A fierce, disorganized debate is raging as our country approaches the time that schools traditionally open. Millions of people afraid of suffering lifelong damage to their health from the coronavirus are battling those who desperately want life to go back to something resembling normal, with schools in session, while others find themselves in the middle, unsure of what to do.
One out of 5 Americans either attend or work in schools. What happens next will deeply impact their lives, the lives of their family members, and our entire society. Stay-at-home distance learning using computers is one area that looks like a life raft by many.
Reports of how well distance learning went as the COVID-19 virus emerged last spring range from adequate, to awful, to disastrous. According to Education Week, when the virus forced school buildings to close early and education moved online, about one-fifth of all students never attended and only 4 out of 10 touched base with their teacher more than once a week.
There are several reasons for this, often driven by the students’ home situation. If they are from a household that is struggling financially due to lay-offs or quarantine, they may not be able to afford internet service. If they are doing distance learning by cellphone, the cellphone billing plan their parents have can make minutes very, very expensive.
In a surprisingly large number of households, because of financial issues, parents have to choose between paying the water and food bill or having their child talk to their teacher.
Distance learning has challenges that our society has to meet quickly. And we have a talent pool that can help.
Ms. Logan Spoonemore, a high school junior who lives in Seattle, Washington, recruited a group of 70 other students to be online math tutors for younger students. They created a website that links tutors to students, and have a rapidly growing list of volunteer tutors and students who need help. You can see the site by searching on Students Helping Students Seattle.
In rural West Virginia, the Martinsburg school superintendent formed an online tutoring program for elementary students using student members of The National Honor Society in all four high schools in the county. The student tutors lead chat rooms complete with games that can be solved using math. In other efforts, high school students are paired up with professional teachers as teachers’ aides, something that the younger students seem to really appreciate.
The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting low-income households much worse than the homes of the more privileged. One example of a program that has been created to facilitate higher-grade-level students supporting those kids can be found at TeensGive.org.
As a society, we need to move quickly to get programs like this in place.
As their budgets are frozen or cut, school leaders have been asked to totally reinvent their industry in just a few months. A large number of teachers have never been trained to teach online. School technology support departments are being challenged to significantly expand both the range of services they offer and the number of people they support.
To help their children, parents are being asked to use technology that many of them have not used before. And for older parents with high school students, the lessons being taught in many subjects like biology and science are vastly different than the material the parents learned 20 or 30 years ago.
Locally, 38,500 students and teachers are using online teaching tools that are new to almost everyone in the process. It will not be possible for our school systems to fix this by themselves. Everyone has to pitch in.
When school opens in two weeks, all 33,000 Cabarrus County Schools students will begin the school year taking all classes online, and the 5,500 students attending Kannapolis City Schools will be able to attend all classes online, or three days a week online and two days in person.
Over those same two weeks, the number of infected Americans is expected to increase by one-half from today’s levels.
The bottom line is this: Our world is in a large and growing economic and health care mess that can be reduced if you pitch in. If you have not changed your helping behavior over the past few months and are not currently actively helping others, you are part of the problem — but you could be part of the solution. You are badly needed.
Francis Koster, Ed.D., did his graduate work with a focus on threats to the basic life-support systems of air, water, food and fuel. He spent the majority of his career in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.
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