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Current state of affairs in K-12 Learning

School closures prompted a national awakening no one asked for, but perhaps presented a reckoning we all needed.

Within days schools and businesses were shut down. Work and learning shifted to the home for families nationwide. Curriculum was moved online by teachers within a matter of hours in an attempt to provide continuity of educational opportunities for their students in a virtual learning environment. Was it perfect? Far from it. Was it an impressive achievement? Absolutely.

The secret to this transition was the willingness of every stakeholder to be flexible and understanding. This was triage. It was crisis schooling. Everyone did their best.

Parents, teachers, students and administrators entered bravely into the unknown. No one knew what blended learning or distance learning would look like, but we donned virtual armor and bought wireless routers by the case determined to combat Coronavirus and support our communities throughout this difficult time.

As time went on, stress heightened and anxiety set in. The digital divide became glaring. Some students disappeared from school participation entirely while entire communities suffered economically.

There were many questions and no real, actionable answers:

- Why isn’t there a consistent virtual learning platform amongst schools?

- How will students be assessed, graded and rated?

- What if students aren’t completing their assignments?

- Will high-stakes exams still be administered this year?

- How can I motivate children to attend in a virtual learning environment?

- What if families lack access to the internet and required technology?

The above was answered with the standard (and honest) response of “I don’t know.” There were no answers to the growing mass of queries.

Parents and teachers alike were flummoxed at how best to proceed balancing learning expectations and workload. Children missed their friends. Teachers were overwhelmed. Parents felt pressured.

Officials watched their constituency devolve into shades of chaos. Aside from school closures, there was a parallel and overwhelming demand for funding to assist schools and families. Party politics became more defined before our very eyes. Americans watched daily press conferences like a tennis match: tilting our heads as blame shifted from party-to-party.

As summer peaked, those who previously considered “back-to-school” a rite of passage are now wondering if returning will ever be possible. Is a blended learning classroom now the norm?

Progressive thought leaders are asking: should it be?

We are at a crossroads.

With a return to in-person schooling questionable and reopening plans unveiled on a state-by-state basis, we are now operating with the precious little time we have to reflect and improve upon blended learning strategies for the best fall possible.

Our nation must now reconcile how to balance prosperity and safety in an era of global pandemic.

The economy appears to need a full in-person reopening plan so children have a safe place to go while parents work. School districts become defensive at the notion of their function as predominantly a daycare. Rather, they counter, they are fundamental institutions of learning and should be respected as such. Teachers are now placed in the impossible position of returning to the career they love or sacrifice their health by returning prematurely to the classroom. The one point of agreement is this: our nation’s trajectory is very much dependent on a well-educated and soundly literate citizenry.

We are at an impasse. Proposed reopening plans, rather full in-person, hybrid, or full remote, are met with countless objections claiming neither blended learning nor virtual classrooms are equivalent to their full in-person cousin, the economy needs its labor force to return, and teachers deserve to feel secure in their work environment.

Schools drafting their reopening plans are simultaneously juggling budget cuts and staff shortages while navigating the requirements of teachers unions, Executive Orders, health organizations, and (honestly) archaic regulations which were not written, nor are they well-suited, for schooling in a pandemic.

No one can explain how this should be done or what it should look like. Opinions are voluminous, but often not practical. There is precious little guidance available within this growing cacophony of voices. For every solution arrived at, two more problems arise.

Parents are fraught with anxiety about the possibility of continuing to work from home while simultaneously teaching their children. Will their employers fall victim to the increasing number of corporations expressing “compassion fatigue”? Or will they embrace the cost saving measures associated with remote work and make the position permanent? Alas, there is no crystal ball.

Certainly some adults have embraced the opportunity to work remotely, but others desperately await a return to normality and a quiet office space. Meanwhile, employers are recognizing the value of the previously unrecognized benefits of having a remote workforce. Office space is expensive and many employees have found productive success with remote work. Employees who are parents with young children have the largest and most disproportionate workload with the newly added burden of becoming a supplementary teacher in addition to their career. Work-life balance has become blurred.

When school buildings closed, families wrestled with the uncertainty and confusion brought on by remote learning developed by teachers with little-to-no experience in online education. While virtual learning and video conferencing was offered, few believe it was as impactful as in-person educational experiences had been in the past.

Kids missed their friends right away. Then they began to miss their teachers. As the school year wound down they realized how much they missed receiving a robust education.

Several issues presented themselves right away:

- Students had to rapidly learn basic academic behaviors to thrive in a virtual learning environment (think time management, email composition and an organized work space).

- Many students, for the first time, recognized what their true learning style was — and whether or not virtual learning fulfilled their needs. Auditory and visual learners excelled and didn’t understand why others had an issue with distance learning. Tactile learners craved science labs and collaborative problem solving. Typically instructional activities embedded varied learning styles, but that was difficult-to-impossible to replicate virtually especially over video conferencing software.

- Children were accustomed to collaborative work. If they had a question they raised a hand and received a quick answer from their teacher. Virtual learning required problems to be solved independently and questions to be sent via email in hopes of receiving a timely response.

- While in school, children negotiated within peer groups to determine team action roles. Often, these consisted of delineating a team leader, secretary, speaker and time-keeper. In a classroom these responsibilities are debated, argued and established together. During virtual instruction or blended learning students are expected to fill each one of these roles independently from the comfort of their bedroom. That’s a dynamic pedagogical change in a short period of time.

- Teachers struggled with virtual conference platforms and blended learning strategies. There was insufficient time, resources, and professional development. Some instructors had never sat through an online course let alone design one. Platforms like Onepgr, Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams became normalized verbs overnight. While some teachers opted for synchronous (live) instructional time with their students, others recorded lectures through their chosen virtual conferencing software and made themselves available for office hours to provide additional flexibility for students.

It was impossible to satisfy everyone in the Spring and it remains improbable any reopening plan will be satisfying to those craving “normalcy”. The only universal aspect here is positive intentions and the acknowledgement that normal is no longer on the menu.

But we can make it work

Administrative leadership teams across the nation are now grappling to establish a game plan based on guidance from the CDC, state health departments and elected officials.

There are three common options: full in-person, hybrid and remote learning designed with the built-in flexibility to switch between the three overnight. Ultimately, the health and safety of students and staff is the priority.

We must recognize the truth inherent in every reopening plan: remote learning is here to stay in some capacity.

Rather than argue, let’s embrace the practice and improve upon it. Done well, virtual learning can be a dynamic, engaging experience for students.

Imagine the power of blending recorded and live experiences. Utilizing high quality video software with interactive features. Immediate feedback and the autonomy to work at one’s own pace. The integration of AI and machine learning into educational software and web apps allows teachers to answer questions instantly and assess student performance on assigned tasks. Imagine courses which are entirely student paced. Upon demonstrating proficiency they can move on to more challenging material. If they are struggling with key concepts new formative tasks can be automatically administered assessing the same targeted objectives. The entire time parents can effortlessly view progress, communicate with teachers, and understand their children’s present levels of progress.

Now is the time to be visionary. The past offers us lessons and we must learn from them. Now is the time to develop engaging, dynamic lessons integrating all learning styles and students’ needs. We can do this — and we can do this well while protecting the health and safety of our nation’s students.



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