Editor’s note: This commentary is by Curtis Hier, a 33-year high school teacher from Fair Haven and the president of the Vermont Alliance for the Social Studies.
Every day in public schools, students are bullied, harassed, and picked on for any imaginable reason. They face the possibility of shootings, stabbings, and beatings. They find it impossible to learn in an environment where disruptions are frequent and not everyone wants to learn. Millions of students can’t access private schools, and private schools have many of these problems.
Necessity, however, may be the mother of something better. And it actually already has. It’s called pandemic schooling.
The gig economy was already set up for pandemic schooling. To an extent. An online platform known as Outschool brings together hundreds of teachers and thousands of students. But it has not been a game-changer. Its esoteric subjects requested by students and offered by teachers do not get enough enrollment to compensate the teachers adequately. It provides supplemental learning but awards no diplomas. And Khan Academy does not either. It and other non-interactive online models are not particularly engaging.
This is not to say pandemic schooling is without its challenges, but it’s free of many of the nagging problems of traditional schooling, even private schooling. No disciplinary issues to speak of. No bullying. No threat of violence at all. The learning is insulated from the social distractions.
The pandemic won’t last forever, but the takeaways from it will be long lasting. Chicago politician Rahm Emanuel said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Americans just may realize that post-pandemic schooling can adopt the best parts of pandemic schooling. It can remain remote and technological.
The challenges? Providing essential services to students with special needs would be the first. Providing meals that many students have come to depend on would be another. Providing opportunities for sports and other activities such as drama productions would be another. One could foresee Boys and Girls Clubs or some similar model providing some of these functions. Child care is a challenge, so maybe this new paradigm is for high school students.
Many schools were already providing students with laptops. They’re relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, students forgot to bring them to class or forgot to charge them. The laptops were getting broken, lost, or stolen. Now that students keep them at home, those issues are solved.
Teachers now video chat and/or bubble chat with their students. Students who don’t want to be seen in their pajamas can turn their cameras off. That being said, I know of a school that requires students to wear their school uniforms at the virtual version of school.
It’s a good idea to have students mute their microphones until they are ready to speak. There’s no fooling around between students, no babies crying or dogs barking. I prefer bubble chats, even though it’s more typing for me.
On relatively rare occasions I used to have to remove unruly students from class. Now they can get up and around whenever they want, and there’s no disruption to class. If I ever needed, I could temporarily uninvite a student from class, but I don’t see why.
I can invite the principal to review my actual lessons by scrolling through them. Students can make up the lesson by scrolling as well. And I can see if s/he’s done that.
I show all sorts of short video clips and link to short readings that we then discuss. I showed a ten minute clip on the Thirty Years War. It summarized a relatively complex topic much better than I could.
We assign work, the students can turn it in, we can comment on it, and then we can “return” it — all on one platform. We use a grading system that students and parents can easily access. Some of these technologies we use in ordinary times, but they also help make remote learning possible, even desirable.
Most students don’t mind attending remotely, and many prefer it. The bullying and harassment are gone. Threats of shootings and other violence are gone. Not only do we not need to maintain large, expensive buildings and run costly buses, we don’t need school cops anymore. We know that one in three teenagers experiences an anxiety disorder. And nearly that many have clinical depression.
Education is too important. It should not occur in a threatening and socially distracting environment. Opportunities for social interaction should occur outside school.
Students who are homeschooled have just as many friends. Social media has largely made that possible. Homeschoolers complete college at a higher rate than public schoolers. Their social skills are as important as their academic skills in college, and they have them.
School choice need not be limited by geography. Students needn’t have a ride to the school of their choice. But we might not even retain our concept of “school.” Classes could be taken a la carte from various institutions.
A real paradigm shift could occur now that most of us realize remote learning is desirable, now that parents, students and teachers have had to embrace this change.
All areas of life, including education, will experience a new normal after this crisis.
This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.