post by Shawna Coppola, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Fellow
Coronavirus, School Closures, and Important Considerations for Educators
As concerns about Coronavirus (COVID-19) continue to increase across the United States, many districts are turning to remote forms of learning and/or so-called “Blizzard Bags”–prominent in states where snow days are the norm during the winter months–in order to reduce the educational impact that prolonged school closures would have on students, as necessary as these closings may be in order to protect the health of individuals and families within a community.
Of course, there are even more concerning issues at play when it comes to unexpected school closures, chief among them being the numerous and varied impacts on working families (the ripple effects of which are also numerous and varied), the effect such closures might have on some students’ social and emotional health, and many children’s access to breakfast and/or lunch. (This is said with the understanding that simply keeping school open will ensure any of this–in too many cases, it doesn’t.)
In addition, there is not yet a consensus on how necessary (or effective) such district-wide closures might be in the long run. As someone who knows quite well how challenging–if not impossible–it can be to find a solution that works for everyone, I would never presume to hold any comprehensive answers to these enormously complex questions myself. Many states, beholden to formal policies that are designed to ensure that students are engaged in “structured learning time” in order to meet that state’s law’s around the number of school days required each year, are finding it incredibly tough to make decisions around just how to do this.
However, if schools must close as a last-resort attempt to contain the coronavirus, there are a couple of considerations that I hope educators and administrators would make when determining the most effective, least restrictive course of action for helping students engage in educational activities while away from school for extended periods of time.
Considerations around Accessibility
Most often when we think of these sorts of situations, families’ access to the Internet is a primary concern. In New Hampshire, for example, where my family and I live, over 11,000 homes lack access to high-speed internet (or any internet at all), which is essential for accessing online learning modules or videos that teachers may have uploaded for students to watch (the instructional effectiveness of which is debatable). But accessibility goes far beyond internet access when considering students who rely on–or who, by law, must be provided with–the support of their teachers and peers in order to effectively “build a bridge” between what is “taught” and what is (ultimately) learned. Any attempt to provide remote learning opportunities, whether via digital technologies or analog “Blizzard Bags,” must be made in a way that is sensitive to these needs, or the “Matthew Effect”–and school-related inequities in general–will continue to snowball unabated.
Considerations around Differentiation
A potential mitigation to the issue listed above is to provide students and families with open-ended tasks–or better yet, open-ended suggestions— that can be differentiated depending on students’ interest, ability to access materials, level of instructional support at home, etc. For example, a suggestion might be made to engage in an inquiry around perspective. When viewing, reading, or listening to something, what perspective(s) can be identified? What perspective(s) might be missing? Students might be encouraged to explore this concept as they listen to music, watch the news, engage in observational drawing, and/or process a recent conversation. How might what something looks/sounds/reads like change when one’s perspective of it changes? Alternative inquiries might be suggested or developed around broad concepts like fun, creativity, place, shapes, talk, textures, data, happiness, or work. The possibilities are endless, as long as careful attention is paid to developmental appropriateness, accessibility, and cultural responsiveness.
Another suggestion would be to ask students to spend some time engaging in the (mutually supportive!) act of reading and/or writing, but with a broad view of what constitutes “writing” and “text”–in other words, everything that students read or write “counts.” Students might choose to read or compose picture books, comics, lyrics, graphic novels, magazines/zines, videos…whatever they have the most access to and would find the most engagement in. Of course, if possible, every effort ought to be made to help students find and take home a wide variety of texts to read for pleasure or as mentors for writing. (And if you are lucky enough to live in a district with access to a Little Free Library, be sure that it is well-stocked with a wide variety of texts!) In addition, considerations around how students might be asked to reflect on the decisions they made as readers and/or writers while engaging in this work at home might also provide for a rich learning opportunity.
Again–there is no one solution to this enormous and complex issue that will work for all students, families, and teachers. Part of facing such difficult work forces everyone to consider just how much expertise and experience it takes to provide engaging, accessible learning opportunities for children, something which is not acknowledged nearly enough. However, schools and districts can take steps to ensure that the educational solutions that are developed as an attempt to mitigate extended school closures will not create additional hardships for folks–and may even lead to engaged learning for many.
If your school or district is closing for an extended time as a result of coronavirus concerns, what remote learning opportunities have been developed for your students? Please share in the comments below in the hope that your school or district’s solution will potentially help another’s. (And stay safe, everyone!)