The battle over reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic is only becoming more and more intense as the 2020-2021 school year approaches. Some states are even explicitly ordering schools to reopen for face-to-face learning. This ongoing debate begs the question...isn't there a better way to do this? We had months to plan for this reality, but we seem to only be seeing updates on these issues now. One thing is for certain: due to poor planning, our students will not get a quality education. It simply does not matter whether it's virtual or face-to-face. Face-to-face programs are unsafe, and digital programs are severely underfunded. Furthermore, nobody involved in this debate brought up innovative solutions to education, that could keep children engaged in a quality education while minimizing exposure risks. There will be a learning gap, and that gap will only widen as long as we make decisions to protect the economy instead of protecting students. Here are a few ways we could have made this situation less awful, if the government were willing to gamble with money the same away they gamble with children's lives:
1. Invest in virtual schooling.
A common complaint about distance learning is that many students "can't learn online". This complaint makes sense when you realize most places never had adequate funding for distance learning pre-COVID, and they certainly won't start now. Many virtual courses are watered-down versions of their face-to-face counterparts. Many school districts offer limited catalogs of courses, meaning students are unable to study the things they're interested in. No wonder they can't learn online.
If given the proper funding and resources, school districts could offer virtual courses in a wide array of subjects. They could learn new languages not offered at their brick-and-mortar schools, or learn new digital skills (coding, web design, et cetera) to design projects they're legitimately interested in. They can call upon the skills of teachers across the district to combine their strengths and create meaningful lesson plans together.
2. Independent study.
Since many students will have to take their learning into their own hands anyway, why not allow them to pick topics that are meaningful to them? Instead of everyone reading the same book out loud together in a classroom, why not have students pick from a long list of acceptable books? Students often become more engaged when they can take their learning into their own hands and apply concepts they learn in school to the things they're interested in.
3. Expand dual enrollment for high school students.
Earning college credits while in high school is extremely important for college applications & saving money. However, Advanced Placement courses capitalized on this need, and they now enforce elitism in education, as most students need to pay to take the tests and earn credit. Advanced Placement courses are usually a high school student's only option, unless they are able to drive to the nearest community college. With most community colleges going online, high school students have the ability to take general education courses for free without needing a driver's license. This option should be encouraged for more students, as online education at the college level is often higher quality than public education. This is because colleges invest into online programs, and can offer entire degree programs online while only minimally sacrificing quality.
4. Expand paid leave for parents who can't find childcare.
At this point, everyone is fully aware why schools are being forced to reopen: They're reopening so parents can go back to work and boost the economy. However, many parents cannot find or afford childcare in the time of a global economic crisis, and that's not their fault. We should be providing for parents, instead of penalizing them for not being rich enough to afford childcare. Temporary paid leave would at least buy working parents time to develop a plan for their students.
5. Physically distanced guest lectures.
For the most part, celebrities aren't very busy right now. Some of them are able to work remotely, but most are bored at home in their mansions. Why not have school districts reach out to them and have them teach a class? This would be a worthwhile experience for students of all ages. It doesn't necessarily even have to be a celebrity, just someone who can bring excitement and a new perspective to the course material. Elementary Schoolers could have a science class taught by Bill Nye the Science Guy. Middle Schoolers could get introductory Spanish lessons from a native spanish speaker. High Schoolers could learn AP Computer Science Principles from an employee at Google.
6. Structure some high school schedules like college schedules.
In certain states where cases are low, it may be a good idea to bring some students back with safety precautions. For students with their own cars, this process becomes a lot easier. They can stay on-campus for one or two classes, and then go home to do independent work. This allows for ample time to clean in between classes. Developing schedules more similar to college schedules will also prepare those students for higher education.
7. Allow students to choose their preferred learning method.
Virtual education is supposed to expand your opportunities, not limit them. Students should be able to choose between synchronous (live lessons) classes and asynchronous (work-on-your-own-schedule) classes. They should also get a say in how they learn. Distance learning allows for teachers to engage many different learning styles. Here are just a few examples of the ways we can work multiple types of intelligence into distance learning:
Aural - Sound & Music
- In history classes, students could listen to certain songs from the place & time period to gain a cultural understanding
- In foreign language classes, students could listen to songs in the given language to promote immersion
- In nearly all subjects, students can listen to podcasts to further develop an understanding of the subject
Logical - Systems & Formulas
- In all subjects, certain formulas & methods can be promoted to answer questions (ex. in English, often there's a "formula" for crafting a good thesis)
- Encourage students to develop memorization systems.
Solitary - Working Alone
- Allow students to have the option to work alone on projects
Social - Working With Others
- Allow discussion time during class
- Encourage students to create study groups
Physical - Utilizing Sense of Touch
- Create projects that are interactive, like photo-based scavenger hunts, having students record presentations, et cetera
Visual - Images & Photos
- Have photos accompany lesson plans.
- Link to YouTube Videos that can expand on the subject
Verbal - Speech & Writing
- Allow discussion time during class
- Encourage discussion boards
- Have students create outlines of textbook chapters
8. Allow students to learn at their own pace.
This may be the most important way to innovate education. Our education system treats all students as if they are the same. The system assumes they have the same resources, the same needs, and the same home life. This is never the case. Allowing students to work at their own pace allows students to take their learning into their own hands. If teachers can make class materials available and provide support when necessary, students would be able to control their schedules and set the tone for developing a healthy long-term work/life balance.