The day after my children’s school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, I took my 8-year-old daughter to our local library. She’s an avid reader, and we often stop by each weekend and leave with handfuls of books. That day, we acted like the library was Costco and checked out 35 books, knowing we were in it for the long haul. The next day, our library closed.
A week and a half later, my daughter had finished those books. She also flew through her “remote” learning tasks, as did her 5-year-old brother, as I struggled to balance our new “school” schedule with my own work as an e-librarian for the high school where I work.
My kids are engaged and enjoy their remote learning activities. But even with a master’s degree in education and 16 years in the field, I know I am only half as adequate as their actual teachers.
With 55 million students now out of school across our nation, school districts and state education boards are making decisions to implement remote learning, just like in Illinois. Our students will be out of school through April at least. Some states have decided to end the school year altogether, but offer e-learning and packets to students.
I spent half of my teaching career on the South Side of Chicago, with high schoolers who lived in under-resourced neighborhoods. I don’t imagine a schedule or packet will go very far in families where a parent is still working to make ends meet and a high-school or middle-school-aged sibling is now the teacher because a parent has to work. Those siblings-turned-teachers also have little time for their own lessons.
As I spoke with colleagues from my suburban high school, East Leyden, many of them pointed out that 50 to 80% of students actually completed remote assignments. They said they struggle with how to grade accurately while following the Illinois State Board of Education guidance that “The emphasis .... is on learning, not on compliance.” Grades for these lessons cannot be allowed to harm students’ overall grades.
Melina Lesus, a friend and Chicago high school teacher, echoed my East Leyden colleagues. “I’m balancing between being frustrated that kids aren’t really engaged and also understanding that they are probably scared/stressed/mourning even if they don’t know it. Also, some of them are playing the role of parent.”
As an educator, I believe these plans have been created with the best intentions to put students first during this unprecedented pandemic. Remote learning is the best that we can offer despite the various inequities in technology and time. But make no mistake, remote learning does not take the place of actual instruction. Teachers are vital to students’ success, and children do not see their parents as teachers.
If students do not return to school until the fall, they will have had a six-month break. Researchers from the Northwest Education Association have found that even the common 10-week summer break causes achievement losses that are difficult to make up. These losses “increase with age through elementary and middle school.”
On top of the traditional summer slide, the pandemic slide will be much worse.
Although I fear the learning loss happening for my own children and all of our students, I also fear that not much will change when our students return to school. But plenty should change.
First, states and school districts must plan to make up the instructional time lost. I am not suggesting that we add three months onto next year’s calendar. But perhaps schools need extra hours, days or weeks over several years.
Second, educators will need additional professional development so they can best help students, since many will not be at grade level when we return. Our educators also need time to collaborate on solutions without standardized-test mandates and benchmarks hanging over their heads. Less testing means more instruction.
Finally, I fear fiscal cuts coming for school districts under a federal government that has not supported public schools. Schools saw these cuts after the 2008 recession, as many school districts in urban and rural areas lost key positions and are running skeletons of schools already.
We must consider these days of remote learning as days of lost instruction, and invest in our schools to get our students back on track when school resumes.
Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is National Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva