Everything is different now. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we interact, how we conduct business and how we recreate. Public education will also have to change.
We have an opportunity now to ensure that it changes for the better — that Texas schoolkids can learn in the way that suits them best, whether it’s in a traditional classroom, or online, or even through an innovative apprenticeship. We can give families more choices.
First, it’s vitally important that we do, indeed, reopen schools in the fall. That’s the strong recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says schools are fundamental to child development and provide a wide array of benefits.
And as the AAP points out, “The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”
There’s growing evidence that when the entire U.S. educational system was forced to go online in March, it was ill-prepared, and student education suffered for it. For many children, online instruction simply didn’t work. Teachers lost track of students, and parents (already dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic) felt overwhelmed. Many simply gave up.
So when schools do reopen, they’ll face student attainment gaps that will make the “summer slide” seem small in comparison. To deal with these gaps, schools must be more flexible than ever.
Many children learn best in the highly structured classroom environment. Texas must provide that environment, even if it means smaller class sizes and social distancing.
But some students — and their parents — found that they thrived in the more self-directed system of online instruction. Unfortunately, Texas has a law limiting the number of districts that can offer online-only education. The law says that only six can do so, and enrollment is limited. Of Texas’s 5.5 million K-12 students, only 16,000 were enrolled in these programs before March. Florida, with half as many students, had about 36,000 online.
It makes sense now to allow the students who so choose to continue their educations online. But their home districts owe them more than the ad-hoc “instruction” that was taking place in April and May. Online curricula should be carefully planned and administered, with students, parents and teachers holding each other accountable.
Another area that will have to change is career and technology education (CTE). Because much of this instruction is hands-on and depends upon coaching — often with a teacher looking over a student’s shoulder — social distancing rules could limit how much CTE is available to students in the fall.
But why must CTE only take place in a school setting? Districts should reach out to local businesses and industry groups to get students into apprenticeships. This has the added bonus of ensuring that CTE programs are aligned with the real needs of local industry.
Many parents say they’re reluctant to send their kids back to school. That’s understandable. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in ways we don’t fully comprehend yet. But it has also provided an opportunity to change how we think about education — and to allow parents more choices.