With almost all K-12 schools back in session, educators face a myriad of dilemmas in providing both quality education and a safe environment. Unfortunately, the brunt of negative consequences from these dilemmas fall on vulnerable students and at-risk teachers. There are many challenges, with few solutions. However, success is measured by observing how well individual communities handle the pandemic.
On February 27, 2020, the first school in the United States shut down following COVID-19 concerns1. Less than a month later, all public schools in the nation closed their doors, leaving millions of students without essential resources like housing, food programs, and healthcare. Students and teachers alike struggled through the sudden shift to online learning, with already disadvantaged kids falling even further behind.
With Labor Day now behind us, most K-12 schools in the U.S. have officially resumed. Alongside these re-openings come concerns over whether in-person or online classrooms are best for students, how to measure the success and safety of each school, and what the long-term future of the K-12 education system will look like.
SCHOOLS STUCK “BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE”
While most American students have returned to in-person classes this fall, experts still disagree over whether it is the right move2. Many schools lack the physical space necessary to maintain social distancing, increasing the threat of becoming a super-spreader environment for the virus. As of Wednesday September 9th, 2,017 schools in the U.S. have reported at least one case of coronavirus since July, with 7,199 total cases and 38 deaths of either students or employees3. The ability for school administrations to mitigate future breakouts is uncertain.
Students aren’t the only ones vulnerable when returning to school—many teachers are facing unprecedented risk in their jobs, causing many to consider leaving rather than endanger their lives. Some estimates purport that 1 in 5 teachers have quit their jobs due to safety concerns, adding to the growing shortage of educators4.
While the obvious alternative to in-person education is online learning, inequality of access to resources make this option less than ideal. Lower income students are unlikely to have adequate technology and reliable Wi-Fi, both essential to remote learning5. Educators are noting a growth in the “homework gap,” or the divide between wealthy and poor student’s ability to complete homework and achieve successful grades. Unfortunately, online schooling only adds to this already large disparity.
Most importantly, online learning removes many children’s only access to support of basic needs. The pandemic has already exacerbated issues surrounding social determinants of health for Americans, and schoolchildren are no exception. Over 30 million students rely on school for meals, and essential workers and single-parent households rely on school for childcare6. Taking these crucial services away may quickly lead to more severe problems, including job loss, housing eviction, and malnourishment.
COULD A HYBRID MODEL WORK?
Many districts across the country have chosen a third option—a combination of both in-person and online learning, or a “hybrid model.” By grouping students into small social bubbles or cohorts, educators can alternate which groups are physically present and which are remotely participating, thus keeping group numbers low and enforcing better social distancing.
Other proposals include a layered return, meaning that only the most vulnerable students are invited back to in-person classrooms while those students with more resources are asked to remain virtual until it is safe to return7. While this approach directly addresses students with low socioeconomic statuses, it doesn’t solve the much larger community issue: communities most at risk of contracting coronavirus are also the ones in most dire need of resources for their students8. More affluent communities that can provide technology, testing, and highest safety measures are those least likely to have COVID-19 circulating to begin with.
Ultimately, the research surrounding these alternative methods is unreliable. Some countries, like China, Norway, and Singapore, have instituted hybrid models with relative success9. Denmark, the first country to fully reopen schools, initially saw a small spike in cases before leveling out. Israel, however, witnessed a large surge in the coronavirus once children returned to school. It is still unclear what the propelling variables in these differences are.
SOLUTIONS ARE A CASE-BY-CASE SITUATION
If there is one thing experts agree on, it is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Instead, districts and individual schools are recommended to implement a carefully crafted plan according to the needs of their students and community10.
However, crucial to these plans are strict adherence to four key indicators:
- Ensure the local community spread is controlled.
Less than 1 new case per day per 10,000 is considered a low enough transmission level to return to in-person schooling.
- Require universal adherence to CDC guidelines.
This includes requiring face mask use, social distancing, proper hand hygiene, and use of testing, tracing, and isolation techniques. This ranges in difficulty depending on the age of students and size of school.
- Have students return in stages.
As explained above, this will be most successful when priority is placed on students who rely on socioeconomic factors (meals, healthcare, technology, childcare) from their schools.
- Allow students the option to remain virtual.
This is particularly important for students who are at-risk or who live with those most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
- Ensure the local community spread is controlled.
While these indicators are a good start, they still can’t fully address all the challenges K-12 educators are facing, such as teacher safety and the homework gap. There is unlikely to be a solution fully satisfying all stakeholder’s needs, but schools will need to develop one as close as they can.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Although long-term implications are unclear, most experts agree that there will certainly be quantifiable differences in this generation11. At first glance, potential consequences seem dire—loss of social skills, underdeveloped learning objectives, and lower test scores—but not all are so negative. Some believe that for a generation raised on technology, a virtual or hybrid classroom may foster new ways of learning. This can pave the way to self-guided education, with educators acting more as facilitators than taskmasters.
Undoubtedly, the current generation of K-12 students will be marked as the “COVID generation”. While it is unclear exactly how they will be impacted, it is certain that they will. In the meantime, striking a balance between delivering a quality education, respecting teacher health, and keeping our children safe remains top priority.