(This is a guest post by Padraig Shea, an educator and baseball coach in the South Bronx. He has taught in Arkansas, South Korea, and Houston. His writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Valley Advocate, and Fulbright Korea Infusion.)
New York City’s coronavirus quarantine has reached biblical proportions; schools and many businesses closed more than 40 days ago.
The data is harrowing: Virtual schools have an abysmal track record of academic achievement, even as millions of students still cannot access the internet from home. Educators worry about a lost generation of students, especially among those who already suffer on the wrong side of inequity. On March 16, prognosticators pondered the cost of closed schools over periods of days and weeks, but we now wonder whether the fall semester will begin on time.
To dig into the data, however, is to find silver linings. First: The problem with virtual schools is not inherent to learning remotely. The New York Times recently excoriated virtual learning’s track record and slapdash implementation in 2020, and rightly so. Most schools hadn’t prepared for universal virtual learning because it was the option of last resort. However, a major pillar of the Times editorial’s argument was a study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, or NAPCS, it called “scalding.” The problem appears to be the lackadaisical oversight applied by authorizers, which invited educational profiteers and students who didn’t mind low standards, according to the report.
To compare school today to summer vacation or the status quo of virtual learning is to compare apples to cucumbers or kumquats. Consider: The world’s great institutions of learning, from Harvard University to Kim Ki-hoon, South Korea’s millionaire tutor, are all teaching online. One problem virtual charter schools faced was a self-selecting student body: Significantly whiter, poorer, and more transient than the average nearby student. Many athletes who would not or could not prioritize school attendance opted for virtual charter schools, which were predominantly run by for-profit charters. These were attracted by shoddy oversight by state authorizers and, incredibly, per-pupil payments from states that did not account for virtual charters’ savings on rent and other brick-and-mortar concerns, according to the NAPCS study.
Suddenly, the whole world is more invested in education than ever. As the world’s top students, schools, and educators adopt virtual learning, change is going to come. It better, as we may not be able to crowd back into our schools for a long time. Denmark leads the way toward half-capacity schooling, in which students attend in-person in shifts while others stay home.
For at least a decade, one of the most salient critiques of American public education was a memelike image juxtaposing an American classroom in 1910 with an American classroom on, say, Friday, March 13, 2020. If you don’t know the meme, the joke is they look exactly alike, despite last century’s sepia tone.
American schools for more than a century resembled the factories for which they once prepared graduates; they were also known to be disease-spreading factories. As the distance between the American workplace and schoolplace shrinks, we have an opportunity to reject more relics of the past, like summer break, to make up for lost time.
“This crisis has forever changed what’s possible,” said Tom Rooney, superintendent of schools in Lindsay, California. “It’s not going to be so much about the educational systems that exist, but around the concept of learning. This crisis has brought about a much deeper appreciation for those that are educators.”
One obvious silver lining is the closing of the “digital divide,” short for the gap between students with and without home Internet access. New York City Schools Chancellor Carranza pledged to deliver 240,000 wireless-enabled devices to students who don’t have them by the end of April, including 175,000 school loaners and 70,000 iPads. “When we get to the other side of this pandemic,” he said during an April 11 press conference, “we will have bridged the digital divide for our students that is particularly egregious in the Bronx. Students will have laptops and the ability to explore the Internet that they didn’t have this past August.”
What educators and students do with this opportunity is to be seen. At South Bronx Community Charter High School, we provide each freshman with a laptop to use in class and at home. Shortly before schools closed, we handed out dozens of mobile hot-spots to students without wifi at home. Since we’ve moved to the cloud, we’ve seen 90 percent student attendance, which is lower than normal, but better than the state’s averages.
We’ve realized that, for as much as education has changed, some things remain: I Do, We Do, You Do. Teachers have recreated Socratic seminars on Zoom. Students perform August Wilson’s plays. GoogleDocs is perfect for writing revisions.
Sitting next to the chancellor on April 11, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the profound importance of the 2020-2021 school year: “This next school year is going to have to be the greatest school year we’ve ever had to overcome this.”