Friday, July 17, 2020

Here it comes...COVID and Schools

Photo: Aha!

Well I spent my first day back in the hospital last week, and actually felt pretty safe. Kudos to the Hershey Medical Center for their engineering and environmental controls on COVID spread! And I feel fine--so far, so good. And the students were delighted to be back, even if they were a bit anxious about their skills and knowledge being "rusty." They performed wonderfully.

So there's been some other school stuff in the news this week, as the country's K-12 schools struggle with decisions on when, how, and if they'll re-open. The White House says all schools must reopen fully for in-person instruction in the fall. In interviews on NPR and elsewhere, I haven't heard a single K-12 teacher or union representative say anything other than they don't feel safe to go back to in-person teaching. Some school administrators seem to be putting a hopeful and optimistic face on things, but they admit that there are challenges that include inadequate classroom space for social distancing, the difficulty of policing mask use indoors among very young children, and the costs and time needed to continually disinfect surfaces and equipment.

It would seem that the most common-sense thing to do is simply continue instruction at a distance, using online learning. Why go back at all?

There's the rub.

I myself teach, and I can tell you: online teaching? It depends. I've seen good results from well-designed, sort of "self-study" systems that students do in a guided way on their own, so-called "asynchronus" (at any time) learning. The student isn't "in" a classroom--virtual or otherwise, and studies in a guided way, often interacting in "discussion boards". This is the basis of outfits like University of Phoenix, or Penn State's own World Campus. I feel that this is a good approach for upper division college and graduate students.

"Residence instruction" is the college term for sitting in a classroom or lab. A report by the Department of Education over a decade ago, however, found that neither residence instruction or online learning was as effective as a combination of the two. You take the strengths of one and the strengths of the other and create a "hybrid" experience. I taught this way a lot up until about 2018.

What I experienced in the spring of 2020 wasn't very good at all. It was like the worst of both worlds, at least if the looks on students' faces, the lack of active discussion or questions from students, and the general feedback suggests.

There were some things we designed for our nursing students that were better online. Things like professionally-designed patient care simulations that keep score--the students liked that. They reported that some "virtual clinical" experiences were actually better than some of the observational experiences they'd engaged in prior to the shutdown. Instead of being passive observers of nurses at work, they became active participants in learning that was designed to hit certain key objectives.

There were some things that were worse. Isolated from each other most of the time, that isolation seemed to carry through to the Zoom-classroom experience. Instead of excited chit-chat before and after class, or sudden shares of their own experiences in class, they were mostly silent.

And nursing students not in a hospital seeing real patients? Not only is it counterintuitive (would you want to be cared for by a new nurse who has only ever seen "patients" as robot avatars on a screen? I wouldn't), the students know they haven't been getting the experience they will need in their careers. The feedback I got this week was overwhelmingly gratitude from the students who now have an opportunity to get back into the hospital and see real patients.

I can only guess how this went for K-12 education. From what I've heard, students learned little. And the isolation in those age groups reportedly causes learning delays and mental health problems.

We are a social species, after all.

But one can argue "Well, we had to cobble that together in literally two weeks. We were doing the best we could. We can do better in the fall after we have had time to prepare over the summer." I'm sure that's somewhat true. I know I am planning improvements. (Even though I will be on campus this fall, due to room size and social distancing requirements, every class will have at least some students sitting in front of their screens.)

Sure. It'll be great. Or will it?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that schooling online in isolated settings is likely to cause real harm to the learning and development of the current generation. Less-discussed is their warning that adequate safety procedures and controls need to be in place to assure a safe return to in-class learning.

Charter schools have been doing learn-at-home for maybe 20 years. Many kids get home-schooled by parents and people in their circle of family and friends. The sky hasn't fallen. Although I should mention that most of these cyberschools have extensive experience and have taken the time to address issues of social development and internet access. For example, kids in cyberschools can still participate in local school sports programs. Home schoolers often join co-ops that help facilitate field trips, social activities, and group schooling among home-schooled kids in the same locality.

Will that be possible in just another 5 or 6 weeks as some districts open up?

Parents are split. Having had the spring 2020 experience, many find that there's a reason we have schools and teachers. It works better! Moreover, many parents face choosing between work and looking after their kids who can't go into school. Some families have vulnerable persons in the home, and with their kids in schools with lots of other kids, it's feared that COVID will get passed around to these people.

Teachers seem mostly anxious, anxious that they'll get sick, anxious that the kids will get sick, anxious that the spring 2020 approach isn't working well. But I haven't heard very much about how they plan to improve upon the home teaching experience--in short there's very little enthusiasm for any outcome. They often cite a lack of material support from school districts, and that requires money, and that requires taxes, and tax revenues are way down because of COVID.

And don't even get me started about lack of internet access. I've seen students using their phones as learning platforms. I've heard of people parking all day by McDonald's because their home internet is too slow for Zoom or other class activities (video, learning games, homework completion). Cyber schools make sure their students can access the needed technology, and it may be included in the tuition. But that's not factored into regular districts' budgets--despite scenes this past spring of some districts handing out iPads and Chromebooks to families waiting in line in their cars. A loaner laptop is great--but what if you have dial-up internet?

I don't have answers to these problems. I'm writing this because children's school experience is deeply and profoundly formative, and so I see serious learning and developmental problems ahead if we don't start having less polarized, more productive discussions about this problem. Most of what I hear on the radio or read online in articles or see on TV are really dysfunctional discussions that seem to "spin" concerns toward one outcome or the other.

It's impossible to have it one way. It will not be possible to guarantee that coronavirus will not be spread, no matter what schools do. The novel coronavirus is going to be with us for some time. People are going to die regardless. A vaccine is not "right around the corner," even if many scientists are working on it, and even if some reports suggest a vaccine is possible. Our society was not prepared for this, and no matter how ardently people argue for masks or how much hand sanitizer we use, this isn't over. We cannot keep our kids at home forever--it'll stunt their growth and development.

We can't have business as usual. We can't remain isolated indefinitely.

So we better start having better discussions about how we can all come through this healthier.

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