I have never been so happy for a school year to come to a close.
It seemed like every second of remote learning played out like a vicious game of tug-of-war: My wife and I grasping one end of the rope, and our four kids hanging on tenaciously to the other. As the school year drew closer to an end, so too did our resolve. Commands to “Sit down, pay attention and ask questions” gave way to concessions like, “Sure, you can skip your Google Classroom.”
Thankfully, that nightmare is behind us. Or is it? New Jersey and Connecticut recently announced that schools would be open full time in the fall, with new safety measures in place. New York, however, has made no such announcement.
Our kids need to be back in school in September, and we need to figure out the safest way to make that happen. A lot of parents and teachers feel the same way I do. NY Parents and Teachers Against Distance Learning has over 20,000 members on Facebook, but I don’t think Gov. Andrew Cuomo is one of them.
Cuomo said something in his daily news briefing back in early May that aroused my suspicion: The state would be partnering with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine” education. We might have to jettison the old model of schooling, in which students sit face to face with teachers, for a remote-based one, Cuomo said. This is a notion that should deeply concern administrators, teachers, parents and students everywhere, because it’s based on the false supposition that the remote-based instruction that took place from March to June actually worked.
Teachers and administrators across the state deserve credit for transitioning to distance learning virtually overnight, despite limited planning, resources and training. While the instruction and activities were great in the interim, I’m highly skeptical of their long-term sustainability. Children learn best when they’re in close contact with their teachers and peers. This is an immutable truth that can’t be undone by Bill Gates’s brilliance in technology and innovation.
From my standpoint — as a teacher, tutor and parent — what transpired during the last three months of this school year did not constitute true learning. Some teachers took a passive approach, choosing to post assignments online, along with video lessons to guide students in their work. But it is hard for even the smartest students to learn by watching a video, particularly in subjects that often require steps to be taught, retaught and broken down, such as math. In this model, students can’t pause to ask their instructor for clarification.
Other teachers opted to offer weekly or even daily live instruction via platforms such as Google Classroom or Zoom. While I must acknowledge that muting students is a power all teachers have longed for, these applications aren’t reliable vehicles for the delivery of instruction.
For starters, it’s almost impossible to measure student engagement in a virtual space. And the younger the students, the harder it is to keep them on task. There are myriad distractions at home at any given moment. For the most needy students, their homes will never offer adequate work space. Some may live in an apartment with several other family members.
Younger students have been disproportionately affected by the failures of remote learning. The burden of teaching lower elementary school students to read and write shifted from the teachers to the parents during the shutdown. While we struggled to help all our children, working with my first-grader was an absolute nightmare, even though my wife and I are both educators.
Then there are the social concerns that arise from remote learning. Attending school is an essential component of socialization. Kids learn how to work in groups, share and resolve conflicts peacefully. They participate in sports and extracurricular activities. Although we rarely consider this, they also catch colds, recover and build immunities. None of this happens in a virtual world.
Many parents will presumably return to work in the fall. Who will watch their children when they do? And what about the children currently suffering from abuse at home? Teachers are often the first ones to recognize signs of abuse and report them. A school social worker in a high-needs school told me that before schools closed, she reported 25 instances of suspected abuse. During the shutdown, she reported none. Are we to believe children were no longer being abused, or was it just impossible to detect it via phone calls and video conferences?
In the face of all these questions, it’s unfathomable that Cuomo would blithely state that a virus has essentially undone our centuries-old practice of face-to-face schooling. We should all be wary when a leader proposes a paradigm-shifting change during a crisis.
Our children have to go back to school. They stand to lose too much if they don’t.
Nick Buglione, who lives in East Meadow, is a teacher, freelance journalist and former editor of the East Meadow Herald.