Like It Or Not, Remote Learning Is Coming Back
As the Covid pandemic reaches new peaks in many parts of the country, Americans who thought that remote learning was only a thing of Spring should think again. It’s coming back.
The structural realities of school life make it inevitable in many, many places. The pressures of CDC guidelines and the day-to-day vicissitudes of school operation under them threaten to snap even the strongest school systems. The best place to be is at Kübler-Ross Stage 5: Acceptance.
Let’s get there.
Full disclosure: I am a teacher, the husband of a teacher and a parent of two Middle School aged sons. Between us we have first hand experience of three very different school districts in New Hampshire. One is relatively affluent, one a diverse mix of rural, suburban and near-urban and one decidedly rural.
New Hampshire may not be in the worst situation, as far as the pandemic goes, but it is far from safe.
If you look at the Johns Hopkins sick map, New Hampshire may not look that bad. The Dakotas—rightly!—get the lion’s share of attention. But the pandemic is in full vigor here and only growing worse. In fact, the numbers have broken the state dashboard. The Green-Yellow-Red coloring system to indicate rate of community spread no longer conveys meaningful information. Green indicated a minimal rate, anything under fifty active cases per hundred thousand over two weeks, yellow, seventy-five per hundred thousand and red anything over one hundred per hundred thousand. Every county is red. The state as a whole is, as I write this, at 205.1 per hundred thousand and thinly-peopled Coos County is at 474.8. Can moose transmit Covid? One begins to wonder.
To make matters worse, the state contact tracing team is overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with the increasing number of cases. They’ve given up contact tracing for all but the highest risk groups.
The pandemic influences how school works due to two factors: Student impact and staff impact.
Though the schools I have first-hand knowledge of have implemented different systems—two offer hybrid and full remote models and the other offers full in-school and full remote options, for example—the commonalities are clear: desks six feet apart, masks, social distancing. Still, a student testing positive has a ripple effect that results in students and staff having to enter quarantine. Properly done contact tracing—and yes, there are schools willing to play fast and loose with the definition of properly—can throw entire classrooms remote for two weeks.
A student with a Covid-positive household member can be out for a month.
How? If I were to test positive, my wife and kids would have to be out of school until I tested negative ten days to two weeks later, as they would be considered close contacts for all ten to fourteen days. only when I tested negative would they be able to begin their own two week quarantine. Thus they would be out for, at a minimum, the better part of a month. They might likely be out for the whole four weeks.
If enough students fall into this category a school can be brought to its knees relatively quickly.
The real tripwire, however, is the staff.
Many schools—I don’t know of any operating otherwise here—have eschewed outside substitute teachers in favor of only full time, on-site subs: The theory being that consistency of staff reduces potential flashpoints for an outbreak. Schools staffed thus began the school year already short-handed and unable to manage a non-trivial flu season, much less a global pandemic. Instead of, perhaps, having a very deep bench of subs who could come in at an hour-and-a-half or so’s notice, they have, at best, a handful of people to cover teacher absences.
When you compound this problem with the possibility of a teacher being put into quarantine for a couple of days while awaiting the testing results of a Covid test, or a fortnight having it, or a month due to a positive test in the family, you find a Jenga tower which was already delicately balanced—a number of pieces removed before the game began—teetering on the edge of collapse.
And many such towers will collapse, because we haven’t even factored in flu season.
Say what you will for or against the CDC guidelines, they are what directs the ultimate determination on school closures. No school district, county or state wants to go against those guidelines and then face a lawsuit from a family or families who lost a child—or could otherwise claim damages—due to a lack of compliance.
Thus, even in a state like New Hampshire where local control is king—the governor can no more force schools to close than he can dictate that they teach that darkness at night is merely the result of the periodic accretion of dark air—districts will begin to close when community transmission rates get too high for comfort.
Rochester, New Hampshire, which had already decided that they would be remote from Thanksgiving to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, went fully remote early due to the number of cases springing up in the schools.
I don’t work there, but this has created a challenge for my school. Teachers have children, and if the children require a parent at home to support remote learning, one district’s situation has ripple effects on others.
This ripple effect will be felt by students and families in other districts.
Your children, your family.
I get it.
There are many different interpretations of the pandemic. There are those who think it is a Trojan horse for socialism and those who think it is the Black Death come again. The reality so far is that it is a pervasive disease which has deleterious effects on our educational system, our students and our children, regardless of the big picture pressures.
The stress of teaching in a system that will fail is immiserating, a sword of Damocles.
The upside? Teachers—I speak of us as a class, your mileage may vary—have learned what did and didn’t work in the Spring and are pivoting to more effective practices for the next time. In my district, and in many others, teachers were told in the Spring to hold back and not require kids to tune in at a specific time—this would now be called an asynchronous model—and to focus as much as possible on fighting isolation through community building in the Spring. We are now planning to require students to attend virtual classes, for example. We are making schedules which balance time with a live teacher, with small class sizes and developmentally appropriate expectations around study skills and working independently. Even those that did relatively well in the Spring are working to do better in the next round.
Is remote learning as good as in-person? Certainly not.
Personally, I’ve taught this year as if I were remote to begin with. We’re fully digital and the only difference, instructionally, will be the difference between having me wearing a mask six feet away and showing up—chin and nose and all—virtually. It won’t be the same. My visual of walking around an imaginary sun in the classroom with a globe to illustrate why we seasons on Earth won’t work over Google Meet, but we’ll find other ways.
As a teacher the difference between in-person and remote teaching is huge. The real nuance -— the jiu jitsu, the secret sauce -— of teaching is in the little moments, the subtle interactions between teacher and student. These are the moments when we build kids up and leverage the good in them to help them learn how to learn and grow.
I’m not even fully remote yet and I miss these kids already.
I miss the little interactions—our little, serendipitous passing moments; our sweet, little moments—between classes or activities. The moments they tell you how much they are enjoying Freak the Mighty, or complaining about what happened at home: the moments where all you need to do is listen and be there.
The kids miss that, too.
And when everything is fully remote, you are going to miss your kids going to school. So many Americans have built their lives and livelihoods around the hitherto safe assumption that kids had school to go to for a reliable chunk of the year. As a teacher, I’m sympathetic to that. After all, I did too.
Acceptance is the place to be when it comes to school closures. It’s ugly, sudden, disruptive and messy, but it’s coming.
Oh, and if you need to know what teacher gifts become staff lunch room legends, drop me a line. I know some doozies.