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In many ways the last three months have been the strangest we have experienced in recent history. We are all aware of the gravity of our situation, but it’s hard to believe how vulnerable we turned out to be. Many of us are astounded by how quickly our sense of stability and permanence was taken from us.
Inevitably, this pandemic crisis will bring about fundamental socioeconomic changes. These changes will likely include everything from health care, retail, manufacturing, travel and tourism, and education to name a few. Long-term precautionary measures may continue indefinitely because of the threat posed by equally dangerous viruses lurking elsewhere in the world that we can no longer ignore as distant dangers.
All of us want desperately to return to normal. Some of us are in more of a hurry, while others are more cautious. As time passes, we are coming to the realization that the normal we used to know may never return. Despite differences of opinion regarding this pandemic, like it or not, this will become a life altering chapter of our history. It is likely that historians will judge our present generation by how successful we are at mobilizing to fight this unseen enemy, similar to the way in which the World War II generation mobilized to fight Nazism.
Some significant changes have already occurred, but time will tell which are temporary recovery measures and which are permanent reforms. The most impactful changes might take time to evolve. The kind of permanent reforms that will fundamentally change our educational institutions are at this moment in the early stages of development.
The transformations that are likely to occur in our public schools may be more significant than other social or economic changes. This idea appears accurate when we consider two factors; first, roughly 90% of our children attend public schools and second, any change to our educational system not only impacts millions of school children but also alters families and home life.
In examining post-pandemic public schools, the eventual result could look more like an education revolution. The most impactful change is already upon us, remote online education. Within a short time after our schools were closed, a platform for continued education was hastily implemented by brick and mortar public schools. The bottom line is that a 100% online cyber education is nothing more than a glitzy correspondence course. Total online education, despite the IT technology, leaves children feeling isolated. Furthermore, without generous amounts of parental support time its effectiveness is less than satisfactory. In addition, for children with special needs such as autism, online education simply does not deliver the support these children need. Therefore, totally online learning is not the lonely road our schools should travel.
The solution that appears most logical is a blended educational model. In simple terms, blended learning is the marriage between online learning and face-to-face classroom instruction and interaction. The idea of blended learning is not new. Going back to the late 1960s there first appeared a learning model known as “Programed Instruction.” Programed Instruction involved a student working alone in a graded sequence of controlled steps that were then combined with classroom reinforcement. It was met with mixed reviews in a K-12 learning environment, but it did give birth to the practice of learning stations.
Today’s blended learning looks and works entirely different from the old programed instruction. Teachers in brick and mortar schools have been steadily increasing their use of internet based content and resources. But its use has been limited to an unknown number of tech-savvy teachers along with the support of technology coordinators. At the same time, fully online learning programs have been developing independently, with different methods and objectives compared to physical schools. As a result, blending online programs and classroom interaction has been slow in developing.
It is generally believed that our schools should open in the fall. I think there is consensus on at least that one idea. At the same time, another possibility is that COVID-19 returns in the fall or winter with equal force or as some say even greater strength. We need to prepare for both scenarios. Blended learning utilizing both online resources and the existing physical building is a possible solution. In this way we could better limit the exposure of our students by reducing the number of children both in the school and more importantly in the classrooms at any one time. This is accomplished by staggering schedules based upon grade level or subject area.
The idea of staggering schedules is also nothing new in public education. During the 1970s as many school districts were expanding and building new schools it was common to reduce temporary overcrowding by staggering the grade levels occupying the school building at any one time. It was referred to as “Split Sessions” with half the students attending in the morning session and the other half in the afternoon.
Another advantage of blended learning is that by developing and improving a reliable online educational component we could easily shift temporarily to completely online delivery as dictated by the possible resurgence of the virus. To design and implement this type of long-term educational program will take a concerted effort by our local educational leaders along with state and local government.
Even without the pandemic crisis, many within public education feel we are overdue for some fundamental changes in instructional methods. Essentially, our public schools have not changed since the end of World War II. It could be time for our schools to become more democratic by allowing students to design the curriculum, including the problems they want to solve, then allow teachers and school administrators to decide how to teach it. As a high school administrator recently said, “We need to give our students more ownership of their education. Choice is the key to a successful future for both our students and their school. We can no longer operate schools like factories of mass produced same old products.”
It could be time to change the very structure of our schools. A system of blended learning could be the beginning, then we could move on to the process of generating real school innovation. In todays world, we need to develop creative thinkers, innovators, and agents of change. We need to do a better job of developing these skills in our students. We also need to explore some lingering questions. Should schools only operate 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.? Should we offer night classes? Should our public high schools convert to mini-colleges, offering a wide variety of classes and options? Is the present culture of high stakes testing making innovation impossible when schools are focused on “teaching to the test”?
Maybe, just maybe, all the bad that comes from this pandemic can be turned into an agent of much needed change here in America. We have always been resilient and relentless pursuers of innovation. This COVID-19 crisis may have us against the ropes now, but I guarantee you this, we will fight our way back.
Robert Griffiths is a former educator and a current educational consultant and Cornwall-Lebanon School District board member. He lives in South Lebanon.
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