Plan now for return to school

(July 28, 2020)

You don’t have to be a parent of school-age children, or a teacher, to be worried about what will happen come September.

The summer months trickle away, and we have no more to go on than vague ideas about reduced classroom size, alternate school days, and expecting children — even teenagers — to embrace physical distancing instead of each other.

As caseloads soar in the United States, this educational paralysis needs to stop. We have to plan for the reality that either there will be no face-to-face teaching this fall, or whatever meagre attempts are begun in September, the wheels will quickly fall off and schools again will be closed.

Because it’s summer, we are keeping things under control, for now, so the push is on to return people to work — even if the government has to bribe them. In this political and economic climate, however, parents and teachers can expect no overt help from educational officials to prepare for the next school year. They need to make contingency plans of their own.

So, drawing upon my 30-plus years as a teacher and almost as many as a parent, here are some suggestions.

Sit down with your kids and make a list of what worked and what didn’t work in the spring. For both lists, figure out why, then ask what could be done to fix the problems. There may be answers that can be worked out over the summer (such as special study spaces, or new equipment, or better schedules), and other things that can’t be changed. Enlisting your kids’ help to analyze the situation will enable their co-operation, and may even offer solutions you hadn’t considered before.

Don’t assume distance education is automatically worse than face-to-face. It is different. In fact, it is really only missing two elements — touch (which we are not supposed to be doing anyway) and smell. Now, classroom odours might help students remember things better, but I’ll bet daily cookie-baking would be a better memory aid.

So, work with that difference. If you have the technological tools, there is much that can be done over the internet to engage students with more interactive learning (say, in math) than most would ever get in a physical classroom. Video tools can be used on tablets to have students interact with each other and with “teachers” (grandparents? Other relatives at a distance?) Reading out loud is easily supported that way — or if a telephone is required instead, a headset is a cheap addition.

If the kids have smartphones, they are an easy distraction, so boundaries of when to use them might be necessary — but they can also be used for making videos, researching assignments and lots of other (supervised) interactive activities.

Most importantly, don’t assume your kids will “fall behind” in this next year — whatever that means. Survey the curriculum with a critical eye, and you will find that, apart from basic math, reading and writing skills, the information they learn is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, even Grade 12 sciences are normally retaught “the right way” in first-year university courses… making Grade 4 science more fun to do than life-altering if it is missed.

If Manitoba Education started grappling with real-world pandemic issues, the department should announce right now that once the vaccine is available, students will be able to get credit for their missed grades by passing a challenge exam on the materials required for that level — and then circulate a study guide for parents to follow.

Even without that, focusing on the real 3R basics (reading, writing and ’rithmetic) would still be an important way of improving your kids’ educational outlook and opportunities. The pandemic may, in fact, offer a blessing in disguise — and, for once, make the digital divide irrelevant.

Over the years, I have seen a substantial decline in literacy — not just the inevitable complaints about students’ inability to write, but especially a decline in their ability to read. Parents are partly to blame — check around your house, and count the books there… and then count how many books your children have seen you read yourself, in the last year.

The inability to read quickly is disastrous in any field of study. So, can’t afford the new computer? Lousy internet? Get them to read books instead — any books will do. Simply words in a row.

A pandemic educational plan should include increasing your library. Perhaps we need a neighbourhood book swap every Sunday morning until fall, with books left at the curb. People whose kids are grown have lots of books; it is a matter of arranging safe local distribution, which could be organized over the summer through social media.

Make improved reading skills (and writing stories) the focus of home education this next year, and your kids will ace those exams in the fall of 2021, and beyond.

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