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Inside a Back-to-School Season Unlike Any Other

Girl learning remotely

Fall semester is here, and schools in most districts are back in session. However, “in session” means something very different in 2020 than it has in the past. Only a small percentage of schools are resuming full face-to-face learning, and even those schools will have new restrictions like masks, temperature checks, and social distancing. The vast majority of students are heading “back” to remote learning. Recent data from the Census Bureau suggest that over three quarters of public school students have had their classes moved to a distance-learning format. How will this unusual back-to-school season impact students? Here’s a snapshot of what we know based on the first few weeks of school across the country.

Welcome back . . . access denied.

One trend that’s dominated recent headlines is the number of technical difficulties that schools have experienced as they try to launch the year remotely. The first few days of school in Miami-Dade County were hampered by a series of cyber-attacks (allegedly orchestrated by a 16-year-old), while a ransomware attack in Hartford, Connecticut caused the first day of school there to be cancelled. This rash of tech issues also includes a remote learning website crash in Houston, server issues in Philadelphia, and a statewide software problem in North Carolina. Hopefully,  these were just initial glitches and won’t prove persistent, but they were enough to make things very stressful for parents, students, and educators across the nation.

DIY School

With concerns about COVID transmission and uncertainty about school schedules abounding, it’s not surprising that many parents have tried to develop their own temporary educational solutions. Parent interest in homeschooling is surging, and the total number of students homeschooling this year is expected to increase by about 10%. Virtual charter schools are also seeing a big jump in enrollment, although some education experts raise concerns about quality and the long-term impact on educational funding if this model continues to grow. 

Just as some schools are taking a hybrid approach to learning, many families are looking for creative ways to fill in the gaps during a less-than-ideal school year rather than shifting to full homeschooling. Parents are doing everything from forming learning pods (which allow peer interaction and support while kids learn online) to hiring daytime academic facilitators or tutors to make sure students don’t fall behind in subjects like math. In some parts of the country, summer camps are now offering fall options where students (and in some cases their parents) can learn remotely in a “COVID-free bubble.”

In short, necessity is the mother of invention, and parents and educational providers are looking for creative ways to close the gaps that some students may experience this fall.

The students who stand to lose the most

As exciting as learning pods and academic facilitators sound, these options are not available to every family, and, when it comes to gaps in education, some students are losing out far more than others. 

Lower-income students and students of color experienced greater learning loss than others during spring school closures, and the key issues that contributed to this gap – such as access to high-speed internet and digital devices – remain. Some school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools and D.C. Public Schools, are trying to close the COVID digital divide so that all students have what they need for a successful remote semester. However,  even with the right device and wi-fi, learning from home can be challenging for students who may not have a dedicated study space or may have to assist with care for siblings who are also stuck at home. These types of concerns have some educators worried about attendance rates for their students this fall. 

For some families, education isn’t the only vital service on the line. More than 30 million children rely on public schools for breakfast and lunch and, in spite of ongoing efforts on the part of many districts, meal distribution has proven challenging as the pandemic keeps schools closed and their budgets stretched thin.

Students with special needs and learning differences are also among those particularly hard hit by school closures. Many of these students rely on services provided in school, and remote learning has made it difficult, if not impossible, for students to continue the services they need. As the Atlantic highlighted earlier this year:

“…[N]o amount of love and care at home can turn the average parent into a special-education teacher overnight. Nor can it enable them to practice occupational, speech, or physical therapy—services that are provided in many schools, but aren’t always covered by insurance and can therefore be otherwise out of reach.”

Parents are doing what they can to support their children as much as possible, but some parents are facing greater challenges than others when it comes to keeping their students engaged and learning. 

What do the students and teachers have to say?

All these alarming trends have a very important human face – the millions of students and teachers across the country who are all working incredibly hard to make the most of the situation. When the New York Times recently asked students to reflect on what this back-to-school season means to them, students shared a range of feelings and concerns.  Some spoke about the social element: it’s been months since they’ve seen their friends face-to-face, after all, and they miss everyday social connection with their peers. This element is particularly tricky for students for whom this year was meant to be a rite of passage, like the first year of middle school, the first year at a new school, or senior year in high school. 

Students also shared their fears about the academic side of remote learning – how will they keep their grades up? Stay focused while stuck at home all day? Cope with harder math classes and APs with less teacher contact?  As Theresa Vargas, a parent and local columnist for the Washington Post explains, even younger students are feeling the the strain: 

“Kindergartners are having to learn that when their teachers say, ‘Raise your hand to ask a question,’ they don’t mean lift your arm. They mean click an image on your screen that resembles a hand waiting for a high-five.”

Teachers, too, have had to make countless adjustments as they start school this year. Interestingly, while all the hard work to set up remote learning plans, find ways to teach outdoors, or create socially distanced classrooms has gotten a lot of attention, some teachers report that it’s the little things – like not being able to see their students’ smile behind a mask or not being able to give high fives – that make things feel most unusual. 

Undoubtedly, the social distance that the virus has forced upon students and educators is taking its emotional toll, and experts say that students will need more mental health support than ever. While everyone is concerned about the core subjects like math and reading, it’s important to remember that the social and emotional aspects of learning form the foundation for success and student well-being.

Closing thoughts

This back-to-school season has been unlike any other before it. If there’s a silver lining to this tumult, it’s seeing just how resilient students and educators are, whether that means teaching remotely  after hours of technical headaches or spending  hours in a mask and face shield to keep students and their families safe in-person. No matter what long-term changes the American educational system will see as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dedication of teachers, students, and parents to the education of the nation’s young people will be a constant beacon of hope going forward. 

What trends, issues, or questions are of most concern to you as your student navigates school during the pandemic? Let us know so we can be sure to keep writing about what matters most to you.

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