Amid a sea of uncertainty, area school districts are making plans to begin the 2020-21 school year.
District officials and school boards are offered suggestions ranging from not opening in the fall to bringing everyone back into the classrooms. Most districts are trying to offer choices such as online learning or a hybrid of some days in person and other days online.
One thing is certain. No plan during a pandemic will offer every student a safe and excellent education.
For some students, a safe education means online, but not all those students will perform their best without direct, in-person, instruction. The hybrid approach is a vast departure from “normal”, and the lack of a consistent school day will not be the best for every student.
Overlooked in many plans are the direct and individual recommendations from staff, including teachers, food service workers and environmental specialists often referred to as maintenance and custodial district employees.
If districts plan in-person instruction with a 6-foot distance requirement, how will classrooms be arranged? Will each classroom be cleaned and disinfected every day? Will the room be cleaned and disinfected several times a day if several sections of students rotate in and out of the rooms every day? Will more environmental specialists be needed if cleaning and disinfecting is required on an accelerated level?
One solution to food service problems is to simply close down the cafeterias. What effect will that have on students’ basic nutritional needs? Teachers have told me they are convinced many students rely on school meals for basic, daily nutrition.
As districts grapple with multiple challenges heading into the new school year, the purpose of the districts is at stake. Every school district should strive to provide every student the best education possible. The pandemic might render that core purpose unattainable.
The challenges are not confined to school districts. Parents are often faced with seemingly no-win choices. Do you opt for online instruction to keep your child safe knowing that it’s not the best form of instruction for your child? Or do you risk your child’s health to provide the best plan for a great education?
Is there some middle ground? Can you minimize the risk and still get the best instruction for district students?
At first blush, online instruction seems to be a reasonable compromise if safety and beneficial instruction can be combined. Even if online learning is not the best form of instruction for some students, it’s better than no instruction or being forced to risk a student’s safety to get the best form of instruction.
But that balance is not always possible. In Janesville, for example, online education is provided by a district charter school, the ARISE Virtual Academy, and it is definitely not for every student.
The academy principal, Dave Parr, explained on my WCLO talk show that there are two critical factors in deciding if online learning in the Janesville district is best for a student. He said it takes a certain mindset to benefit from online learning and the ARISE program is just as rigorous as in-person instruction.
The mindset Parr referred to includes a motivated student who is disciplined and organized. While ARISE students are provided with mentors, they are required to work independently at times and are independently responsible for meeting class requirements. Some students do not fit in well in that environment and do better in a traditional, in-person setting.
Credit should be given to school districts and their school boards for attempting to give parents and students options and choices. The goal remains to provide every student with the best education possible.
The fact remains, however, that no plan is perfect for every student. Difficult choices must be made and, hopefully, those choices do not detract from the best education possible and do not unduly add to risks that the pandemic poses.