Ken: If we can ignore for a bit the pointless political theater goings-on in the U.S. Senate, the biggest news right now is that the CDC has decided on a scientific basis that it’s time for the kids to go back to school, and they have provided guidelines for doing so: No surprises there — masks, social distancing, hand washing, and testing and contact tracing. At last, a hopeful sign that we are over the hump. No school for children has been one of the biggest disruptors of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have they missed a year of education, but someone has to stay home with the kids. Even parents who can work remotely from home have to deal with a major distraction. As for remote learning, presumably we will have metrics informing us about the success or failure of the alternative to being in a classroom. So, all that’s left is to get the teacher’s unions to sign on to the plan. This might prove to be a roadblock, partly because the teachers, for the most part, have been paid while the schools have been closed. Therefore, there is not much incentive to go back into a crowded classroom and risk coming down with the bug.
Joe: There were approximately 50.5 million USA public school students that entered prekindergarten through grade 12 in the fall 2020. Because of the pandemic most have had to endure (in whole or in part) almost a year of remote learning. States are dealing with a wide array of approaches regarding in-person instruction and remote learning. In Illinois, districts decide whether to open school buildings, and by the way, interruptions exist. If they reopen, most schools shutter again for up to 10 days or kids are told to quarantine at home for 14 days, if positive COVID-19 cases are detected in the building.
So, what we have is a roller coaster of emotions (optimism and despair) for family members and students. Much confusion exists and experiences differ. My grandson (a first grade Chicago Public School kid) is holed up in one of our rooms in our house attending classes remotely. He has been doing remote learning since the school year started. He sits at a desk with a laptop computer in front of him. He is lucky (gets special attention) because only one parent works. Thus, the other, his mother, sits next to him to assist and help him navigate. I have been in the room attending some of the classes, becoming familiar with his learning environment but not intruding. It has given me a once in a lifetime chance to hang with him in first grade. My view is that most elementary kids struggle without the structure and interaction found in physical classrooms. Left to their own devices, they get restless. After 6-8 hours one can detect fatigue and brain fog. He takes gym. I see him hopping up and down on a yoga mat doing exercises, thinking about the fun he could have if he were surrounded by other kids. The entire experience is different by schools and working families. Then there are students with unreliable computer and internet issues. The impact of technology on education is much more complicated than people and the tech world think. Not all children will emerge unscathed. So, what suggestions do you have to get parents and students through this? Can we agree that no issue is more important in this country than the education of our students, getting them through school and hopefully through college without a lot of debt?
Ken: One gargantuan issue at a time. Perhaps student debt and the high cost of higher education is fodder for a future effort. As it happens, sadly, my oldest grandchild is a freshman at “Costly College” this year. Her classes are mostly virtual, to be monitored in her dorm room or library carrel. She even gets her piano lessons through a Zoom connection. There are no parties, dances, mixers, and up to now, no sports. What is college without socialization and new friends, and football and basketball games? I’m hearing that she is feeling discouraged. And that poses the question whether today’s urban K-12 kids will ever get to college — or will want to for that matter. The public school teachers have a legitimate concern. However, our COVID experience has demonstrated that school age kids rarely show serious symptoms when infected and often are totally asymptomatic. Nevertheless, one can presume that when they test positive, symptoms or not, they will be a threat to adult teachers. On the other hand, experience with urban charter and private schools, which have largely already reopened, seems to indicate that classroom teaching can be managed safely. In Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot has been negotiating with the teacher’s union and it has been reported that they have a tentative deal to start classes soon. Presumably, they will be following the new CDC guidelines. Your grandson might soon take a step toward getting back to normal.
Joe: I am a lawyer with little expertise in education. My personal view is that the role of teacher and human interactions with students is irreplaceable and at the heart of making future minds and improving education. We need to recruit the best teachers, pay them well and give them the freedom to become better. Digital education has its disadvantages, but let’s face it. Online-learning will be required at least to some degree for a long time to come. So, we bring in technology. With income divisions, both parents working, limited access to the internet in many areas and unreliable computing equipment with some, we are still searching for appropriate methods for adapting schools to ongoing pandemic demands. The shortcomings of governments in not investing resources in education and students are apparent.
Ken: Since you mention investing in education, I thought it was strange that no pay raise was involved in the new Chicago Teacher’s Union deal, which seems totally about managing in-person teaching in the face of the ongoing pandemic. Then I remember that negotiator Lightfoot had awarded the CTU a 14 percent raise amounting to $1.5 billion in the summer of 2019. It costs the Chicago Public Schools about $17,000 per student per year.