In these strange times, instead of heading off to school, kids are connecting with teachers via links, emails and occasional glimpses on Google Hangouts and Zoom screens. Distance learning is now the norm.
A mere few months ago, the whole concept would have sounded absurd.
“If I had come back after my first six months on the job and said, ‘Look, I have a great idea for the next district strategy for Acton-Boxborough — let’s stop bringing kids into classrooms,’” said Peter Light, superintendent for Acton-Boxborough schools, “everyone would have thought I was crazy, that that’s possibly the worst idea ever in education.”
And yet, as stopping the spread of the coronavirus became essential, there’s little other choice. Three weeks after Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all schools in Massachusetts to close, educators have scrambled to come up with what the state calls “phase two” — a more defined schedule of check-ins, assignments and educational priorities.
“Even now, we’ve launched a plan, but we don’t know how that’s going to play out,” Light said. “So I think we’ll have to carefully monitor it and I’m sure we’ll make adjustments as we go.”
School districts have doled out laptops and other devices to students who need them, but technology alone can’t replace the experience of going to school. And that’s clearin state guidelines that recommend that, during the crisis, schools prioritize students' well-being, reducing learning time to half the length of a regular school day and aiming to reinforce existing skills instead of teaching new ones.
Keeping up with the planned curriculum is no longer a priority, many educators have said, or even realistic. Given the possibility that schools may not reopen at all this school year, that means kids could lose out on about three months of education. The impact of that loss is likely to hit some communities harder than others.
In Acton-Boxborough, where schools are routinely ranked among the top in the state, Light said he’s confident students in his district will make up for lost learning time. But in districts where poverty is the norm, school leaders are less sanguine.
“I do anticipate that this is going to have a ripple effect for years to come,” said Dianne Kelly, Revere’s superintendent of schools.
More than 70% of Revere students live in poverty and over half are English Language Learners. Kelly said she worries that students who already face steep challenges will now lose momentum in school.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis. We’re reacting in the moment to get kids what they need,” she said. “But in a short time from now, when things are little more stabilized, our attention needs to turn to what we’re going to do to close all those gaps.”
Asha Chana, who works with English Language Learners at Revere High School, said she’s already seen a drop-off in the number of kids who show up for her virtual classes.
“They’re in survival mode right now,” Chana said. “If their reality is taking care of a sick family member or being the breadwinner, than I would rather them be human first and take care of those very human needs before doing my work. We’ll come back to it.”
But the impact of the coronavirus on education may reach deeper than the loss of school time this spring.
“What my greatest fear is, actually, is the impact on the economy,” said Sheldon Berman, Andover’s superintendent of schools.
Last fall, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law the Student Opportunity Act, a plan to infuse schools with $1.5 billion over seven years. Much of that money was earmarked for poorer communities where students’ educational achievement often lags behind peers from wealthier towns and cities. Now, with the economy in a tailspin, Berman said he is concerned that funding could be in jeopardy.
“My hope is that isn’t compromised. Because it’s districts like Lowell and Lawrence and Haverhill and others that will receive an infusion of millions of dollars that they sorely need,” said Berman, who has also led urban school districts in Louisville, Kentucky and Eugene, Oregon. “Equity was a major focus of the Student Opportunity Act and I hope we can sustain that, and that may be the greatest inequity if the economy is compromised.”
Add the fate of the economy to the long list of uncertainties facing schools and students. Adapting to the realities of a global pandemic wasn’t part of anyone’s lesson plan, but it does provide a unique learning opportunity.
“About what it means to have to live through a crisis, to be away from people, how to continue to connect socially, even though we’re distant, and this broader sense of looking at society as a whole,” said Peter Light, the Acton-Boxborough schools superintendent. “I think that is going to be something students take away for their whole lives.”