Virtual School Meanderings

August 1, 2020

School Re-Opening Update: A Possible Way Forward?

An interesting read from John Watson.

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School re-opening update: a possible way forward?


The last post ended with this text:

Even as these discussions [about school reopenings] are occurring, new information continues to emerge. In particular, three related ideas may point to a new direction…These ideas are:

  1. Remote learning has been, and will likely to continue to be, much harder for the youngest students than for older students.
  2. Young children seem to be showing less propensity to spread COVID-19 than older students.
  3. For comprehensive K-12 districts (leaving aside districts which are just elementary or just high school), a step towards a solution for instruction in the coming school year may be to treat elementary schools and high schools differently, perhaps very differently.

Let’s break each of these down.

1. Remote learning is harder for younger students…

This is fairly intuitive. As the New York Times reported months ago:

 “Younger students need help to learn online — lots of help. Parents may need to assist their child with turning on a device, logging into an app, reading instructions, clicking in the right place, typing answers and staying on task.”

The key element—as online teachers and school leaders understand well—is that a caregiver must be involved with the youngest students, both for supervision and for instructional support. Generally speaking, the younger the student, the more support is required. It’s well documented that many parents of young children have struggled with their role in remote learning.

2. Young children seem to be showing less propensity to spread COVID-19 than older students, who appear to transmit COVID-19 at the same rate as adults.

To this point, there is no scientific consensus on the benefits and risks of school re-openings. As a report out of the University of Washington states:

“There is a lack of scientific consensus about the impact of school closures and re-openings on community transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  There is considerable concern about the indirect effect of school closures on students and parents.”

But another study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests that

“Children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero. And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.” (The quote is from a New York Times article on the study.)

These two ideas—that the youngest students benefit the most from learning face-to-face, and may be at the lowest health and transmission risk—lead to the third point:

3. A step towards a solution for instruction in the coming school year may be to treat elementary schools and high schools differently, perhaps very differently.

recent study from the National Academies of Sciences makes this point:

“Given the importance of in-person interaction for learning and development, districts should prioritize reopening with an emphasis on providing full-time, in-person instruction in grades K-5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction.”

That’s a short quote from a report that runs to 125 pages, and raises all sorts of questions about health risks, uncertainties, etc. In fact, other experts are concerned about long-term impacts to young children who get the disease. These are not easy decisions and I don’t want to sound like they are. But it is instructive that the report focuses on elementary students (along with students with special needs) for prioritizing onsite instruction.

A slightly more nuanced approach to this issue might also acknowledge that hybrid schooling can be defined as anything other than 100% onsite or 100% online. Within that framework, a district might adopt a hybrid approach to instruction, but have very different levels of onsite vs online instructional time, varying by the age of the students. Perhaps high school students would come to school once per week, and elementary students three times per week.

In the first months of the pandemic essentially all schools were closed, and much of the discussion was about when schools would reopen—meaning all schools. This emerging evidence suggests that a better way to think about reopening may be based on student ages as well as other characteristics, such as special needs. California provides some examples of moving in this direction. As the state has pushed to keep many schools closed, it is also offering waivers for elementary schools to reopen. We are hopeful that other states and schools are starting to develop plans with similar nuance as well.

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