As a teacher who has remained in a hybrid model of in person instruction throughout the pandemic, I could not be more grateful for the arrival of a vaccine that will (hopefully) allow the next academic year to return with some sense of normalcy.
But a return to the prior status quo would be an unfortunate waste of an opportunity to invest in structural deficiencies in our public schools that COVID has exposed. If there is any silver lining to the damage this virus has caused, it is that it has provided us an opportunity to continue to build on changes required due to its spread.
Let’s talk about class size. While I would prefer to see each of my students each day, it would be difficult not to stress the positive changes in the classroom when only half the bodies are present. Class sizes of 35-40+ were the norm prior to the pandemic. I don’t know if we want to return to that status quo.
Turns out that students tend not to have as many disruptive behaviors when they aren’t packed into a classroom. It also turns out teachers can actually answer every single student’s questions in a timely manner when there are not more bodies in the room than minutes in the class period.
The value of career technical programs is higher than it ever has been. Many families have experienced unemployment or had their hours cut. Unfortunately, the ability for many families to help pay for a college education is simply not in the cards right now. The ability for a student to receive high quality training in high school in a vocational field is precisely what many students and their families will need in the post-COVID world.
Unfortunately, for many districts the ability to provide Vocational Technology programs entirely hinges on districts’ ability to pass a levy. That unfortunately reality has not changed just because there is now a vaccine. We need to make sure these programs are adequately funded and resourced at the state level.
Consistent access to quality internet for students has been more important during this pandemic than ever before. But we know that many households simply cannot afford this service that has become a necessity. And that’s assuming that high-speed internet is even available in the community.
Investing in high-speed internet in our state doesn’t just benefit students and schools. Study after study has demonstrated the boost in economic activity in communities with new access to broadband is well worth the cost. Making sure all communities have affordable access to this essential service moving forward is well worth the investment.
Access to quality updated textbooks is paramount. Many classrooms do not have a book to give each student, instead relying on a class set. Turns out when students are not attending in-person there is no way a class set is going to work. And that’s assuming the textbook wasn’t over a decade old anyways.
Colleges and universities expect that arriving freshman students have the ability to study from textbooks on their own. Yet, many schools simply do not have the resources to make sure their classrooms have quality up-to-date textbooks for each student.
Mental health services for returning students–particularly those who have been isolated with virtual learning–will be more important than ever. Unfortunately, the ratio of counselors to students prior to this pandemic was astronomically high. The American School Counselor Association advises for a ratio of no more than 250 students per counselor. The most recent data shows Idaho with more than double at 549.
Students will need high quality counseling services more than ever. It is time to make this investment now so that when we welcome all our students back into full time in-person learning our counselors are able to provide the individualized attention each student deserves.
Many schools in our state do not have a full time school nurse. That was a problem prior to the pandemic in distributing medication to students as well as providing trained medical care to special needs students with disabilities requiring such procedures. Now our limited nurses are also expected to examine symptomatic students, maintain a quarantine space for potential positive students, perform contact tracing, and so much more. Our districts need the resources to make sure every school has a certified full time school nurse, even after this pandemic is over.
Sanitation in our schools has become more important than ever, but the reality is the steps we are taking today to keep the buildings clean and surfaces sanitized are best practices we should have been doing all along. Our custodians are unsung superheroes in doing their absolute best to make sure our classrooms are as sanitized as they can be, but the reality is that most custodial staff were already overworked and underpaid prior to COVID. We need to have the resources moving forward to continue implementing the best practices.
We also need to rethink the design of school buildings themselves. For example, windows are intentionally designed not to open both for security reasons as well as cost-saving measures for heat and air conditioning. It is frustrating for public health experts emphasizing the need to circulate fresh air in classrooms, but windows in schools were intentionally designed not to do that. It will take investment to update facilities for changes exactly like this.
I hope I’m wrong about higher education. I really do. But when I talk to my seniors about their plans after graduating I hear reluctance in enrolling on a scale I have never seen before. And their reasons are legitimate.
Many of our high school students became the essential workers we all relied on during the shutdown. They established full-time jobs, some with career opportunities that do not require a post-secondary education. Many of our students were relying on mom and dad to help pay for tuition, but like so many families in the country saw mom or dad lose their jobs. And many more simply don’t want to chance paying for the costs of college if things aren’t back to normal in the fall.
The thing is that even prior to this pandemic our “go-on” numbers were frustratingly low, and all indications from my discussions with seniors lead me to believe enrollment numbers are going to drop even more next academic year. If we can drop the sticker price on tuition we can encourage many of these “on-the-fence” students to attend. But that will require the state to invest in these colleges and universities.
The list of these existing deficiencies is of course much larger. COVID-19 didn’t cause any of these shortcomings that existed prior to its arrival, but it sure did a heck of a job highlighting them. But it also gives us an opportunity to evaluate if the status quo of public education before the pandemic is really the exact same type of school we want to return to in the next academic year. I hope that answer is no.