Education from Afar

Written By Levi DeCroce


It’s the spring of 2022, my graduation from East High School. It is the first graduation ceremony in three years like before Coronavirus, before our society entered  a new era. There was, of course, a second wave of the virus, which came near the end of 2020. We were forced to spend most of that school year learning and living remotely. We could not go to our school, we could not even see our friends in person.

Finally, a vaccine was created in the fall of 2021. It came just in time to avoid a third wave. With public health in mind, the government was able to distribute it quickly, but a lot of people still died of COVID-19 this past winter. Now our society is slowly reopening, for good this time. This graduation ceremony is one of the first big gatherings at our school since we reopened. Looking out at the audience, however, I don’t see faces, but masked faces. To avoid catching or spreading diseases like COVID-19, people have taken to wearing masks whenever they go out. This was already fairly commonplace in parts of Asia, and it seems the coronavirus brought the practice here.

We are now in the aftermath of coronavirus, and the biggest shift from before is the economic strife that surrounds us. Record numbers of people are out of work. The jobs aren’t coming back fast enough. Governments have tried to help, but too often their efforts reach too few. We are in the midst of a full-blown economic depression, and it will be years before we recover. 

But Coronavirus has not been all bad. With a common viral enemy, America’s gaping partisan divide has been mostly bridged. There are still those who find opposing views dangerous. When the virus was at its peak, there was a big push in several countries to seal off contact with others. But for the most part, this great challenge pushed parties, and countries, to work together. 

Another shift is that digital communication plays a larger role in our lives. We came to rely on it for school, work, and to stay in touch during the two years when coronavirus loomed large. With our society open again, we can see our friends in person, but a more prominent internet is here to stay. 

When COVID-19 first hit, the gap between those with and without internet connection was badly exposed. Fortunately, our society came together to balance this inequality. That allowed our school to function quite well over the internet during the second wave of coronavirus. We completed a good part of the past three school years remotely with ease. Many students even preferred to learn remotely. This caused some to push for online school to be made permanent, sparking rigorous debates over the 2022-23 school year and the future of education. 

CORONAVIRUS COULD CONTINUE

The imaginary scenario above would be a terrible path for the pandemic to take over the next two years. However, it is by no means the worst case scenario. More and more doctors, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, suggest that a second wave of the virus will hit next fall. Many states, including Colorado, are reopening. In the states that have not, protesters demand they do. This opens the floodgates for coronavirus to come rushing back in. 

The history of epidemics also points to a second wave, as almost all the outbreaks of the Black Death, as well as the Spanish Flu, had second waves. Some even had third and fourth waves. 

Worse, it is possible that after a person recovers from coronavirus, they don’t become immune to it. “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” the World Health Organization said on Apr. 24. This means we may never gain herd immunity to COVID-19. Herd immunity is when a large enough portion of the population is immune to the disease to mostly stop it from spreading. It is usually developed using a vaccine or after most of the population contracts the virus, but both would be impossible if having antibodies does not make a person immune. 

If a second wave and a lack of herd immunity both become actualities, we will be living with coronavirus for a long time. Many of the strategies currently in place to mitigate the virus will have to persist. This includes remote learning, as the online school quickly adopted to finish this school year could become the norm for the next.

RESPONSES IN EDUCATION ACROSS THE GLOBE

Around the world, school buildings have closed down due to the Coronavirus, and countries have switched to some form of learning from a distance. The most common strategy has been to simply transfer the remaining curriculum for the year online. Unlike the US, many countries operate a unified educational program for all their schools. This can make a shift like the one currently necessary an easier one to carry out. 

For example, the Indian government made a library of academic content. They also suggested a number platforms for online learning, as have the UK and other countries. The educational departments of the Chinese, Singaporean and Peruvian governments took it a step further and made their own online platforms for remote learning. The governments of some Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Yemen, even made their own education-specific Youtube channels. 

In many countries, the level of access to computers and the internet is far too low for online platforms like these to reach a large number of students. This is the case in many African countries, often with rural populations or high levels of poverty. Many people do own TVs, so education via TV is often viewed as the next best thing. Cameroon, Angola, Madagascar and others have turned to TV to educate their youth. In other countries still, radio was the go-to replacement for school buildings, and radio channels are now being used for the purposes of education in Niger, Nepal and others.

There is also a long list of countries using both online platforms and their national television programs to educate their students remotely. This is the strategy of Mexico, Colombia, Greece, Turkey, Senegal and Mongolia, countries all over the world.

ONLINE SCHOOL IN THE US

With few national guidelines, school districts in the United States each had to decide how to go about remote learning. They mostly settled on the plan of switching to online learning and doing their best to address the needs of their students without internet access. To meet this end, schools in Miami-Dade County distributed more than 11,000 wifi hotspots in the form of smartphones and more than 80,000 digital devices to act as computers for students to keep up with their school. Furthermore, schools in Los Angeles hope to dole out mobile devices to more than 100,000 of their students. 

In many areas, however, there are simply too many students disconnected from the internet for online platforms to be a realistic remote learning strategy. This is the case in a forested part of southern Ohio, near the border with Kentucky, where at least a quarter of students are not connected to the internet. The district there has had to print out hard copy work packets and hand them out to their students. They also distribute laptops, but they likely would not have enough to go around without the use of paper packets. 

In addition to devices and packets, school districts across the country are distributing meals to their students, and some to their students’ parents. In urban areas, including New York City, Chicago and Atlanta, as well as Denver, districts are making meals available at their schools. In rural areas, delivering meals to students and their families seems to be the more popular plan. Milwaukee Public Schools are using both strategies, with 20 pickup sites and 4 delivery vans, making sure their community stays well-fed.

Denver Public Schools (DPS), for its part, has made a fairly wide-reaching response to the coronavirus, with a focus on equity. Once the plan to switch to remote learning was put in place, the district began addressing the needs of the nearly ten percent of its students who lack access to a computer, the internet, or both. By mid-April, they spent about $3.6 million on more than 4,000 mobile hotspots and 9,000 new chromebooks, distributing almost 40,000 laptops in all. 

Many of the students lacking computer or internet access also rely on their school for breakfast and lunch five days of the week. And due to the economic impact of coronavirus, even more families are in need of food. DPS has, therefore, set up grab-and-go sites around the city to replace the schools in providing breakfast and lunch to students. In addition, families can pick up these meals for adults as well as meals for the weekends. 

THE CHALLENGES OF REMOTE LEARNING

Most of the responses to the coronavirus by DPS and other districts and countries, have primarily been concerned with two issues created by Covid-19: facilitating every student’s learning and nutrition. There are, however, a myriad of other questions created by coronavirus that need to be answered, especially if the 2020-2021 school year is also relegated to remote learning. An important one of these is the question of what happens to teachers during the lockdowns and remote learning. 

Teachers were certainly not trained to teach remotely, and many may find it difficult and quite stressful to transition to such a system. If coronavirus and the necessity for online learning persist, the question would also arise as to whether teachers should be paid differently for the new work of online teaching. It might also be proposed that classes of 30 kids should be consolidated into larger classes to reflect that physical classrooms are no longer used, which would drastically change the role of teachers who ordinarily teach 30-student classes. 

Another challenge could concern parents, who might now be asked to help teach their children. This could at times amount to homeschooling, something parents of kids who went to a school building before 2020 are not prepared for. If parents take more time to help their kids with school, it means they have to juggle extra responsibilities, which puts more stress on them. It could also put stress on their employer next year if they take time away from work to help their kids learn remotely. 

Probably the biggest problem for students, other than a lack of internet connection, is a lack of social connection. There is an overwhelming feeling of boredom in our society, particularly for children and young adults. When kids went to school, they would see hundreds of people every day: their friends, and even their enemies. Now almost all of that is gone, as they can spend time only with the same handful of people that they live with. There are video calls, but those simply do not amount to the level of social connection of attending school. This can leave students feeling a little depressed, especially if an entire year is spent this way, and they may lack the motivation to keep up with remote learning. 

Another issue is how to take attendance during the pandemic. Many schools decided to mark students present if they simply log in to an online portal, something that can take them mere seconds. It is clear that attendance during remote learning carries less meaning. Under normal circumstances, districts  allot funding for schools based on attendance. Many districts have therefore taken the step of unlinking funding from attendance in order to reflect this new environment for education. 

All of these are significant challenges that need to be overcome if remote learning is to be successful. But DPS’ response, at least for the two issues it was trying to solve, appears to be rather comprehensive. Detaching attendance and funding is also a common-sense solution. 

The scenario at the beginning of this article was somewhat pessimistic in terms of how long coronavirus will last. If this happens, remote learning would have to continue through next year, and even into the year after. However, it was optimistic in terms of how we might come together as a result of the challenging times. Problems in education could be more easily solved, with solutions in the spirit of this year’s remote learning plan in DPS. Instead of a flailing debacle, the 2020-2021 school year could actually go quite smoothly. If the issues are resolved and a large enough number of students, teachers, and parents prefer it to school years past, remote learning could be here to stay.