Is School Out Forever?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the pandemic is forcing a rethink of education.
By Daniel Malloy
The devilishly difficult problem of reopening schools amid a global pandemic was perhaps best described by the Richmond, Virginia, superintendent of public schools: It’s “like playing a game of 3D chess while standing on one leg in the middle of a hurricane.” From ABCs to Ph.D.s, the global education infrastructure faces an unprecedented challenge of trying to balance competing health, learning and economic interests that affect pretty much everyone in society. But this is also a time of intense experimentation and transformation, where we are already seeing old models of schooling fall away and new ones emerging.
Today’s Sunday magazine examines what the strangest back to school in memory will look like around the world and what it means for the future of education. Because when it comes to moving against the virus, we’re a long way from checkmate.
where does reopening stand?
Patchwork Quilt. The Trump administration is pushing hard for in-person school reopenings, with even Dr. Anthony Fauci in cautious support. But because education in the U.S. is decentralized, the country’s 13,000-plus local school districts and more than 4,000 colleges and universities are left to figure out policies themselves. It means we’re largely seeing a mix of remote and in-person instruction, and lots of delays. The coronavirus continues to rage, though cases are slowing in key states like Florida and Arizona. Meanwhile, new research is showing that kids can spread the virus just as effectively — if not more so — than adults. Their symptoms are usually far less severe, but the recent deaths of 9-year-old Kimora Lynum in Florida and an unnamed 7-year-old boy in Georgia are a tragic reminder of the risks.
Early Stumbles. In-person reopening has already seen setbacks. Within a week, schools in Corinth, Mississippi, have sent 116 students home to quarantine, 260 employees in the Gwinnett County, Georgia, school district tested positive, and a high school in Elwood, Indiana, shut back down. After a photo went viral of a crowded Paulding County, Georgia, high school hallway, filled with mostly maskless teens, students there are reportedly being threatened with suspension or expulsion if they don’t come to school in person — despite a coronavirus outbreak among members of the football team.
Lack of Trust. In Oxford, Mississippi, approximately 52 percent of the students who have opted to study virtually for at least the first two months of the school year are Black, even though Black children account for only a third of the district’s enrollment. It mirrors what polls and focus groups are finding is a lack of trust that public schools — which have long poorly served students of color — will keep kids and their families safe from a virus that disproportionately affects communities of color. While there are fears this could exacerbate America’s racial achievement gap, some studies indicate Black students fare better in homeschool environments. Read more from The Hechinger Report on OZY.
More Than Education. Part of what makes this so difficult is not simply that learning remotely is a far greater challenge, but that schools provide so much more than education. They bring valuable socialization and fitness opportunities to kids whose mental and physical health might have suffered otherwise, not to mention a safe space for children living in dangerous circumstances. And they provide nutrition: Some 22 million kids get free or reduced-priced lunch at school.
College Comeback. Colleges and universities have constantly shifted their comeback plans, but at this point about 25 percent plan to be mostly online, 21 percent primarily in person, 15 percent taking a hybrid approach … and 27 percent TBD. Some are welcoming only select students with open arms. As New York requires a 14-day quarantine for visitors from certain states with high coronavirus rates, Ithaca College told out-of-state students that they must study remotely as long as their state remains on the quarantine list. International students are all but shut out. It’s all forcing students to adapt quickly. As rising Harvard senior Joy Nesbitt writes: “I’ve come to the decision that uncertainty is OK. In fact, uncertainty is part of the college experience regardless of whether COVID-19 is a factor or not.” Read more on OZY.
Lessons From Abroad. Israel is seen as a cautionary tale after its spring reopening; its rush to full capacity led to a massive virus outbreak. China, which reopened with temperature checks and intense monitoring, has seen a few bumps in the road but no massive problems. European countries like Denmark, Germany and Finland have reopened without seeing major spikes — but they also had far fewer cases than the U.S.
the higher ed economic cliff
The Case for a Gap Year. One way to future-proof your long-term career aspirations is to make time to invest in yourself now: Get up to speed on market dynamics and gain professional experience and the skills that will be the most desirable in tomorrow’s economy. That’s why the pandemic offers a perfect opportunity for all students to take a year off between high school and college, argues Jessica Mitsch, CEO and co-founder of Momentum Learning. Read more on OZY.
Left in the Lurch. Many students are taking Mitsch’s advice, and that’s putting colleges in a bind. Typically, university administrators use deposits — minimum fees that students send in to secure their place after receiving an acceptance letter — to forecast the size of their incoming class. Those enrollment numbers in turn are a key determinant of the annual revenue that colleges earn and shape how they allocate resources. However, those are no longer reliable indicators: A study by higher ed consulting firm Art and Science shows 12 percent of students who paid up have since decided they no longer plan to pursue full-time four-year college this fall. In effect, school finance departments are flying blind. Read more on OZY.
Clogging the Pipeline. In the long term, education experts say that reduced enrollments will likely increase the wealth gap between institutions with deep pockets that can weather this storm and those that do not have the same financial flexibility. The impact of deferrals could be felt next year too. If the number of deferred applicants who queue up to join college in 2021 is significantly larger than usual, that cuts into the number of seats available for new high school graduates. Read more on OZY.
Is College Worth it? A pandemic-spurred rise in e-learning also raises questions about whether pricey university educations are worth the cost, when there are a wealth of online options. The debate is not new, but it’s being compounded as students rethink their options. One place to start? A look at the colleges that give the best return on investment in salaries.
Better Off Without Sports? With the cash cow that is college football on the brink of losing a season, universities are staring at a massive short-term budgetary hole. But it’s a mistake to assume that schools are propped up by packed stadiums. NCAA schools spent a total of $18 billion on athletics in 2018 and brought in $10 billion in revenue, leaving universities and donors to cover the rest. The University of Texas brought in the nation’s most athletic revenue last year at $223 million … but it spent nearly as much and transferred just $3 million back to the university. There are, of course, ancillary benefits to big-time sports, from brand building to alumni engagement. The pandemic could force an overdue contraction of the college sports industrial complex — though if moves at Stanford are any indication, it will mean slashing sports that don’t make money rather than paring back lavish football facilities.
new models and big ideas
Microschool’s In. In communities from Chicago to San Diego, parents are forming pandemic pods and microschools — bubbles where small groups of kids can meet and learn together. These options offer more interaction for children than studying online and are also safer than returning to full-fledged schools. Raleigh, North Carolina, backed by the local school district and the YMCA, set up socially distant supervised “learning centers” where kids can take remote classes on Wi-Fi, allowing their parents to go to work. All these options raise questions about access: The learning centers cost $24 per day, and microschools can cost $25,000 for the year.
Walk in the Woods. Outdoor classrooms are safer than closed spaces. Marry that with the adventures that nature offers, and the pandemic could serve as a launch pad to teach kids outdoor life skills that will come in handy. Forest schools began in Denmark and are now common in many European nations. Some U.S. schools are attempting the model too, with interest growing as a pandemic alternative.
Survival Skills. A growing number of Indian schools are teaching students not just about climate change but also how to live through droughts or extreme weather they may encounter in the future. This new green curriculum includes hydroponic farming, replenishing forests and even accepting plastic trash as school fees to turn it into eco-friendly bricks. These schools are offering a powerful lesson for education systems around the world. Read more on OZY.
On the Air. Large parts of sub-Saharan Africa don’t have reliable internet, but radio is ubiquitous. That’s why Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Rwanda have turned to radio and TV classes, delivered daily to millions of students. As Senegal’s promotional campaign says, “School is closed but learning goes on.”
Get in the Game. Relying on Minecraft to keep your kids busy? Poland has turned to video games as part of its school curriculum. In March, the Polish government launched a Minecraft server which packages quizzes and other educational activities, with each student allotted a plot of virtual land to construct buildings. Awards go to the best gamers. Sure beats an algebra quiz.
teachers under pressure
Unions in the Crosshairs. Teachers — who have spent their careers taking on the skills of social worker, parent, police officer and more — are balking at putting their lives on the line while enforcing social distancing and health checks. And their unions are increasingly pushing for online-only instruction as they negotiate with political leaders. The New York union, for instance, wants a 14-day closure at any school where a positive coronavirus case is recorded. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently declared her support for “safety strikes” if local unions believe reopening plans are insufficient. Read OZY’s 2018 profile of Weingarten.
Who’s Essential? Teacher reluctance is being met with a barrage of pushback from parents who are seeing their children’s academic and social lives atrophy and need child care in order to work. Thanks to the pandemic, the term “essential workers” now means everyone from health care personnel to transit operators to grocery store employees who must go to work despite shutdowns. Perhaps teachers should also be on the list. As one nurse writes in The Atlantic: “I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job.”
Florida, Man. Always a political hotbed, the Sunshine State is one of the few places where a governor has aggressively pushed for in-person instruction statewide. The face of the opposition is Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, representing 14,000 teachers who are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying they don’t want to be “the petri dish” for reopening schools. The Miami native is an accomplished musician, with a master’s in music education, and was an award-winning band teacher before becoming the rabble-rousing head of Florida’s teachers union. He’s criticized DeSantis for “playing politics with children’s lives” and calling a return to in-person teaching “irresponsible.” The results of his public critiques may have an effect on the November presidential election too, given DeSantis’ coziness with President Donald Trump and educators’ organizing power in the crucial swing state.
rethinking education & tech
Teaching Culture. As the pandemic has collided with protests for racial justice, parents are looking for answers. Charging in with a solution is Steven Wolfe Pereira, CEO and co-founder of Encantos, the award-winning entertainment ed-tech company that offers both physical and online bilingual (English and Spanish) education products for elementary-age children. Its app has videos and interactive books that teach not just the obvious subjects, like phonics and math, but also delve into music and social awareness. Read more on OZY.
Tutor, AI. When students enter UC Berkeley unprepared for college-level math, they aren’t sent to a remedial classroom but to ALEKS, an adaptive tutor that can assess readiness and instantly adapt the curriculum. One company called Cell-Ed offers cell-phone based courses of study, with a mix of AI and live teachers. AI tutors are proliferating even more during the pandemic, and they could be a critical component to solving the financial woes in the American education system by reducing teacher workloads and helping make higher ed cheaper.
Sex Ed at Home. Sex education remains a touchy subject, and only a little more than half of U.S. states require it in schools. But successive surveys in recent years have shown a growing appetite among parents nationwide for sex education for their kids. And the apps that have emerged in response — from Planned Parenthood and others — are uniquely positioned to work as the teachers whom teenagers turn to for age-appropriate information on puberty, sexuality, consent and how to foster healthy relationships. During the pandemic, they’re taking off even more. Read more on OZY.
Bitmoji Classrooms. As they try to bring some life to the remote learning experience, teachers are creating cartoon versions of themselves using the app Bitmoji, and then utilizing other design tools to create a digital classroom. They’re putting time into decoration just as they would in their physical classroom, and students can interact with the space by, say, clicking on a bookshelf to get a reading assignment. But like anything on social media, the trend has drawn controversy from some administrators who say teachers should be spending less time on virtual decor and more on their lesson plans.
Looking for more cutting-edge trends? Check out the Future of Learning newsletter from our friends at the nonprofit newsroom The Hechinger Report.
reset america and schools
Teaching 1619. The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning 1619 Project, which seeks to reframe the start of U.S. history to the date the first African slaves arrived on American soil, was turned into a curriculum that is now taught in some 4,500 schools nationwide — a number that’s bound to grow after the recent protests sparked by George Floyd’s death. But the project has drawn hefty criticism from conservatives who cite historical inaccuracies and accuse it of sowing racial division. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) even introduced a bill to ban it from being taught in schools across the country.
Power to the Students. From a more diverse required reading list to structural reforms, students are increasingly stepping up to force change, with groups such as Diversify Our Narrative organizing online. At elite private schools, Black students are launching Instagram pages called “Black At …” for their particular school, documenting injustice and airing grievances. At the university level, students have more power as paying customers — and athletes in particular as revenue generators. They’re starting to flex that muscle, with demands from athletes in the Pac 12 and Big Ten conferences that mix health and safety with racial and economic justice, combined with a threat not to play if their demands aren’t met.
Teaching the Teachers. Stacy Johnson spent decades in the classroom witnessing injustice, but it took researching her dissertation to quantify how the environment can be inherently racist. For example, how behaviors natural to Black students (e.g., call-and-response, interruption) are dismissed as rude, squeezing the “Africanness” out of them. Now Johnson is on a mission to teach the next generation of teachers how to take a new tack. Read more on OZY.
South African Shift. An eruption of protests at South Africa’s most elite schools is targeting the racism experienced by Black students, teachers and parents. The entire class of final-year high school students at Bishops in Cape Town has submitted a petition calling out “systemic oppression.” Parents at St. Mary’s DSG in Pretoria have gathered at the school, holding placards saying things like “I cannot pay for my child to be oppressed.” And an Instagram account, @yousilenceweamplify, has highlighted nearly 300 heart-wrenching testimonials from Black students across the country. Read more on OZY.
- Daniel Malloy, OZY AuthorContact Daniel Malloy