COVID-19 is raging. More and more school districts are making decisions not to return students to in-class instruction until early spring; some will not return for the remainder of the school year, even though the numbers of students contracting the virus aren't alarming. We understand the schools' health concerns, often coupled with staffing shortages, but there are other important factors.
Sociologists say that cognitive, social and emotional, and physical development is also essential. While much can be learned at home, these skills are greatly enhanced in classroom settings. Lessons like learning to take turns, to raise your hand when we wish to speak, being called on to answer questions, learning respect and cooperation, along with developing social relationships are very formative. Lessons best learned experientially.
It is commonly agreed most children lost one-third of the last school year and now are being threatened with much the same experience this year.
Virtual learning doesn't work for four reasons. Let's begin by admitting that our educators are still not properly prepared to deliver virtual learning across all grade levels. Give educators high marks for effort, but the quality of instruction is just not comparable with being in-class, as end of year test scores will confirm. Secondly, younger children and those with learning differences don't have the attention span needed, even in thirty-minute sessions. Further, experienced adult supervision is needed to help see student progress, enrich the material and answer questions. Virtual just isn't as responsive.
The fourth reason is the deal-breaker. As many as twenty-five percent of rural students don't have access to the high-speed broadband Internet necessary to participate in virtual learning. It is no substitute to park at a fast-food restaurant, business or even church parking lot to get the Internet. We cannot deny the intellectual development of so large a segment.
And let's not discount the additional factor of parents who work, either in or outside the home. Childcare issues are huge in many households.
We are on the proverbial "horns of a dilemma." Do we keep kids at home and pray they learn enough to prevent them having to repeat a year of instruction or do we force them back into the classroom, throwing health concerns to the wind?
This needn't be an "either, or" question. There are viable options. First, we may need to restructure the school day and repurpose facilities. Children are obviously our priority, but equally so are teachers, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and administrators. They should get in front of the line for COVID vaccine shots. And we must plan for adequate relief staffing when necessary.
Unless there are health issues masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing should be required, both for students, teachers and staff. Students who refuse these requirements will be assigned to virtual learning. Teachers and school employees who refuse can either be reassigned or find employment elsewhere. We have the right to require them to observe precautions that are best for the most.
More frequent testing and supplemental instruction will be necessary to give more individualized attention to students and communicate more often with parents and guardians.
We have to acknowledge it won't be easy and will cost much more than we are accustomed to spending. But the State of North Carolina has 4 billion unallocated dollars at this moment. Can you think of a better investment than in making sure we don't lose a generation of children?
Let's get the children back in class.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.