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Coronavirus school closures provide opportunity to rethink our education system

I have several educators in my family who are still adjusting to the reality of teaching students remotely. Even with distance learning plans and virtual learning tools, remote teaching has been challenging. Some younger students need more supervision to stay focused and on task; other older students are trying to continue learning while also caring for younger siblings.

This temporary new norm leaves us wondering what education will look like come fall—and what consequences remote learning will have on students, as necessary as the closures have been. According to a recent Gallup survey, 42 percent of parents worry COVID-19 will have a negative impact on their child’s education.

Ray Domanico with the Manhattan Institute states that policymakers “can and must soften the blow” the coronavirus school closures will have on students and schools. Aside from a digital divide, Domanico continues, not all families can supervise their children’s learning throughout the day.

For students with certain special needs, the challenges will be even greater. Some of these youngsters have been assigned a “one to one” paraprofessional in school to assist them through the day. Unless a parent can assume that role at home, academic learning and behavioral development will surely suffer.

These issues will have implications for student assessment, impediments which will in turn pose challenges for other processes, such as the process of applying to academically screened middle and high schools, and the transition from high school to college or the workforce.

Student graduation will also be impacted, according to Domanico.

For high school seniors in states that use exit or other proficiency exams in their graduation requirements, the cancellations pose obvious challenges. Many high-achieving students will have already fulfilled those requirements prior to the spring of senior year, but in almost every high school, the guidance office has a list of seniors who still need to pass one or two exams by June.

Under normal circumstances, these students would be entering “cram time” to prep for those exams. Cramming is something that can be done from home, assuming students have the technology and the discipline to tackle it, but nonetheless, one can expect to hear calls for some type of waiver of the graduation requirements in the face of lengthy closures. And in districts that use annual test scores for admission to selective programs and schools, the impact will likely be felt next year, when the schools are selecting students for the 2021-22 school year using test results from this year.

In addition, several teachers’ unions are pressing school administrators to treat remote learning as optional “supplemental,” “enrichment” or “review” material instead of for-credit class work, reports The Wall Street Journal. And the few schools that do grade, some have moved to pass/fail.

This is equitable only in its disservice to students. Administrators are forcing all children attending public schools to put their education on hold, depriving them of its structure in a chaotic time. Kids who are equipped to study remotely will lack incentive if their work counts for nothing. Schools won’t have the metrics to identify which children are falling behind during the shutdowns and will need remediation later. Bad teachers will escape accountability for their failures.

White Bear Lake Area School district has decided to institute a pass/no pass grading system, causing many in the community to sign an online petition calling on the district to let students choose their grading system for the second semester.

The coronavirus pandemic has confirmed there are glaringly obvious gaps and inequities in different forms in our education system. In response, policymakers have the opportunity to address these disparities and shake up the status quo instead of simply rushing to restore it.

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