If you haven’t heard the roaring arguments about opening up schools in America over the last few weeks you must have been living under a rock. And this is about schools at all levels – the argument about opening schools ranges from kindergarten to the university level. This is coming to a head right now as some schools, like the Jefferson City Schools in Georgia, opened up this last week with no mask mandate.
Jackson county, where Jefferson is, has more than 800 confirmed COVID cases, and that is rising. And the students there were issued computers on the first day leaving some students and parents to wonder if the school was preparing to go online sooner rather than later.
Some private schools are going fully online. The school where Barron Trump attends will be remote until Oct. 1, and then will re-evaluate the situation. I know many of the private schools in my area are doing similar things.
But the thing I want to think about for a minute is some of the arguments for keeping schools open and the realities of doing so.
Let me make a general observation first, before we get into the fine details – at both the university and the K-12 level politicians and administrators seem intent on convincing us that students need the “school experience.” This takes us back to some previous episodes, but we need to address what this means.
What is school for? What is it we’re supposed to do at school? If the experience of school is something other than learning, what are we supposed to be doing there? The answer seems to be socializing. School is, apparently, where we learn how to be people. We interact with each other, we talk, we play, and (very importantly) we work together. School is where we learn the social skills that make us socially adept and even successful later on in life. School, from K-university, is not just an education in the traditional sense, but it is where we learn the social skills that are absolutely necessary to becoming a functional adult. And these arguments are very centered on place – school is a space you occupy, not a thing you do or an event that takes place.
I’m not saying you can’t gain the skills somewhere outside of school. Plenty of homeschooled kids pick up these traits in places other than traditional schools all the time.
But the ARGUMENT is that schools are supposed to fulfill this function. And I don’t deny that.
And it’s really important to understand this part of the argument. It’s essential to understanding why schools (from elementary to college and university) are so important. It’s also, as I will argue, why these arguments fall flat.
Let me tell you what school re-opening is like in a district in my area. It is representative of many districts (who are taking steps to mitigate the effects of the virus – I can’t speak for the districts like the one in Georgia who aren’t doing much of anything).
- Students will be divided into cohort groups. Cohort 1 will attend school Monday and Thursday, Cohort 2 will attend school Tuesday and Friday, and any day you are not in school in person you will do remote learning. Cohort 3 will be English Language Learners and Special Education students who will attend 4 days a week. Cohort 4 will be students who are 100% remote learners.
- Masks will be required for students and teachers.
- Students and staff will remain 6 feet apart. Floors will be marked for social distancing. Workspaces will adhere to those guidelines.
- There will be daily health checks for students and staff.
- There will be separate areas for the nurse’s office for those who are injured vs. those who have possible COVID symptoms.
- There will be Contact tracing.
- Facilities will be regularly disinfected.
- Visitors will be restricted to essential visitors.
- School drills will maintain social distancing – school drills are required by the state.
- Students will social distance in the cafeteria. If that’s not feasible students will either eat in the classroom or will eat staggered lunches.
- Buses will be disinfected once a day.
- Bus drivers have to perform a self-health check before coming to work and wear a face covering.
- There will be staggered arrivals and dismissals.
- Schools will focus on Social Emotional Learning.
- Schools will use restorative practices in the classroom and remotely.
- They will Offer a multi-tiered support system consisting of the following items:
- Tier 1 Supports , which will be (Daily):
- They will conduct universal screening to identify social–emotional needs of students
- They will share student mental health needs assessment data with those who need to know
- They will conduct routine check-ins using a trauma and resilience informed lens
- They will develop a system to connect with students and families to promote attendance
- They will engage with students and families using culturally responsive techniques
- They will train staff to provide supports through a trauma-informed and responsive lens
- They will assess immediate needs and provide support
- Use professional development time to increase trauma knowledge and skills
- They will Include mental health and wellness resources on district and school websites and in communications with families
- They’ll conduct schoolwide mental health assessment that includes trauma and stress
- They’ll consider strategies to become a trauma-responsive school system to support the school community
- And utilize virtual Trauma, Illness and Grief Consortium training opportunities and guidance from TIG for support
- Tier 2/3 Supports includes:
- The school psychologists and school counselors at all levels will, after assessing student needs, conduct small groups/individual counseling for students. The groups could target specific areas such as anxiety, depression, etc. (either face-to-face, hybrid or remote)
- Social workers will do home visits at a socially appropriate distance for students as needed
- Team meetings
- Connect students and families with additional outside supports in the community
- Consider having flexible hours for mental health staff to deliver services
- Mental health staff will join team meetings with teachers and students as needed
- Behavior modification support
- Attendance Intervention
- Tier 1 Supports , which will be (Daily):
- They will Offer a multi-tiered support system consisting of the following items:
- Schools will use restorative practices in the classroom and remotely.
So here are a few things you need to understand about school in this plan:
You only see your classmates in person two times a week. You don’t get to interact with your classmates EXCEPT online because you can’t get withing 6 feet of your classmates. So no group work. No socializing. No networking. No playing or talking unless you are yelling across a distance. UNLESS it is done virtually. The individualized attention you would get from your teacher is inhibited because your teacher can’t get closer than six feet to you.
The REASON the school has to have such a detailed plan for social and emotional learning is because school is no longer a place where social and emotional learning is organically happening. The whole argument for school as a socializing and normalizing factor is completely disingenuous – students can’t interact, talk, play: none of the things that make school a place where kids learn to be PEOPLE are happening anymore. School is going to be a place of frustration and isolation.
This school district has a regimented plan for social and emotional well-being because kids aren’t going to get that from each other or from their teachers.
And let’s be honest – this is clearly a district that can afford counselors and nurses. What about all those districts that have been doing without for years because of budget constraints? How are they going to make school a place where any kind of growth happens?
One of the MAJOR benefits of going to school is being eliminated by the need to make school safe. People have been saying for months they need their kids to socialize with other kids but that’s not going to happen at school. They’d get more out of a Zoom meeting with a bunch of kids who can talk to each other than a room full of kids who have to stay 6 feet apart, have to face forward, and can’t share anything. As we have talked about in previous episodes, school is a place where students learn citizenship. But that is being stripped away. Schools in the age of COVID are places of isolation.
So the arguments for opening schools need to be honest. The reason we need to open K-12 schools aren’t for the kids. It’s strictly for the parents. The reason we need to open schools is the economy. We can’t have a working economy without schools being open because we don’t have an infrastructure to support families. Schools being open isn’t for the kids. It’s for monetary reasons. And we need to think about what that means.
Now there ARE some decent arguments for opening schools to benefit kids that we will get to in just a bit. This isn’t an all-or-nothing game. I just wanted to address one of the major arguments for opening schools first.
Israel rushed to open schools, and they were in much better shape than the U.S. was. Israel had its numbers down to less than 300 cases nationwide when it opened schools in May. Within two weeks they had to close again as hundreds of cases spread throughout the school system. The response from experts was that this wasn’t a surprise because the same thing happened in South Korea and Singapore. These are places where the virus was relatively under control. In the U.S. COVID is running rampant. Do we really think schools will even STAY open? What are these plans even for?
Now let’s consider plans for opening colleges and universities.
The main argument given for opening colleges and universities is so that students can have the real “college experience.” If you went to college, you have some idea what that means. It’s a combination of the uniqueness of college classes (as opposed to K-12) and the life a student has outside of class. But let’s consider the kinds of plans colleges and universities have proposed for re-opening.
- Students, Faculty and Staff will be required to wear face coverings.
- There will be daily symptom checkers for everyone.
- An increased number of on-campus students will be placed in individual living quarters instead of shared living quarters.
- There will be quarantine and isolation areas set up on campus.
- Social distancing will be maintained on campus.
- Large lectures will be moved online.
- There will be reduced seating in all classes – so classrooms will be operating at 1-2/3 their usual capacity. Professors will have to plan their semesters accordingly.
- Some colleges are anticipating that the classes will be broken into cohorts with one group meeting on some days and another meeting on other days, but that the entirety of the class will never be in the same room together
- Other colleges have proposed the class be split into different rooms where the professor teaches one group, but the lecture/conversation is televised or broadcast to another room where the rest of the class can view it.
- Some colleges and universities are requiring that professors clean or disinfect classrooms between classes (this gives them 10-15 minutes to dismiss their students, collect their things, answer any questions from students who stay after, disinfect their classrooms, and make it to their next class, which very well may be in a different building).
- Schools have altered their schedule, so they begin early and end by Thanksgiving.
- Other schools have kept the same start date but will not re-convene after Thanksgiving and will go to online learning after that point
- Professors will clean and disinfect their offices regularly
- Some schools have considered limiting discussion in classes – both discussion as a pedagogical tool and discussion between students.
- Large gatherings are limited if not eliminated.
- Depending on which conference you are in sports are anything from re-scheduled to canceled.
This leads one to ask – how much of the “college experience” is left? There won’t be any group work. There will be limited class discussion. Classes will be radically different. Professors will have much less time for individual attention for their students. Many of the events that define college will be canceled.
College will be NOTHING like what it has traditionally been.
Life outside college may continue – but some colleges and universities are even trying to manage the lives of students there, for obvious safety reasons. The problem is, if life outside of college remains the same, colleges and universities are at risk of completely shutting down that much sooner. Because the college experience outside of class means gathering – parties, restaurants, bars, hanging out at your friends’ apartments and watching movies or playing video games. Day drinking after a mid-term with some of your friends. The college experience outside of class is the opposite of social distancing.
The argument for opening colleges is patently disingenuous. There will be no “traditional college experience” in the age of COVID. It will be radically different, and it is likely to be short-lived. Just as with K-12 schools, we are likely to see the virus spread quickly and unimpeded through populations in close contact in the fall. Already some schools are reporting multiple cases and the school year has not even begun.
There ARE good arguments for re-opening schools – but the school experience is not it.
One, school serves students with special needs. The services that schools provide for special needs students really cannot be replicated by remote learning services. English language services also cannot be replicated by online services. English language learners need the in-person instruction of a live teacher.
Remote learning is, in general, not a good replacement for in-person teaching, especially for K-5 students. There is no doubt that education is suffering right now. There is going to be an education gap for the students right now and the years to come. And the real danger is that with an education gap there could be an innovation gap as these students grow into the scientists, educators, and artists of the future.
This is also reinforcing inequity in a variety of ways. Those with access to the internet and computers have access to education in ways that those without do not. Those who depend on schools for food are going hungry.
There is also an achievement gap that is widening. The students that were struggling to begin with will continue to fall behind and it will be harder and harder to catch up. Those students who were ahead because they are the kinds who teach themselves will continue to pull ahead, and the gap between them will get wider and wider. This makes the job of teachers increasingly harder to teach to both groups in the same class. Differentiating is part of a teacher’s job, but as the gap between students gets farther and farther apart that is a more difficult job.
So there ARE good reasons for opening schools. But these are not necessarily the arguments that are being made. The question is WHY aren’t we making the good arguments?
The good arguments focus on inequality. The good arguments focus on inequity. And some people, some scientific groups, are addressing those. But the public seems to focus on the social and normative aspect of school. The things that make us the same. Because we don’t like to think of school as a tool of social justice. School may be democratizing, but we prefer to think of school as an equalizer in the sense that it is normalizing.
As we have written into the law in cases like Brown v. Board, school is supposed to teach us to be good Americans – so our arguments for school don’t focus on the good school does in terms of fighting inequality, but in creating opportunities for “normality.”
School as a force for social justice would require that we actually fund it. If we acknowledged that we were using schools to address so many of our social problems we would have to ask why we were constantly cutting school budgets. So we don’t think of schools as forces for social goods. We think of them as institutions of normality. But we are seeing now what happens when even just that boring, normal, institution is disrupted. From K-university, America needs schools. Without them society is thrown into complete disarray.
John Dewey was one of the most important educational reformers of the 20th century. Dewey argued that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. Dewey believed education was not only a place to gain content knowledge, but also a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, the purpose of education was not just the acquisition of skills, but also the realization of a child’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.
Dewey advocated for an educational structure that strikes a balance between delivering knowledge while also taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. It is through this reasoning that Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning. Dewey’s ideas influenced many other wide-spread experiential models. Problem-Based Learning (PBL), for example, which is widely advocated for today, incorporates Dewey’s ideas pertaining to learning through active inquiry.
John Dewey believed in democracy and liberalism above all things and sought to implement those things in American schools. And this has been an overwhelmingly good thing.
This has changed American schools from rote memorization to experiential and problem-solving, experiential learning. This has moved the idea of education as just imparting skills to teaching democracy and civil society. This has created the notion that education is a collaborative, interactive process as opposed to just a teacher imparting facts that students should swallow. Education is a life-skill, not just a set of facts.
But this philosophy is being misapplied right now in the efforts to re-open schools.
Dewey’s philosophy is being applied to SCHOOLS, not education. It is not the place that gives you these skills and this civic education, but the process. And that is important to understand about these arguments.
If education is to impart a civic understanding and problem solving, then education as it is being envisioned in the age of COVID will explicitly NOT fulfill Dewey’s dream. Because students can’t do hands-on or experiential learning in this environment, they can’t interact with their peers, and they can’t learn from a civil-servant type teacher as Dewey envisioned in this environment.
A school building is not a magical place that automatically creates Dewey’s utopia – and that goes for K-12 and colleges and universities. Dewey’s notions of education as a social and democratic process is a collaborative, group effort that requires free interaction between students, and students and teachers. And that is actually more achievable online right now than it is in person.
So what are the real reasons for such a focus on the place of education and not the process – that is clear. They are economic. But it is silly to insult Americans by making arguments that are anything other than that. The reasons we need our kids and our young adults in the actual places of education are monetary. One, because the economy depends on K-12. And two, because the business of higher ed depends on students in colleges and universities.
For K-12 we could also focus on the inequities that remote learning highlights. And that is a real issue. It is, perhaps, way more important than the socialization of students that schools provide. But the truth of the matter is the vocal part of the public doesn’t face for inequities. So that’s not the big argument. That’s just hegemony at work.
I honestly believe that in-person education is better than online education. Online classes will never be as good face-to-face classes. My anecdotal conversations with students support that belief. But right now we are talking about safety. And right now we are talking about what is possible.
Schools are making plans under the impression that they will eventually have to close. It is inevitable.
The question, then, is will they re-open and just yo-yo back and forth, or will they stay closed?
Why are we putting ourselves in these positions?
We have seen in other countries what happens when schools re-open – the virus runs rampant. And that is ALREADY a problem in the United States.
So why are we using bogus arguments to justify these unsafe decisions? It is nonsensical.
There are GOOD arguments for opening schools, but those aren’t the ones being used.
People are focusing on BAD arguments that fall flat in the face of the reality of the situation. What does this tell us about re-opening? Are we striving for Dewey’s ideal of the process of education? Or is this about something else?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.