The schoolhouse doors are creaking open again, bringing excitement, relief and fear to pupils, parents and teachers alike. New York City, America’s largest school district, announced Monday that high schoolers will start returning to in-person instruction this month. Meanwhile, kids in corners as far flung as Northern Virginia, Germany and Kenya have been filing back into their classrooms. Will they be safe, or will it be a disaster? What lessons can be gleaned from earlier school openings around the globe? And how much will the “lost year” of education cost our kids? Class, it’s time to take your seats.
Isabelle Lee, Reporter
school’s in: lessons learned
1. Master Class in Equity
In Jamaica, school reopenings have been staggered not just by age but by the poverty and resources of their neighborhoods. Those without broadband access for effective remote learning got the first crack at returning to school. Trinidad and Tobago also split kids into those who can learn remotely and those who cannot. A reopening predicated on equity is worth another look even, and perhaps especially, in far richer nations.
2. More Than Learning
Catching up on instruction after months of less-effective remote lessons will be paramount as schools reopen, and it’s far easier to enforce social distancing in a classroom than when kids are playing with one another. But educators shouldn’t let academics become the only focus. A couple of months after Japan reopened its schools in June, nearly one-third of surveyed high school students said they were suffering from depression as a result of being kept inside and not participating in any activities beyond classes.
3. Grade Levels? What Grade Levels?
Without the strictures of classrooms, Botswana tried something daring when kids were learning via mobile phone: The country grouped students by reading and math mastery, rather than by age or grade. The result was a 31 percent improvement in basic math skills after four weeks. Botswana’s schools have reopened, but they’ve kept this approach in place.
4. The Shield
Students in Hangzhou, China, drew global attention for their funny social distancing hats last year, but the key to safe reopenings seems to be the basics we see in most other places: masks and plastic barriers. A recent study of outbreaks in Marietta, Georgia, schools found that lax masking played a role — and that teachers, by an overwhelming margin, were the superspreaders. The CDC recommends erecting physical barriers at places like reception desks and between bathroom sinks. Lunchtime, where masks come down to eat, can be especially problematic, so you might see lunch table barriers like those used in Lincoln, Nebraska, schools.
5. Rear Window
Outdoor classes are the best way to avoid transmission, but even opening the windows to classrooms can reduce COVID-19 spread, according to German scientists. Breathe in that frische luft — fresh (and hopefully virus-free) air.
6. An Open-and-Shut Case
The United Kingdom opened up schools in the fall only to close them again by Christmas as cases surged. An early study reveals that a full reopening could make the country’s caseload jump — reversing the declining rate of new cases — and yet this week the U.K. returned to full in-person instruction.
7. House Calls
Remote learning has often been accompanied by an epidemic of absenteeism, particularly in communities of color. Across 10 school districts in Ohio, chronic absenteeism among Black students jumped to 47 percent this fall. In Chicago and Detroit, attendance dropped 10 percentage points or more in the first week of school in September. Sometimes the solution is showing up for your students. By turning up at their students’ doorsteps to get them to log back on to remote learning, a group of middle school teachers in San Antonio have managed to maintain 99 percent attendance since winter break. That’s a full 8 percentage points higher than the district average.
K-12 educators in the U.S. reported a 69 percent satisfaction rate with their employers last year; now, the satisfaction rate has plunged to 44 percent, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. In all, 63 percent reported feeling stressed and 60 percent feel they are at high risk for contracting COVID-19, while 38 percent say working during the pandemic has made them contemplate a change of career.
2. Subs’ Way
As schools reopen, they’re relying more than ever on substitute teachers because of rules requiring instructors to stay home if they get sick or are exposed to the virus. Some states have resorted to lowering the requirements needed to be a sub. (In Missouri, for example, you now need only be a high school graduate.) These teacher shortages are hitting low-income students hardest as qualified teachers and subs often avoid high-poverty schools.
3. A Perfect Union
Cities and teachers unions are clashing across the country, with unions taking heat for not putting kids first. In many cases, teachers and their unions insist on a fully distributed vaccine or even herd immunity before returning to the classroom. Many states are prioritizing teachers to get the vaccine, but the regulations — and the speed of distribution — vary widely. While polling data shows public support for teachers and their unions holding steady, the disagreements around teachers unions have become more heated — with life, death and parental sanity on the line.
4. How Soon Is Limbo Over?
While most adults can look forward to getting the vaccine soon, elementary school-age kids are a different story. A children’s vaccine is not expected until 2022, as Pfizer and Moderna are in the midst of testing vaccines on those 12 and older — with tests on younger children to follow only after results come back for teens. Many educators are preparing for at least part of the 2021-22 school year to be remote again, even as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that all schools will be fully open come September. Skepticism on a full reopening is coming from school district leaders and teachers unions across the country.
5. Time Out
We’ve seen pro and college sports return, but high school athletic competition is much harder to wrangle — resulting in some ups and downs. In January, a Louisiana wrestling match triggered an outbreak of cases after the high school students’ families and friends ignored social distancing protocols. Missing sports seasons makes it harder for teens to win college scholarships and impacts their mental health. Meanwhile, America’s localized approach to virus management means that just a few minutes’ drive across the Texas-New Mexico state line can mean the difference between having football or not.
This week on The Carlos Watson Show, we’re highlighting the pioneers — industry titans who have changed their field and are blazing their own path. Today, he’s the billionaire who needs no introduction: Bill Gates talks to Carlos about the pandemic, the future of public health, his take on Black Lives Matter and the most innovative tech companies today. You might be surprised by which celebrity he says is the most interesting person he’s met.
When COVID-19 forced schools to shutter last March, children around the world — especially girls — lost access to school, with disastrous consequences. In Malawi, a gender violence hotline reported that child marriages increased 83 percent from March to May of last year, and rape (a statistic closely tied to child marriage) increased by 151 percent. Advocates in Asia estimate that the pandemic spurred tens of thousands of child marriages in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, India and Vietnam, where these unions are part of the culture.
2. Who Won’t Return?
The pandemic has forced many girls out of school to help their families make ends meet during the economic hardship of COVID-19, with some even turning to sex work. For those who find themselves pregnant, resuming their education might not be an option. In countries like Sierra Leone, where pregnant girls have only recently been allowed to attend school and teen pregnancies have more than doubled, girls disappear from the classroom and fail to return. In sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent pregnancy is threatening to block 1 million girls from returning to school.
3. Long-Term Effects
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that COVID-related lockdowns lasting six months could result in 7 million unintended pregnancies, and 13 million child marriages could take place in the next decade. The lack of access to education, higher rates of forced marriages and unintended pregnancies all serve to widen the poverty gap between men and women, as female global poverty is expected to increase by 9.1 percent due to the pandemic — reversing an earlier anticipated decrease.
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The U.K. might just have cracked the code on helping kids catch up. Last fall, it launched a program that funds schools to hire tutors for two years to help disadvantaged kids make up for the lost time. There are scattered subsidized programs in the U.S., but the demonstrated success of tutoring is leading to calls for a national tutoring corps.
2. Library Closures
When U.S. public libraries closed a year ago, 24 percent of young adults lost their main source of internet. People who rely on public libraries for Wi-Fi access use them for educational purposes like completing assignments or doing research. Those most affected tend to be male, non-native-English-speaking people of color who live in urban areas. Now libraries are moving toward providing services at home such as e-reading and even internet access.
Dear parents of toddlers: Everything is going to be OK. At least according to Amy Learmonth, a psychology professor at William Paterson University of New Jersey, who reassures parents that social development happens within the family as much as it does at preschool, and your kiddo will be able to catch up when they go back to school. If you notice changes like your toddler becoming more clingy, that’s normal. “Toddlers’ whole goal in life is to keep their caregiver close, which is why they do so many of the unattractive things they do,” Learmonth told CNN. “So, in some ways, the necessities of the pandemic have given them exactly what they want.”
4. The Decline of Kindergarten
Public school kindergarten enrollment was down 16 percent this year across 60 districts in 20 U.S. states. For the children who attended — either in person or remotely, they will likely struggle to adjust to first grade. Experts encourage parents and educators to be patient with kids as they adjust to fully in-person learning and support them as they get used to seeing the smiling faces under the masks. And many may choose not to go, with a nationwide surge in homeschooling and many parents considering sticking with it once the doors open again.
5. Lock and Key
Frustrated at your family’s lockdown restrictions? It could be worse. Way worse. Consider the Philippines, where children have not been allowed to leave their homes for the past year. Fear of the virus spreading in multigenerational homes led to perhaps the world’s longest ultra-strict lockdown, and while it has tamped down case numbers compared to many other parts of the world, those numbers have been rising sharply in recent days — to more than 3,000 per day. Authorities say it’s because people are becoming lax about restrictions.