Education in the Age of Pandemic
- June 11, 2020
- Posted by: Olga Werby
- Category: Supermarket Science Background
Everywhere we turn, the stories from families, teachers, students, and schools on what happened in the last few months of the Spring 2020 semester are not encouraging. We might have helped “level the curve” by keeping our kids at home, but the educational outcomes for the students have been unimpressive, to say the least. So what do we do next?
Now that it is summer and our kids are on school break, we should consider problems and solutions carefully. We have a few weeks to think things through. We can hope that there won’t be a second wave for COVID-19, but we should plan like it is definitely coming. [ref: https://www.bluezones.com/2020/06/covid-19-straight-answers-from-top-epidemiologist-who-predicted-the-pandemic/]
Decisions made in the first few days after quarantine shouldn’t dictate how we move forward.
When the stay at home orders were given, schools had to scramble to figure something out in a hurry. Those decisions, made in haste, were not based on the best alternatives or even the most relevant educational research. The only thing that mattered was whether it was doable with the resources people had on hand. Whole districts scrambled to get every kid access to some sort of a computing device and get them online — that was the only way, right? It was a heroic effort.
But what is done in haste is never done well. We can and must do better for our children, for our families, and for our teachers. And that might mean giving up on the factory approach to education. Not all kids learn the same. Not all kids care about the same things. And now that we can’t have them all stuffed into the same building, into the same classroom, doing the same worksheets, we need to consider that perhaps trying to replicate the experience of a school designed to pop out factory workers might not be ideal for the modern-day labor challenges.
We’ve all gone through the school factory, so we recognize the scripts. We know what it feels like to go to school. We even know how it smells like. And it’s hard to let go of something so familiar and comforting. We have been taught over and over again what to expect from our communal education, and now we are just pushing the same norms forward onto the next generation of learners. But it is misguided. Our work environment has changed drastically in the last century, why shouldn’t our school environments change too? Why propagate the system that doesn’t serve the realities of the 21st century workplace? When environment is in flux and everything is disturbed from equilibrium — as it is now, in the age of global pandemic — large scale changes are easier to implement. The strong inertia to keep the status quo is gone. And changes that seemed unthinkable just months ago become something that we are seriously able to consider. This is the advantage of chaos.
If nothing is done, child education will again be dropped on the shoulders of mothers.
For decades, we have been using schools as babysitting services. Who would mind our children when we go to work if not schools? Without opening schools, we really can’t even begin talking about opening up the economy. For people to go to work, the kids need to go to school.
Over the years, we have burdened our schools with not only teaching our kids the basic ABCs and 123s, but with providing nutrition, and socialization, and psychological support, and family services support, and a dozen of other things in addition to basic education. Schools are one of the most indispensable pillars of our social contract. We have lots of expectations from our investment in education, public or private. When kids “go bad” we blame the schools.
We start schools early so parents can go to work. We end schools late to make it easier to fit with the labor market schedules and expectations. Schools have evolved to be the most necessary support structure to allow both parents to go to work. The demands of our economy are such that both parent need to work. One salary isn’t enough to support a family. And we no longer live with grandparents or extended family members who can assist with babysitting to allow both parents to work. But since women still make only about 82% of man’s salary, [ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_pay_gap_in_the_United_States] [ref: https://www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap], the person who will stay home with the kids when the schools don’t reopen will be moms. And just like that, this pandemic will reinforce gender roles and set back women’s careers years.
Moms will stay home to mind their kids during school closures and pay the price of loss of professional advancement and development. If we don’t do anything to change this, this will become the default. But again, this doesn’t have to be. We can make different choices.
There is inequality in educational access and opportunity that will be exacerbated by the pandemic.
Amidst school closures, there will be kids who will get their Associate Degrees in Middle School and those who will lose years of scholarship.But there has always been inequality in education. Even when kids are in the same classroom, those students with better-educated parents will do better educationally. Not only do better educated place a higher premium on education, but they tend to earn more. The kids from well to do families (again those with higher education) won’t be going to school hungry or sick. The “lucky” kids have tutors and homework help. They go to “smart” camps. They are even more likely identified as gifted. Education, especially public education, has never been a level playing field.
The research is clear: Parents who are more highly educated give their children the benefit of educational role models and economic stability that will help them go on to complete more education and land fulfilling careers. — https://degree.lamar.edu/articles/undergraduate/parents-education-level-and-childrens-success/
Educated parents have educated kids. Genes aren’t the reason. — https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2018/09/10/educated-parents-have-educated-kids-genes-aren-reason/3LRRnotV5RPxmwEJ4ssf6M/story.html
Even the presence of a library at home makes a difference to how much reading kids do: “A ‘million word gap’ for children who aren’t read to at home.” — https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190404074947.htm
And what now? Even all the libraries are all closed. Where are kids who don’t have parents ready and able to order books for them to get their reading material? It might not seem like much, but many kids can survive a short gap in school education by reading. But those who might have problems getting books? What is the solution for them?
And reading is but small (even if very important) difference. Highly educated parents can jump into the roles of teachers as their kids are left figuring out how to do schoolwork at home and learn difficult concepts on their own. Some kids will have parents who can take time off from work and explain the material to them. Some kids won’t have that luxury. Many kids that struggle at school have parents who struggle with English. The outcomes of “learning from home” won’t be the same. There will be a huge gap in outcomes.
And those who say that the Internet is the answer to all things have not experienced trying to show a twelve year old how to make a text block large enough to type in their answer into a Google Classroom assignment page. What was done in haste cannot become the default going forward.
Internet and online learning is the answer for some kids, for those same kids that would be okay no matter what. Those kids whose parents can take time off to show them how to do long division or set them up in front of the Khan Academy video on their spare computer system.
When there are multiple kids at home, requiring computers and educational support, who gets access to parents’ time? How do parents juggle their own workloads and schedules in addition to their kids’? How many parents have multiple computer workstations and enough bandwidth to accommodate everyone’s online needs? The answer is that for some kids, these last few months were educational deserts. [ref: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/tale-two-zip-codes-covid-19-exposes-deep-disparities-u-n1227646]
Assess to education is just not equal for all children. If we don’t acknowledge this, we won’t be looking for the right solutions.
We know to expect multiple waves of quarantine until we have a vaccine, which won’t be widely available even under the best of circumstances until 2022.
Many parents and school districts have plans to open schools in the Fall of 2020. And that’s good, hopeful. But we have to acknowledge that we are sending teachers and school staff into the frontline battle with COVID-19. And they will have to do this without any protective gear or support. And even if teachers show up in masks and gloves, do we really expect 5 and 6-year-olds to conform to the high level of hygiene at school? In my kids’ elementary school, not only was soap barred due to possible ingestion by students, but hot water was turned off as well, deemed a safety hazard. And will all students be required to wear masks and gloves? What happens when they take them off? Or they fall off? Or the kid simply loses the mask somewhere? Can teachers enforce PPE wearing in their first-grade classrooms? What happens when a kid doesn’t comply, not because they are being difficult but because they are eight and the mask feels bad (or they accidentally dropped it into their lunch and it is now covered in goo)?
And, most importantly, what happens when schools have to be closed abruptly again because too many kids or teachers are too sick to show up?
Without well-developed treatment or vaccine, school closures will be part of our lives for some time to come. We can hide from this fact or we can look for solutions that work. For solutions that are fair, equitable, and doable.
Make schools, parents, and students partners in education.
We talk of schools and the communities they teach as being educational partners all the time. But this might be a good time to reassess this partnership. Parents’ role should not only be that of fundraisers for poorly funded schools. Schools shouldn’t be expected to step into the roles of social workers. We need clear definitions and expectations from all parties. This is especially necessary when students might end up having very limited face-to-face time with their teachers in the coming months.
One of the proposals we’ve heard about suggested reorganizing schools by cutting down on the length of the school day and creating shifts. Having multiple shifts will reduce the number of children per classroom and make some physical distancing possible. But this completely upends the parents need to have their children off their hands for a full workday. We have to think more creatively. And when teachers fall ill, shifts might not even be possible.
COVID is a difficult disease. True, some people are not very affected by it. But some not only get sick for a very long time, but get crippled with many months of recovery. In fact, we don’t really know what happens to people who recovered from a severe form of COVID long-term. We have very little experience with this disease. We can hope that teachers who get sick quickly recover and return to their students. But we have to plan like this might not be how it will work out. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
So what can schools look like in the age of pandemic? Consider babysitting co-ops for a moment.
Babysitting co-ops rethought in the age of pandemic.
Some of our friends solved the modern-day daycare conundrum by organizing babysitting co-cops: a bunch of families banded together to spread the childcare responsibilities over a week. If there are five families in a co-op, then each family takes responsibility for ALL kids once a week. All the kids get picked up from school and ushered by the designated adult who then feeds them, oversees homework completion, and supervises free play time until the parents pick up their respective kids on the way home from work. There are endless permutations of this arrangement, but in all situations, each family gets enough days off from childcare so that both parents could work productively. It’s easier to handle one day with a bunch of kids than 5 days in a row with just your own. And the kids in babysitting co-ops bond and form life-long friendships. And older kids get to help out with the younger, taking responsibility and learning by teaching — age difference becomes a plus, an asset. It’s a win-win situation.
Canada realized that it was virtually impossible for a family with young children to manage the COVID pandemic quarantine in isolation. Kids needed to socialize, and adults needed some time off from their kids. So for the duration of the pandemic, Canada allowed families to bond into pandemic units — two families sign a contract to be exclusive socially with only each other for company. Everyone in the family signed a contract, including the kids. This created a pressure valve — shopping, cooking, date nights, school, work, all became a little more manageable. It was an ingenious solution, the solution that looked at the problem from outside the box. [ref: https://globalnews.ca/news/6892531/coronavirus-double-bubble-canada/]
We have to think about educating our children with the same ingenuity. Yes, we are in the middle of summer break (which in itself is a problem for many families as the kids don’t have good and safe summer camp options). And for anyone who thinks that working and minding kids at the same time is just a matter of better management, there are hundreds of “funny” videos up on the web about children demanding their parents’ attention in the midst of important Zoom meetings. Childcare and education are full-time jobs. We are asking parents not only to do their jobs but to also balance the demands of their children. We are asking them to do it without any preparation, without giving them tools, even without explaining to them the goals for the schoolwork we forcing them to manage. This is not a recipe for educational success or even psychological well-being.
I heard from a teacher who had to learn new tools, reorganize their whole teaching methodology, and develop online curriculum over one weekend to accommodate two dozen second-graders. We are asking our teachers to become something other than educators. They are now schoolwork managers, tech support, and social workers all rolled into one very stressed out and overworked individuals. It’s not sustainable long-term without providing ample support to these teachers and to their students at home.
So we need to rethink this. We need to take everything that’s “bad” about teaching from home and turn it on its head — find the buried opportunities.
Creating homeschool kid co-operatives.
What if we set up family co-ops for education? What if we allowed small groups of kids to band together to receive educational support from their school districts under the watchful eyes of their parents? With five families (even with kids of different ages), this would allow an almost complete workweek for all the parents as they take responsibility for teaching everyone’s kids on one day a week.
And we don’t need to insist on having five subjects every day. A parent that is good at art, can teach art to everyone. A parent who is good at math can focus on that subject area. We don’t have to make parents invent curriculum, we just need to make them educational partners and give them the tools to succeed under the watchful support of their kids’ teachers.
Parents are not substitutes for teachers; and we shouldn’t expect them to fall into that role. But parents can support their kids through their educational journey. We shouldn’t expect parents to teach calculus. But the hard job for kids learning from home is managing their time and educational resources. That kind of metacognitive work only develops with a lot of practice, and most students don’t even get there until they are in college. So we shouldn’t be asking elementary school aged kids to “manage” their education from home. We can offload that metacognitive task on the supervising parent. To do that, we need to give parents tools to control their own time and the time of the children to be productive learners.
We have been providing educational support to schools and museums for decades. When we ran Supermarket Science Curriculum inside a school, we have noticed that parents were reluctant to volunteer in the classroom. When we investigated, it turned out that a lot of people felt uncomfortable with the uncertainty of their tasks. They didn’t want to appear the fool in front of their kids; they didn’t want to commit to tasks that were beyond their physical ability (ex: moving furniture); they didn’t want to give up their work or free time just to hang out and feel useless. The way to get parents to volunteer for science projects and other activities was to be specific — “we need two parents to help with messy clean up from 2:30 to 3:00” or “we need a family to defrost 1800 squids over the weekend”. Parents need to be able to plan and previsualize how their volunteer efforts would look like. It is true of classroom volunteers as it is at home. If parents don’t understand the goals and what’s expected, or how to plan their time around a particular activity, they won’t engage with it. Well, that’s true for most parents. But we need all parents to participate if we want all kids to learn from home while it is not safe for them to learn at school. It’s not enough to say, “here, make your children learn this.” We have to explain where the materials fit in the larger skim of things.
And an interesting side effect of our decades-long work with public schools was that we noticed not only the increased participation by the parents in the science and math activities we introduced into the schools, but also we saw improvement in parents’ and guardians’ scientific literacy. There is nothing like teaching someone the subject to make it your own, to incorporate the subject matter into your own knowledge base. We encouraged asking questions and debating answers. By modeling such behaviors, the outcomes for students improved. And the outcomes for parents as well. Adults have to make life-changing decisions based on data that are incomplete or even false. The ability to question one’s sources of information and using deductive and inductive tools to reason out a complicated set of conditions is just as important in life as it is in school. (Should I get this medical treatment? Should I refinance my house? Is this person really the authority on the subject as they present themselves to be?)
How would this work?
- Set expectations for everyone in the family.
- Make the goals of education explicit to all involved: students, parents, teachers.
- Make rewards clear, easily understood, and very visible to everyone.
- Make schoolwork meaningful — kids know as well as adults when they are asked to do busywork.
- Allow kids to follow passions — that’s one of the limitations of public education (or any system that has more than one student). But when kids are learning from home? We can give freedom for kids to explore subjects in depth because they don’t have to group learn or learn to the lowest denominator.
- Set up regular homeschool visits that allow the teachers to encourage and keep track of progress and help parents resolve difficulties with instruction. During the pandemic, teachers were finally giving one-on-one time to kids as a regular matter — capitalize on it. Make it a positive for teachers and students.
- Give curriculum to the families and teach them how to use it. We developed Supermarket Science Curriculum to do just that.
- And finally, we can pay parents to homeschool kid co-operatives. This will help not only families who will get additional income, not only schools administrators who will require parents to be responsible for their work, not only teachers who will be able to form professional bonds with parents, but schools who have to be held accountable for each child that falls behind.
This pandemic is forcing us to rethink how to teach our kids. We can ignore this chance and allow millions of students to fall behind. Or we can embrace a different way forward. School co-ops is but one idea. There will be many other solutions. Supermarket Science Materials is but a one set of possible materials that gives parents and students a chance to control their educational needs. There will be others. We can embrace many of them at the same time — when freed from the bounds of school districts’ indicts, we can do amazing things with our kids. There are as many paths to becoming an educated adult as there are people. This period of chaos might give us the opportunity to try something new.