by ROMESH RATNESAR & CLIVE CROOK/ pic by BLOOMBERG
HAVING slogged through weeks of unevenly administered distance learning, schools in the US are preparing to shut down for the summer. Amid the stress of the pandemic, students, teachers and parents undoubtedly deserve a break. They should keep it short.
How to get students back in classrooms will be driven by public health considerations. In areas at low risk of coronavirus outbreaks, schools might safely reopen if they plan for proper social distancing. For everyone else, some form of remote learning should continue.
Forgoing a traditional 10- to 12-week summer vacation might not go over well with students, to say nothing of the adults who will need to supervise their work.
But especially for disadvantaged children, the alternative is worse.
The disruptions caused by the coronavirus have harmed learning across the board. By the end of April, more than 80% of public schools had already cancelled in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year, leaving 55 million students to learn from home.
School districts were ill-prepared for the shift to remote teaching, though the vast majority have since managed to provide students with at least some academic work.
However, both the quality of instruction and the expectations for student performance vary widely. Although close to three-quarters of all school districts are delivering material through online platforms, less than half require students to actually use them.
Assuming physical schools remain shut for the summer, the drop-off in students’ progress will be steep. During a normal summer, students would be expected to lose at least one month’s worth of learning, with math retention taking the biggest hit.
The springtime stall caused by the pandemic will exacerbate those losses. Researchers at NWEA, a non-profit educational consultancy, estimate that on average, students could be as much as a year behind by the time they return in the fall.
Richer students with access to technology, tutors and extracurricular enrichment will most likely catch up. But low-income students and those already struggling academically may face insurmountable deficits, particularly if a resurgence of the virus forces schools to close in the fall. So schools should strive to keep breaks in instruction to a minimum.
In the best case, schools should resume in-person classes as soon as it’s safe to do so and teachers have adequate protective gear, even if that means curtailing or eliminating the long summer hiatus — a possibility floated by California Governor Gavin Newsom.
(A shorter summer would bring US students in line with peers in the UK, Germany and France, whose break lasts between six and eight weeks.)
To ensure social distancing, students could attend in rotating shifts. To combat boredom, classes could emphasise creative and project-based learning, rather than rote memorisation and drills.
Until schools physically reopen — and even after they do — students should continue to receive instruction at home. Older students should be required to meet minimal requirements for online attendance and assignment completion.
School districts should conduct assessments of students’ home computer and Internet access and direct support to families that lack access to reliable technology.
To manage potential staff illnesses and keep schools operating remotely over the summer, states should explore ways to hire additional teachers. These include relaxing licensing rules to allow teachers to cross state lines, tapping retired teachers as online mentors and issuing provisional credentials to students in teacher-training programmes.
The long-term impact of the pandemic on student outcomes is not yet known. What’s certain is that the less schooling students receive, the worse off they’ll be once the crisis subsides. Like their elders, children benefit from having time off. Especially now, though, the traditional long summer is far too much. — Bloomberg
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.