There are no easy answers to the question of how to open up Virginia’s public schools next month during the COVID-19 epidemic. While all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that the risk to school children of contracting and spreading the virus is low, the story is different for teachers, especially older teachers with preexisting conditions who are at elevated risk of hospitalization and death. On the other hand, the cost to school children of another year of sub-par learning is too great to contemplate. If Virginia handles this ineptly, we could produce the most ignorant generation since the introduction of universal K-12 schooling — exacerbating socioeconomic and racial inequity in the process.
The “hybrid” model of two days at school, two days online, recommended by the Northam administration and under serious consideration in most Virginia school districts, strikes me as complicated, unwieldy, confusing and likely to fail.
The worst thing about the hybrid model is that it provides a one-size-fits-all solution for each school district, which fails to take into account the variegated circumstances of students, families, and teachers. I’m thinking out loud here — consider this a thought experiment — but I would suggest a very different approach.
Ditch the hybrid schools. Instead, give parents the choice whether to send their child to school full-time, like normal, or stay home and learn online full-time. No halfway in and halfway out. Likewise, give teachers the choice of whether to teach in-person at school or teach online from home. Freedom to choose — what a concept!
Parents would weigh the pros and cons of school vs. home learning. Does their child have pre-existing conditions that would put him or her at greater risk of succumbing to the virus? Does the household have broadband connectivity? Will there be a parent at home who will see to it that the child is engaged in virtual learning and not goofing off? Does the child need supplemental nutrition available only at school? Who is better equipped to weigh these factors than the parent? Certainly not some district or state functionary driven by one-size-fits-all logic.
Similarly, teachers would undertake their own risk-reward calculation. Do they fear that their health is at risk if they show up at school? Do they have broadband at home? Are they technologically competent enough to teach online?
Under such an approach, a large majority of children would attend school, a minority would choose stay-at-home online learning. A smaller majority of teachers likely will attend school, and a number would teach from home. A majority of students would receive instruction from teachers in a classroom, like normal. Some students would receive instruction at home online. And — the weird part — some students attending school might end up receiving online instruction in their classrooms from teachers at home.
All the evidence I have seen suggests that primary schools present no threat at all for students. Young children do not contract COVID-19 or spread it. Accordingly, primary school teachers are likewise at very low risk. Any school policy that fails to recognize this reality is obtuse beyond words. There is no justification for failing to conduct school business as normal.
The calculus changes in the upper grades as the risk of students’ infection increases from near-zero to negligible in middle school, to merely remote in high school. Fortunately, the older the students, the more they are capable of engaging in online learning, if necessary.
Depending upon the number of students and teachers choosing to learn or teach from home, schools will have to be flexible. Maybe some at-school teachers have to take in more than the normal number of students. Maybe classrooms have to be set up so students can participate in online learning with home-bound teachers. Maybe some home-bound teachers with particular areas of expertise provide online instruction to students from two or three different schools. Here’s a crazy idea: To avoid the practice of widespread social promotion, maybe some classes have to stay in session longer to ensure that students master all the material.
Here’s a seriously radical idea: Maybe each school devises a solution that works best for its particular community of students, parents and teachers. Empower teachers and principals. Most European school systems are prepared to find ways to make at-school learning work. Most American private schools are, too. Surely Virginia’s public schools can do the same.