What are We Learning in a Pandemic?
By Ramblin’ Rose

Public school teachers are patting themselves on the back, at least on social media, for having met the challenge to deliver distance learning to some 56 million students. On April 15, 2020 in an opinion piece in the St. Cloud Times, Aaron Sinclair, the superintendent of the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district, lauded the efforts of all to quickly transition from the classroom to virtual learning. He acknowledged a few difficulties and then proceeded to thank all who made the rapid change and continued the learning. That was “happy talk.” That does not match the reality of the fiasco.

Admittedly, within a couple of weeks, teachers did have materials available online for students. But how many 20-minute videos can elementary students view every day? How many worksheets can be completed after each video? Children cannot just sit all day. They need to move. They have been forced to become passive receptors of the talking heads on screens. What if they have questions? Parents may have the answers but many won’t. Very few will have the content information that the teachers do.

One assumes that middle school and high school students are also assigned similar scenarios. Even good students become mesmerized and bored on a chair in front of a screen EVERY day.

Does the pre-recorded, hollow statement “Good job, class” really motivate learners to stay on task and try to do even more?

What about the parents? Were they prepared to supervise their children’s lessons? Did they want the job? How can they handle the job if they are also working from home? Parents who try to help only one child reportedly cry at the end of the day—and some during the day—out of frustration with trying to understand the required work so that they might help their child. Now imagine a parent with more than one learner at home. And how many families have opted out completely?

Parents have been forced into homeschooling and must teach lessons that have been imposed on them and their children. The results for the children and families do not reflect those listed by Mr. Sinclair.

  1. How many schools have changed many of the classes to “optional?”
  2. How many districts have already suspended the rest of the academic year—even distance learning?
  3. How many learners have abandoned their work—even the gifted ones?
  4. If the talented learners have given up, how long ago did the challenged learners quit trying?

Could not the districts empower the families to embrace learning and provide some more practical activities? Could not some of the assignments be “optional” or “supplementary” resources from which the students and parents could choose when they want some guidance from the professionals?

Why not have younger children read to their parents and parents to their children? Reading is fun and instructional. The books are chosen by children based on interest. If they have questions, the parents likely are prepared to answer them. And it’s snuggle time. During this pandemic, the bonding with family and the security found in the togetherness are essential.

Why not teach math following recipes in the kitchen or a carpentry project in the garage? Both options involve measuring, fractions, addition, subtraction, etc. in a real-world context. Again, parents and children are working together in a mutually selected activity. It’s fun; it’s less stressful than assignments that, at times, challenge even the most devoted parents. What happens when the child and parent do not agree with the answer given by the teacher? (I saw that happen. The child shrugs her shoulders; the parent shakes her head.) What was the lesson learned? Who owns the confusion?

Those younger learners could still have Zoom time—see their classmates and friends, sharing stories of the fun things they learned in the last week. Teachers could guide the conversations and relate their learning to more academic themes, if appropriate. During the week, the teacher could chat with each student alone, even quizzing them on math problems or spelling words, as well as being there to support and encourage them with real words of praise, as appropriate. The child could read to the teacher to validate continuing academic progress. The teacher would still be a person and not just a bobbing head on a screen.

For older students, could they not become Socrates, pose a question of personal interest related to the course, research it and do a virtual conference with the teacher and explain what they learned and submit a short summary about the project—the reason for it, the process followed to complete it, and share the final answer to the Socratic question? It would still involve screen time, but the control would be with the learner. Undoubtedly, more learning would occur on a self-directed project than on another video lesson followed by more worksheets. The teacher would be a mentor throughout the project and would provide academic feedback upon completion of the assignment.

During the first week of distance learning, there was an abundance of jokes about distraught parents locking their kids outside for a fire drill or in the basement for a tornado drill while they sang the praises of the public school teachers. Those jokes are almost non-existent currently; they are not humorous. They accurately reveal the frustrations that many families are experiencing with “homeschooling.”

Some public educators also expressed concern about “homeschooling” but for very different reasons. Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet and other educators expressed their fear about having parents in charge of teaching their own children. In their words, it is “important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.” Bartholet called parents too authoritarian. She also challenged their preparedness to teach their own children.

Parents want what is best for their children…and hopefully, the majority of public school teachers do too. Due to the pandemic, parents have restructured their professional lives in order to teach their children as mandated by state governments. And, sadly, there is an entire cult, like Bartholet, that believes that government should have control “from the womb to the tomb.”

What will PreK-12 education look like next fall? Will schools reopen? Will distance learning continue? Will more parents opt to homeschool with a curriculum that they select and truly become their children’s teacher? Will they happily return their children to classroom teachers? Do public schools fear a loss of students to homeschoolers?

And another question, right before the start of the pandemic, did not the experts plead with parents to reduce the amount of time that young children, especially, spend with devices? With the advent of whole scale distance learning, those experts are mute.

On to higher education…

On April 18th, the results of a Axios and College Reactions poll reported “… 77 percent of college students say that “distance learning is worse or much worse than in-person classes,” while 13 percent say “they would take time off from college if distance learning continues next year.”

That contradicts the push of many university administrators for classes and even entire programs to be delivered electronically. Many faculty and students have objected to those initiatives but gone unheard. Let’s hope that this poll has reached the administrators.

While the pandemic has forced the closure of schools and campuses, institutions of higher learning had already suffered great declines in enrollment numbers. How much could be related to the delivery programs, as well as the debt levels that have resulted from degrees that did not and do not lead to gainful employment?

While there is nothing wrong with “self-fulfillment/self-realization,” should not an education allow one to earn a living? For example, one student asked taxpayers to pay off her college debt–$226,000 for a degree in Greek mythology. Did she really expect to earn a living with that particular degree? For many, that interest falls more into the category of a hobby than a career.

Well, maybe that student is not alone in considering a special interest legitimate. Castleton University in Vermont, with electronically mediated instruction as the norm, is offering credit for learning to play a computer game–Dungeons and Dragons. The justification for the course is the need for people to build community. Seriously? College credit?

The Strada Education Network poll has found that 28 million students plan to abandon their postsecondary education due to the Wuhan virus. The majority of those who indicated an intention to pursue training within the next six months will not be pursuing a degree program.

The American Council on Education projects a 15% decline in postsecondary enrollment in the fall and a $45 billion decline in revenue. Numerous administrators find those projections too rosy.

Precipitous declines are also on the horizon for the Minnesota State universities this fall. For those institutions, here’s their anticipated enrollment declines by university for this fall:

  1. Bemidji – 949 FYE
  2. Mankato – 2,870 FYE
  3. Metro – 747 FYE
  4. Moorhead – 1,335 FYE
  5. Southwest– 628 FYE
  6. SCSU – 1,496 FYE
  7. Winona – 2,350 FYE

FYE is the concept of a full-year equivalent, not the number of bodies on campus rolls. This concept is used in budgeting and reflects only courses that award credits or satisfy requirements in an academic or vocational program. The FYE is determined by dividing the total student credit hours by the credit hours of a full load (30 credit hours for undergraduate and professional courses and 20 for graduate courses).

As a point of comparison, ten years ago, SCSU touted 15,096 FYE. That’s a precipitous decline. But the decline has been occurring throughout the decade. The academic year just concluded had already fallen to 9016 FYE. The projected numbers for Fall 2020 are horrific.

Who will be enrolling in the fall? Will students return if there are only online classes? Will parents opt for cheaper public institutions rather than the costly private ones? Will the lack of athletic programs discourage certain students to attend? Since students were not able to take the ACT and SAT entrance exams and schools have waived those scores, will the entering students be academically prepared for the expected rigors of higher education?

The pandemic has caused many types of losses. Will the American educational system be another victim? Or, could an enhanced model that focuses on the students be on the horizon?

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