Before he retired in 2019, Keith Law taught philosophy at Merced College. He has many decades’ experience in education.
The current debate over how to begin the fall 2020 school year is stuck in a false dilemma between two equally bad options. Parents don’t want to send children to school if they risk infection for them and their families, not to mention the risks to teachers and staff. On the other hand, very few students have the basic skills, resources, and parental support to succeed in an online academic setting.
The end result of remote education is that most students will be passed along to the next grade for the sake of convenience without learning what they need for success at higher levels. This will have a ripple effect for their whole lives. Instead, we should cancel school for the fall 2020 semester, and retroactively cancel last spring’s semester as well. Students should start back in the spring of 2021 and finish the school year that started fall of 2019. This will set them back one grade, but they will be better prepared for the rest of their education and their lives.
We need to stop equating the practice of graduating students from one grade to the next with acquiring a grade appropriate education, as they are not the same thing. If being honest, we will admit that the spring 2020 semester was a disaster for most students and teachers, and do a reboot.
This idea seems drastic until placed in the perspective of past plagues and pandemics. The plagues that struck Europe in the Middle Ages wiped out 1/3 of the population. The 1918 Spanish Flu killed four times more Americans than Covid-19 so far. Compared to the loss of life and the economic downturn caused by the virus, setting students back one grade is not so horrific.
To be clear, remote or distance learning is not working for the majority of students for many reasons. Not all children have access to the technology, and parents have difficulty home schooling while working full-time. There are children who don’t live in safe environments that are conducive to their well-being let alone their education.
Finally, teachers are overworked and under-compensated. Teaching online requires a great deal more time than classroom instruction, and so far, teachers’ unions have neglected to negotiate increased compensation that would be commensurate with that extra work. Some teachers also have children, so now they are expected to home school theirs while trying to teach ours at the same time. For these reasons, many are choosing to quit or retire early, so we are losing some of our best teachers.
Recent surveys of teachers by EdWeek Research Center found that more than 10% are more likely to leave the profession now than they were before the pandemic. One major factor is the abrupt pivot to remote learning that has exhausted teachers and contributed to lower morale.
For all these reasons, we should cancel the fall 2020 semester and start back up in spring of 2021. Teachers should be paid to go on sabbaticals with the expectation that they will return with proof of having improved in areas that benefit students. Students should be in remote “summer camps” that provide activities aimed at retaining their current level of education, and also stretching their imaginations through art and their bodies through exercise.
The Corona Virus so far is less deadly than past plagues because we know how to keep it in check until we get a vaccine. For this, we thank the sound research of scientists like our very own Dr. Anthony Fauci. Unfortunately, the United States has the most cases and deaths globally from the virus, which makes it harder to open up schools and businesses. This is primarily the result of failed leadership by President Trump at the federal level, and his cheerleaders at FOX News, who have been seeding doubts about the science. This is the kind of deception that takes hold mostly among those who are least educated, which gives us one more reason to make sure we properly educate our children and young adults.