

Brabrand also said he had retained a law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, to conduct a “comprehensive, outside review” of how Fairfax rolled out distance learning. The firm, which specializes in information technology and cybersecurity, is slated to deliver a report within the next few weeks.

It’s enough to make us yearn for the old kinds of crises that used to bedevil Authenticity Woods Public Schools, like forecasts for a half-inch of snow.

Despite the mess, I’m not livid with my local public school system. They’re trying their best to put together a solution after being presented with an unprecedented crisis. Schools prepare for all kinds of bad problems — bad weather, a suicide, a school shooter, broken water pipes, broken heaters, school buses breaking down. But nobody had a good game plan for “what if all of the school buildings can’t be used at all for, at minimum, the rest of the school year, and we can’t gather the students in-person in any other location?”

(I don’t want to set off day drinking among the country’s parents, but nobody’s sure what summer’s going to be like yet, either. Summer camps aren’t sure. Summer school is “iffy.” Colleges and universities aren’t sure they’ll have in-person classes in the fall.)

Educators are begrudgingly realizing that there probably isn’t any almost-good-enough work-around.

The 2019-2020 school year, from about mid March on, will have to be written off as a forced experiment with middling results at best. Most school districts are concluding they can’t fairly grade students in these circumstances, because kids are getting wildly different education experiences, dependent in part on whether they can get a strong wireless signal. Some kids will have good home-learning environments. Some kids will have really challenging home-learning environments. And some kids will have their father intermittently asking, “Hey, you’re doing whatever that stuff is that you’re supposed to be doing, right?” in between writing Corner posts.

In my neck of the woods, kids had finished about five-eighths of the school year when classes were canceled — far too much for repeating the grade to make sense, but enough left unaddressed in the classroom to make the year’s teachings far from complete. This doesn’t count all the field trips, in-school concerts and plays, sports seasons, clubs, yearbooks, and other experiences in the school building that make education what it is. There’s no way around it, next year will be a rebuilding year in American education — whenever things return to “normal.” Expectations of our kids will have to be adjusted; they’ve just had this massive curve ball thrown into their lives and they, like the rest of us, are coping as best they can.

God help any poor kid who left food in his locker on that last day.