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Every effort must be made to reopen schools this fall — because ‘remote learning’ doesn’t cut it

Public health and safety must come first to prevent a deadly resurgence of COVID-19. But remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person teaching and the support schools can provide.

Students and a staff member walk down a hallway at Sawyer Elementary School on the Southwest Side, on Feb. 27, 2020.
Students and a staff member walk down a hallway at Sawyer Elementary School on the Southwest Side earlier this year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

September is a mere four months away, but the new school year is in limbo in Illinois for 1.9 million public school students.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently hinted at a worst-case scenario, warning that in-school teaching might not resume in the fall. Educators should be prepared, he said, to continue remote learning “just in case.”

But let’s be blunt about what we’re all learning about remote learning: It’s seriously second-best to real, in-person instruction. Ask any teacher, student or — maybe most of all — parent who is trying to make it work.

We’re in the camp that says Illinois should reopen from the coronavirus lockdown cautiously and incrementally, waiting on green lights from public health experts. But schools must be at the very top of the state’s list of reopening priorities.

The quality of learning in that “just in case” alternative simply will be insufficient, and it creates enormous practical challenges for frazzled working parents.

Reopening schools in September will be a daunting challenge. In the best of circumstances, there will be a degree of risk, given that a coronavirus vaccine is unlikely to be available by then and another flu season will be upon us. Educators will have to revamp every aspect of daily school life, creating a new normal.

But to call remote learning an acceptable alternative is to grade it on a generous curve.

“We’re making the best of a bad situation,” Jackson Potter, a veteran social studies teacher at Back of the Yards High School, told us. “Our students are probably more engaged than average, but even with that, you get very mixed results. You’re not going to get students logging in every day, doing every assignment.”

No reliable data

Chicago Public Schools has yet to release data on student participation in remote learning, but expect the numbers to be disheartening, which is not to blame CPS. A public health pandemic, roaring in halfway through a school year, is no time to implement an entirely new system of learning.

At home, no parent or older sibling can reasonably be expected to play teacher five days a week. Many parents still must go off to work, other parents are now working from home, and still others are newly unemployed and stressed out about bills.

Even parents who are teachers themselves are finding remote learning to be a tough trick. They’re working with their own students online while trying to supervise their own children’s schooling. Time runs out and fatigue sets in. There’s no mental energy to help a fifth grader with a lesson on fractions and make sure he or she isn’t just playing video games.

Kids in poverty hurt worst

Lower-income students, in particular, will pay a steep price if public schools in Chicago and the rest of Illinois remain closed to classroom teaching in the fall.

“Studies of online learning suggest not only that students learn less in online environments, but that disadvantaged students learn the least,” as Douglas Harris, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Tulane University, wrote in a recent essay. “That’s true even when online teachers have experience and training. . . . It’s a tough situation for everyone, but it’s most likely to harm low-income students.”

That should come as no surprise. Children from lower-income and rural families are less likely to have the technology for online learning — personal computers and WiFi. Their parents are often employed in service jobs and must work outside the home even during the pandemic.

So the kids are left home alone. A prescription for learning disaster.

If health experts give the OK for in-person classes to resume in some fashion, we echo Harris’ recommendation that federal stimulus money should be allocated for summer school to help make up for the lost classroom time.

We’d also like to see public schools in Chicago and other Illinois districts open for the new school year earlier than usual — maybe even in July — as long as the experts say it’s safe.

A new normal

Dozens of states that shut down their schools for this year — and wisely ignored President Trump’s prodding to reopen them — are trying to figure out when and how to do so in the fall without risking the health of students, school employees and, by extension, the public.

To that end, some degree of remote learning seems likely to continue. “We don’t have a single member who is not planning for some amount of distance learning next year,” Mike Magee of Chiefs for Change, a network of state and district education leaders, told Chalkbeat.

The new normal might also include:

  • COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for students and teachers before school resumes; and daily temperature checks as a monitor for the disease during the year.
  • Smaller class sizes — and yes, that’s expensive. But classes of, say, 30 or more are too large to accommodate at least six feet of social distance between students.
  • Staggered schedules so that different groups of students attend school on alternate days, with remote learning on days when students are not in school. Alternately, districts could have different start times so fewer children are in a building at one time.
  • Outfitting buildings with hand-washing stations and plastic barriers as additional safeguards
  • Scrapping lunch in the cafeteria, schoolwide assemblies, athletic events and other activities that involve large groups of students.

Kids need every help

In Chicago, we want to remind CPS, as well, about those additional social workers and nurses that schools are supposed to get. They’ll be needed now more than ever. The Chicago neighborhoods that already suffered the most from violence and other social ills are the hardest hit now by COVID-19.

“We’re forgetting the traumatic impact of that,” as Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told us. “Kids are watching the news, gleaning information from adult conversations . . . they’re now having discussions about death. That’s the theme they’re absorbing now.”

Remote learning has been a noble endeavor in trying times, but Chicago’s kids — and students everywhere — need all the support our schools can offer.

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