The Other Reason Why Schools Should Not Rush to Re-Open

Schools are finally putting resources where they should have long ago. Why stop now?

The debate about reopening schools has, for all the right reasons, been centered on health and safety, of students as well as teachers. There seem to be no easy answers, no absolutes, only temporary solutions that elicit more questions.

But beyond the dangers of spreading the virus, moving too fast to re-open schools could have another serious downside by cutting short the progress of a comparatively quiet but dramatic and necessary reboot of America’s educational system.

While there appears to be some consensus that in-person education is preferable to online, and that is arguably true, it would be a huge mistake to abandon the lessons schools have learned in this crisis that can — and should — have long term implications. In fact, the worst thing that could happen if schools open too soon, would be for all of us to breathe a collective sigh of relief, toss away all that hard work, and go back to the doing things the way we always have.

The most significant impact of COVID-19 on schools is not that they closed and went online, it is that the virus has forced school systems to finally provide tools, improve technological infrastructure and allocate resources in ways they should have done years sooner.

The need for equity in technology and access for every student should always have been a priority. School systems now have had no choice but to upgrade and make sure all students have what they need for learning, but with a sense of urgency they lacked before.

It was always possible to bring the world into the classroom by asking prominent speakers, writers and thinkers to do online chats. It was just too easy to dismiss that option as less impactful than assemblies, or ineffective because of technical glitches. Now, it has become standard and hugely popular with students.

Similarly, while critics have found it easy to blame the failures of online learning on technology and the shortcomings of Zoom, the uneasy truth is that many of the teaching methods that have been found to be ineffective online were also largely ineffective in the modern classroom as well. Technology has simply made those weaknesses glaringly obvious, with real-time reactions.

As a result, teachers are now revamping syllabi, creating and sharing strategies for greater interaction and spontaneity, embracing the importance of visuals to enhance learning and discovering smart ways to incorporate tools like YouTube, Vimeo, Kanopy and other digital resources to make lesson plans more engaging. This is good thing, but also because they have little choice.

This time has also given schools the opportunity to learn much more about individual students than they would have without the shutdown. Schools expected students who were underperforming or disengaged in class to be equally disengaged online, only to find that some of those children — after learning to work around their best times for productivity — in fact, thrived. Conversely, some students who excelled in the school environment, all but disappeared online without the support of social structures and supportive relationships. That has awakened administrators to the real importance of soft moments beyond the classrooms — traditions, culture, gatherings.

These are all valuable lessons going forward and will make for a much improved, more engaging, more sensitive and better resourced educational experience when this is all over.

But it is too soon. Any school system that says it is fully ready to go fully online, a hybrid model or invite students all the way back is not telling the complete truth. All those scenarios come with dozens of unaswered questions.

Whatever critical adjustments schools have made thus far have evolved from an emergency, not necessarily from will or forward-thinking. And those adjustments have not been easy, with administrators still trying to incorporate teacher and parent feedback into decisions about training, scheduling, tools and platforms. There are still big mistakes to be made, and best practices to be recognized and shared. Yet, once schools have to face temperature-taking, testing, limits on students per class and all the other confusing details of making schools safe, expect the education part to take a back seat.

Schools and teachers desperately need the time for these new and important advancements to become habit instead of reaction, and more important, for this newly engaging style of teaching to make its way back into the classroom, not just online.

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Producer. Writer. Creator. Media Exec. @ericeaster

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