Although most Oakland County public school students have been learning remotely for much of the past eight months, educators agree it’s not an ideal substitute for in-person classes.
No one knows when “normal” school will resume on a permanent basis, or how far behind children will be, academically, socially and emotionally. And no one knows what normal will look like.
“There really isn’t a replacement for in-person learning,” said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a coalition of superintendents in Genesee, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties.
School boards across Oakland County have received thousands of letters from parents, asking that they return to or maintain in-person learning, citing the isolation and depression their children are experiencing. Other parents talked about the stresses of juggling work and trying to be a teacher for their children without the training to do so.
Some families, especially those from low-income households, don’t have a device for each child or don’t have adequate Internet service. School districts nationwide have tried to provide the proper technical support.
Even if they have the proper equipment and connection, many parents have complained about ongoing technical issues or poor communication with their school districts about assignments and other aspects of online learning
Beyond all of that, many parents say it’s difficult to get their children to respond to this mode of learning. Early in the pandemic, several national studies found that only about half of all students regularly participate.
So, virtual learning presents many challenges. But school districts are doing the best they can to provide some form of education in a global pandemic.
“People, in general, can learn in a variety of ways,” said Jon Margerum-Leys, dean of the School of Education and Human Services at Oakland University.
He cited correspondence courses offered long before the Internet existed, although those were not designed for children.
“We’re much better set up to do this now than we would have been 30-40 years ago. And we’ve learned a lot in the past six months,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged, the longer remote learning goes on, the more children will be behind. Some children could be ahead, particularly if their families redirected time and resources into their education.
For example, students may be at an advantage if their parents are devoting the time they would have spent commuting to helping their children with schoolwork, or the money they would have spent on gas is now used for educational resources.
But not everyone has the same resources at home. Low-income families are less likely to be able to provide a quiet place for study. Parents are more likely to lack the time to help with schoolwork. So the gap between the haves and have-nots will likely grow, he said.
When in-person classes resume on a regular basis, districts will need funding support to offer programs like summer school to help bring students up to grade level, McCann said.
He estimated that students will be two to four years behind when it’s safe to have everyone in face-to-face school, with high school students less affected as they learn the best in remote mode.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be inexpensive. It’s not going to be quick,” he said.
There could be some silver linings that come out of the pandemic when regular face-to-face school resumes, Margerum-Leys said.
More than ever, teachers will stand in front of a classroom of students with a wide range of knowledge. Children will be more accustomed to learning on their own. Ideally, teachers will adapt by stressing individualized instruction.
Margerum-Leys, a former teacher and third generation of his family in the profession, said remote learning may result in children losing a sense of time and regimentation.
“I’ve read that clocks and bells in a middle school, for example, are not really necessary. Every kid knows how many minutes are left in each class period,” he said.
When everyone returns from the pandemic, perhaps there will be greater collaboration between teachers across different subjects and less rigid class periods.
These potential changes are being incorporated into the training that new teachers are receiving, he said.
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