Getting back to school is something that everyone can agree on. Here's how schools around the country are doing it.

October 5, 2020

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

There are not many topics these days that can unite people from California to Tennessee - but getting kids back to school is something that finds supporters across geographies and political parties.

“Every day beyond the one that the state says is permissible to return is too late.” says an op-ed in Berkeley, California.

Do it for the disadvantaged students without the same digital access and supplementary learning opportunities as wealthier students. Do it for the youngest students and do it for the parents, of which 75% of the Berkeley school district were in favor of resuming some in-person classes.

Parents across the country in Tennessee could agree with that as they staged an impromptu protest at a recent school board meeting in Williamson County. Together with the protest, “countless emails”, and an online petition reaching 1,000+ names in a school district of 6,750, the parents are demanding that grading of students be suspended until the school district’s online learning approach is improved. Although some of the challenges could be related to roll-out pains (the district stated that they had never used their online platform at such scale before and teachers needed more time to get acclimated), the frustration that the parents feel with remote learning is clear.

Digital and economic divides

Parents of students with good digital access may be frustrated, but at least they have good connectivity to begin with. As the op-ed from Berkeley notes, in many school districts there is a digital divide between those well-connected students and students who can’t even access their learning materials in the first place. In Kansas City, non-profits are trying to bridge this “digital divide”, but there are challenges.

Organizations like LeanLab and SchoolSmartKC are providing WIFI hot-spots and devices like chrome books and tablets to students in need, but families still find themselves with limited bandwidth and children in the same household often have to take turns using a single hotspot.

But without longer term and larger scale public funding, “the math just doesn’t work out.” notes Awais Sufi, the president and CEO of SchoolSmartKC.

“The schools and a supportive community just can’t do it by ourselves.”

It’s not just connectivity where where communities and schools districts are pitching in to help families in need. Across New Mexico, schools are going above and beyond to expand their meal programs to offer increased deliveries and pick-up locations. An article from New Mexico In Depth reports how school staff members have mailed meals, distributed them through fire departments, hand-delivered and “in early September, the district started delivering meals to bus stops, sometimes as close to kids’ homes as the end of a driveway.”

Despite these efforts, the article notes that:

“Fewer New Mexico school children are being fed than before schools closed this spring, according to districts.”

Getting kids back to school is really the only way you can reach all of those who are in need. Still, they note that the “flexibility matters” and “the more options, the more likely a family will find something that works.”

Flexibility might also be the key to making blended teaching models work. In Indiana, schools are asking for waivers from state regulations in order to reduce the number of teaching days per year, while lengthening the time that students are actually in school. The schools note that this way, they can provide the same amount of instruction time to students while freeing up more time for teacher training. And more teacher training is something that will help to overcome some of the short-comings of remote learning.

What does the successful model look like?

Probably some mixture of all of the above. Recently, the Champlain Valley School District in Vermont opened back up with the vast majority of their 3,800 students opting for some form of in-person instruction.

They have reported a smooth opening so far with a blended remote/in-person model, cooperation between students and teachers to re-design the remote curriculum, expanded teacher training and efforts to make sure all students have access to digital tools they need.

But even under the best case scenarios of successful hybrid openings, the challenges remain. As a parent noted to the Charlottesville Tomorrow in Virginia:

“Not only is her son learning the content for a kindergartener, he’s also learning computer literacy — which is a lot for a 5-year-old… It’s really hard for him to stay focused for so long, He’s struggling. It’s just a lot of extra directions.”

And then we’re unfortunately reminded that that is the best case scenario. Increasing Covid cases in the area have pushed back the start of in-person instruction in Charlottesville until at least November.

In the end, schools still depend on communities to get their virus transmission levels down before they can get kids back in the physical classroom. And no matter how far above and beyond the efforts of teachers, school districts and volunteer organizations go, they depend on everyone else to do their part too.

Greg Dickens grew up in a small town of less than 2,000 people in rural New York State. After a decade working in finance and technology, he's now taking everything he has learned to create new opportunities for the people he grew up with by building digital tools that help local communities. You can check out his work here.