Why physical classes work better than remote learning

The pre-pandemic school system in the US was imperfect, surely, clumsy and test-crazed and plagued with inequities. But it was also a little miraculous: a place where children from different backgrounds could stow their backpacks in adjacent cubbies, sit in a circle and learn in community.

At the Washington school where I teach, and which my 6-year-old attends, the whole point was that our families chose to do it together — knowing that it meant we would be grappling with our differences and biases well before our children could tie their own shoes.

Then COVID-19 hit, and overnight things changed. Some middle-class parents who could work remotely touched it out at home, checking in on school between their own virtual meetings. Those with younger kids or in-person jobs scraped together education and child care — an outdoor play pod or a camp counsellor to supervise hours of Zoom classes. With schools closed, the health risks and child care hours didn’t disappear. They simply shifted from well-educated, unionised, tax-funded professional teachers to hourly-wage, no-benefit workers serving only those who could afford to pay.

The families with the fewest resources were left with nothing. No child care, only the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy.

If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school. If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings. In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care centre.

Home alone with younger siblings or cousins, kids struggled to focus while bouncing a fussy toddler or getting whacked repeatedly on the head with a foam sword. Others lay in bed and played video games or watched TV. Many times each day, I carefully repeated the instructions for a floundering student, only to have them reply, helplessly, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” their audio squealing and video freezing as they spoke.

Even under optimal conditions, virtual school meant flattening the collaborative magic of the classroom into little more than an instructional video. Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries, time and space to play, virtual school was not school; it was busywork obscuring the “rubber-rooming” of the entire school system.

Some educators sneered that the parents who complained just wanted free babysitting. But I’m not ashamed to say that child care is at the heart of the work I do. I teach children reading and writing, yes, but I also watch over them, remind them to be kind and stay safe, plan games and activities to help them grow. Children deserve attentive care. That’s the core of our commitment to them.

I am still bewildered and horrified that American society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself. Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential. Spare me your “the kids are all right” Facebook memes. Some children may have learnt to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.

I don’t know the first thing about public health. I won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of COVID. What I do know is that schools in US quickly got to work upgrading heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety. Public schools in other countries did the same.

More of our public school systems should have likewise moved mountains — repurposed buildings, reassigned staff, redesigned programming, reallocated funding — to offer consistent public schooling, as safely as possible, to all children.

Instead we opened restaurants and gyms and bars while kids stayed home, or got complicated hybrid schedules that many parents turned down because they offered even less stability than virtual school. Even now, with vaccinations rising and case rates dropping, some families remain reluctant to send their kids back to us in the fall. I can’t help thinking that’s because we broke their trust.

Does virtual learning work for some kids, in some circumstances? Sure. So does home schooling, or not attending school at all. But I am profoundly relieved that most districts, including my own, plan to shut down or restrict the online option.

I hope this means that we are renewing our collective commitment to true public education. Just as before, we will have to fight to make our schools safer, more equitable and more flexible. Just as before, coming together will be messy and complicated. Children, families and teachers will all need time to rebuild relationships with our institutions.

But we’ll be back together, in the same building, eating the same food. We’ll find that the friend who helps us in the morning might need our help in the afternoon.

We’ll have soccer arguments at recess and patch them up in closing circle. We’ll sing songs, tell stories, plant seeds and watch them grow. That’s schooling in real life. That’s what schools are for.

Lelac Almagor teaches English at a charter school in Washington, D.C.

The New York Times



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