Over the past 30 plus years, elementary and high schools have evolved into community service organizations that go well beyond academics. Most neighborhood schools are providing free or reduced-cost meals to students who come from financially disadvantaged families.
As mental health issues are on the rise among our young people, many of our schools have medical professionals on staff and have trained the teaching staff to look for signs of mental distress and then to provide assistance to the identified students and their families. Most teachers and administrators are also mandatory reporters – always on the lookout for students showing signs of abuse or neglect – and again connecting the student to organizations in the community who work to rectify the situation and keep the student safe. In addition, students with every type of physical or cognitive challenge are provided academic and social training within the traditional classroom, many of them receiving individualized instruction and support.
There is certainly an argument to be made that the teachers and administrators of our elementary schools and high schools are overwhelmed and spread too thin given the diversity of the services they are required to provide and the immense challenges that accompany many of those offerings. Perhaps a discussion should be had regarding what other organizations should take on some of these responsibilities from the school systems, which in turn would allow the educators to focus more of their energies on academic and social development.
The reality of today, however, is that our communities and particularly our young people depend on the professionals in our schools to provide all of these services and protections.
The home lives of a significant number of students in our local, state, and national communities are less than ideal in some cases and dangerous and toxic in others. Escaping that reality to the safety and security of the classroom is a welcome and critical reprieve for many students. The personal interaction with adults who care about them and who have their best interest in mind is critical to providing a foundation upon which the student can build a stable and prosperous future and escape the cycle of poverty or chemical dependence or abuse. Although school discipline and behavioral expectations have taken a turn since I was in school, there is still a clear set of right and wrong within the school setting as well as an understanding of the respect and reverence owed to others; this is an understanding that some of these students will not learn at home.
It must also be acknowledged that even the best version of on-line learning has been and will continue to be an abject failure without the full support and engagement of parents in the process.
Effective learning at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels requires in-person, face-to-face learning or a homeschooling parent that is fully engaged in and capable of navigating the digital learning experience. Many parents simply do not have the time, ability, or in some cases, interest in providing this support.
Some powerful individuals throughout the country are advocating that we not return to school or that we do so within mandates that drain the efficacies from all of the school-provided services (including the academic training that the schools are primarily charged to provide). Some districts are proposing half-time digital and half-time in-school learning; this split-the-baby solution will ensure very limited learning along with scheduling chaos, both for the school systems and the parents who in many cases need to work outside the home every day of the week.
The truth of the matter is that the Covid-19 virus will not be gone within the next 12 months. If/when a vaccine is developed, polling has shown that upwards of 25+% of the United States population is not willing to be injected. And what if a new strain of ‘serious flu’ should break out in the future, which it surely will. Is reverting to these half-measures the wave of the future? If it is, we must all seriously reconsider how education is administered in the country and how we can transform it to better serve our students moving forward.
Covid-19 is a serious threat to some individuals, and teachers, administrators, and staff that are high risk may need the option of a temporary furlough or layoff until their health situation improves. Students who are immuno-compromised will need an alternative to the traditional school setting. Thorough and regular disinfecting of surfaces should be implemented as the new normal in school buildings. Parents do need to keep students home who are showing signs of sickness, and schools need to send students home if they arrive at school displaying those symptoms. Masks could be part of the solution as well.
There is no perfect solution to the threat of contagious illnesses. Teachers, staff, and administrators will be taking a bit of a health risk as they have been for decades.