Closed schools pose huge challenges

Teleconferencing. 

Remote learning.

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Telecommuting.

Distance education.

It all sounds so wonderful – the young and the old sitting at home in their PJs, tapping their keyboards and clicking their mouses (mice?), listening to a face on the screen and talking back to it – as a way to deliver and receive education.

For some, particularly at the graduate level of university, where the student is conducting self-directed learning and research under the guidance of a supervisor, this is already common practice and works well.

Below that, however, from undergraduate university and college courses all the way down to kindergarten and preschool, there is no adequate replacement for face-to-face instruction among a group of peers.

From the trades through high school math and sciences to basic reading and writing concepts from elementary school, learning is a collaborative effort best experienced in a classroom.

This is hardly a revelation to School District 57 teachers and administrators returning to work from spring break next week wondering how they can possibly deliver quality education to their students when schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The simple answer is they can’t.

Perhaps if they had months and years, instead of days and weeks, to take programs like the online EBUS Academy and make it work for every course at every level for every student.

Perhaps if the school district boundaries didn’t stretch from north of Mackenzie southeast past Valemount.

Perhaps if that rural population outside of Prince George had reliable access to high-speed internet.

Perhaps if every household had not only high-speed internet but a devoted, relatively new computer or a tablet at the very least.

Perhaps if every child had the support from parents and guardians to supplement their online learning.

Even if all these conditions could be met (and they can’t because problems like poverty, family stability and infrastructure are insurmountable obstacles at present), the quality of education would still be shallow.

Schools are more than learning factories. Every interaction between every child, from the playground to the hallway to the classroom, is a teachable moment, where social skills are learned, practiced and refined. Manners, self-control, teamwork, individual effort, responsibility, kindness, forgiveness, resilience and the list goes endlessly on are learned as much or more in school as they are at home.

Schools are the place where children begin to forge a self-identity, a safe setting for them to be an individual outside of the family network.

And teachers are more than wells of knowledge from which students drink. For the fortunate, teachers are mentors but for too many children, teachers are the closest thing they’ll have to parents. In schools, all children, regardless of their background and home life, are valued and nurtured. Through close individual attention, one teacher can transform one student’s life forever, inspiring them to dream of a future they never knew existed or never thought possible for themselves.

The opportunity for that to happen online is slim to none.

That doesn’t mean educators shouldn’t make any effort to remotely connect to students until schools are safe to reopen.

But everyone needs to manage expectations. 

Educators are already well aware of the faults in the current education system that leaves too many kids behind, that prevents one in five kids from graduating in this school district (and that’s an improvement from one in three kids a decade ago). More kids will fall through the cracks with online learning, especially the kids with special needs and learning challenges, especially the ones who showed up to school with an empty stomach and yesterday’s clothes still on their backs.

Parents can’t expect to sit their children in front of a computer with the same nonchalance that they dropped them off at school and believe the full educational experience is magically happening.

Just like fighting this pandemic, education is going to take a sustained group effort from everyone, both for the rest of this school year but likely for the next school year as well.

If the “it takes a village to raise a child” is fully embraced during these challenging times and then followed in the aftermath, the kids could come out better for it.

But there’s a lot of difficult work ahead to get anywhere near that point.

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