The phrase “Back to School” acquired a whole new meaning this year. Instead of jovial ads featuring tiny kids with enormous backpacks full of new school supplies toddling into schoolhouses, we wonder how and where our students will learn. All over the country, states attempt to answer that question in tentative plans littered with ifs and maybes.
In an abundance of caution, some states like California have already planned to keep students online if they are in counties at risk of an outbreak. Florida took the exact opposite approach. The state made news all over the country as Florida Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, issued an emergency order requiring all schools to open. While states and schools continue to speculate about the best possible outcome, students stand in the gap with their educational outcomes on the line.
However, this doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Counties and districts across the country are consulting with families to ensure that students have options. Counties like Miami-Dade or the entire state of Hawaii are allowing parents to choose between: a fully online learning experience, the traditional brick, and mortar, or a hybrid model. Each of these options has great affordances and drawbacks that must be considered as students step into a very different 2020-20211 school year.
Although many do not feel comfortable with this option, there is reasonable merit behind sending students back to school. Traditional brick and mortar require less on the part of the student and their family. Students do not need a laptop or a reliable network to learn from their teachers. In fact, students often receive these resources from their school for free. And while some higher-income students view computers in their classroom or free wifi as a standard, other students see it as a lifeline. Without these resources, they may not be able to complete homework assignments or even turn in their work.
When spaces that provide these resources for free are closed, low-income students are left without many opportunities to learn online alongside their better-off peers. A fully online experience places these disadvantaged students at risk of falling behind or failing to no fault of their own. Right now, there are over 9 million students across the United States in this unique predicament; not only do they not have a computer, but they also don’t have “access to a device for distance learning” (according to ABC Action News).
This divide is not an easy one to fix, either. The Texas Education Agency used $200 million of the $1.3 billion dollars they received from the CARES Act to kickstart Operation Connectivity. The initiative’s goal was to use the money to provide technology to students in need. But Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle explained that the money wasn’t enough. He stated publicly that he would need “2 or 300 more million to bridge the digital divide,” according to ABC 13. Walle holds an interesting point. To completely diminish the digital divide, students not only need a device that connects to the internet but also access to reliable wifi; neither are cheap.
Even if students have access to internet access at home, online learning does not replace other vital developmental opportunities students need. According to CNN, the American Association of Pediatrics recently released a statement declaring that smaller children are not likely to get coronavirus. As a result, the AAP actually suggests students return back to school because they recognize the importance of in-person education. “Time out of school can also mean diminished social-emotional development. Lost academic progress could be slow to return.” They also note the vital role school plays in maintaining food security and protecting students who may be suffering from abuse at home.
There are many reasons why in-person schooling can seem like the right answer. But online has many advantages as well, including the safety of those leading the classroom. As soon as governors and education departments began making blanket statements about the reopening of schools, teachers began expressing their fears.
According to New York Times articles, ‘I Don’t Want to Go Back,’: Many Teachers Are Fearful and Angry Over Pressure to Return teachers all over the country have united under the hashtag #14daysnonewcases to express frustration and fear about returning to their classrooms. Some have even vowed not to set foot in a classroom until COVID-19 cases fall to nearly zero. According to Time, 20% of teachers quit the profession altogether if they are required to teach in person. Others don’t have the luxury of taking such a risky stance. They need their salary to stay afloat. In fact, some teachers are writing their will before the school year begins, just in case.
On top of the risks it poses for teachers, it is impossible to ensure that schools are taking all of the proper precautions needed to keep campus safe. It is difficult to imagine a world where schools that struggle to provide teachers with enough money to decorate their classrooms or provide supplies will have all of the sanitary and medical equipment necessary to keep children and adults safe. What’s more, it is difficult to trust that students will stick to rules by keeping their masks on all day and washing their hands often, especially younger children who may not understand the severity of the situation.
Although they may not be preferred, online classes are the most adaptable for any changes. If things take a turn for the worst, schools wouldn’t need to quickly upload months of grades and content as they did when coronavirus initially hit the United States. Instead, the content will already be retrofitted to a new, socially distanced environment. Many schools, including colleges and universities, currently have contingency plans to return to the online model if coronavirus cases spike once more. But why bother creating a contingency plan when you can use it year-round?
The happy medium, the hybrid model, looks different across county and state lines. It is a popular model, indeed. According to The Baltimore Sun, teachers, students, and parents alike all prefer the hybrid model that offers the best of both worlds. However, the hybrid model does not come without its own unique set of challenges.
The hybrid model requires an entire overhaul of master schedules and diligent, careful planning. According to Hybrid School Schedules; More Flexibility; Big Logical Challenges, schools will have to think about “ensuring there are enough teachers to handle multiple sections of the same classes, and figuring out new bus schedules. Some of the adaptations will be costly, and workloads may be heavy, especially for teachers. Continuity of instruction—between in-person and remote learning—will be a challenge.” However, these challenges are by no means as insurmountable as buying every single student a computer and broadband or figuring out how to make online learning as engaging or effective as in-person.
Hybrid means smaller class sizes and more room for social distancing. It also means that students can continue to learn through online avenues that keep them far away from others. Some of the concerns can be mitigated due to smaller class sizes, more in-person time, and less reliance on online learning.
The issue is complex. There are far more parts than we may like to admit about returning to school in the fall of 2020. And, in this case, back to school may not actually mean back to school. It’s extremely difficult to weigh all of the options, but at the very least parents have options to weigh.