Even before the COVID-19 crisis, student retention was already a burgeoning problem. More than 25 percent of our school-aged children no longer receive a traditional public education.
Right now, it feels as if enemy forces are surrounding our schools and districts, cutting off essential supplies, attempting to compel the surrender of those inside.
Our challenges are substantial and include lack of home access to broadband and devices, deciding what lessons are appropriate for remote learning and the social emotional well-being of our students. At present, no one knows how long the siege will continue. And the longer it lasts, the more profound the implications will be.
How are you going to keep them down on the farm?
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, student retention was already a burgeoning problem. More than 25 percent of our school-aged children no longer receive a traditional public education. In the United States, four million children are counted as homeschooled or unschooled, 3.2 million are enrolled in charters and 5.7 million attend private schools. And those numbers may not tell the whole story. According to data from the World Education Forum USA, there are actually 6 million children in the U.S. not enrolled in public or private schools. Even if this data includes all homeschoolers and “unschoolers,” it still brings the number of children not in traditional public schools to 14.9 million. That’s more than a quarter of all school-aged children. Some districts have experienced as much as 30 percent enrollment loss, with rural districts losing even more students than urban districts. With schools closed for the next five months (and maybe longer), many parents will be so used to their children staying home that they may never go back. Commercial, consumer facing curriculum is now so sophisticated and user-friendly that parents may simply opt-out their children in favor of home EdTech or strip center options.
Consumer digital curriculum sales are already outpacing school curriculum sales by a wide margin. In 2019, the straight-to-consumer digital curriculum market was valued at $21 billion, compared to the school digital curriculum market which was $11 billion. The consumer market was already growing by 17 percent a year prior to COVID-19. And according early indicators, consumer sales are currently seeing their most rapid gains ever. Parents and their children live in a digital, on demand world and schools have been slow to adjust to the pace of the rest of the world. The forced hiatus of public schooling may be the impetus parents need to continue to seek alternatives.
The transition in some ways is inevitable. Parents are discovering education options like amazing video game-grade courseware, private, magnet and charter schools and many online and strip-mall alternatives that are just so much sexier than traditional public education. Mostly, parents want some measure of control over how their kids will be educated. For their part, kids want a say-so into what and how they learn. They want learning to be fun, challenging and relevant.
Separation Trauma and the well-being of our students
According to the well-known education writer Franklin Schargel, “Trauma is a child’s equivalent of PTSD. Unlike most traumatic incidents, this one was broad banded — affecting all children around the world as opposed to only affecting one individual or one group of individuals. The experience may be overwhelming, causing stress and anxiety. It has upended their normal lives.” This trauma our students are experiencing is coming from many different places. Some are within our power to alleviate, many are not.
Even though the CDC advises that the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is relatively low for school-aged children, they are more vulnerable to emotional damage from the disruption of their daily routines. Child Trends authors Jessica Dym Bartlet, Jessica Griffin and Dana Thompson warn, “Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, everyday life has changed and will continue to change for most people in the United States, often with little notice. Children may struggle with significant adjustments to their routines (e.g., schools and childcare closures, social distancing, home confinement), which may interfere with their sense of structure, predictability, and security. Young people — even infants and toddlers — are keen observers of people and environments, and they notice and react to stress in their parents and other caregivers, peers and community members. They may ask direct questions about what is happening now or what will happen in the future and may behave differently in reaction to strong feelings (e.g., fear, worry, sadness, anger) about the pandemic and related conditions. Children also may worry about their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, how they will get their basic needs met (e.g., food, shelter, clothing), and uncertainties for the future.
“While most children eventually return to their typical functioning when they receive consistent support from sensitive and responsive caregivers, others are at risk of developing significant mental health problems, including trauma-related stress, anxiety and depression. Children with prior trauma or pre-existing mental, physical, or developmental problems — and those whose parents struggle with mental health disorders, substance misuse or economic instability — are at especially high risk for emotional disturbances.”
Every District will be Tested
Many districts were well-prepared to go virtual. Other districts were caught flat-footed and had very little preparation to make the break to placeless learning. According to LeiLani Cauthen from the Learning Counsel, “I think for emergency sake, a lot of districts went into this new thing that we’re in saying, ‘We need to move right now. What do we do?’ When I speak with them, I tell them right now, you’re going to have to be willing to pay for it because you need professional grade software. If your teachers don’t have all your lessons in your learning management system and they’re going to be offline for weeks, that’s going to cause you to lose audience.
“One of the things you have to be thinking about as you pick resources is what does your time look like? If you look at the traditional teacher time and what they’re doing to prepare or do data entry in order to share out to students, it’s a lot right now. It was a lot before this. So now when you add on apps for every little thing, it can overwhelm your teachers very quickly. It’s not enough to say go and they just figure it all out on their own. You’re going to have to put some guidance around what you’re doing. But the first thing we started telling districts when schools closed was they needed to create community.”
In the Learning Counsel’s Emergency National Virtual Discussions held in April, Dr. Jasna Aliefendic, the Coordinator of Tech Apps, Garland Independent School District said, “Just like everybody else, we got caught in the middle of our spring break. So, the first thing was to extend our spring break for a week. While the spring break was extended for our students, our entire curriculum team was busy working on creating a plan and for that first week we provided online resources that students could access. At the same time, our technology department was working on logistics on how we could distribute out the devices that we have to students that don’t have devices at home. At the same time, curriculum coordinators started developing learning plans or learning guides for students in case we had to stay at home for a longer time. So, when it was officially announced, I’m proud to say that we actually were ready for that. Not completely ready, but we try to follow our scope and sequence. Most of our textbooks are web-based and we distributed our devices to every single child or at least every household that needed a device.
“It was lots of preparation from our technology team and we are very, very thankful for that. But on the curriculum side, we try to follow our pacing guide and our scope and sequence. Our students are already on a single sign-on. Our curriculum is placed in Google drive. All our teachers are trained on a Google Classroom. So, we share this new learning documentation and new learning plans with teachers so that they can adopt them and post to their Google classroom. We also create a parent guide every week for our parents and that guide has objectives and activities that students will be working, as well as what kind of assignments students will be doing at secondary schools.”
Also speaking at the Emergency National Virtual Discussions, Kahle Charles from St. Vrain Valley Schools said, “It’s hard to say, but don’t waste a good crisis. We saw this as an opportunity to further online presence and get everybody on the same page, though we were fairly organized ahead of this time. We also reorganized our human capital. We have learning leaders. They are curriculum coordinators, instructional technology coordinators, learning technology coaches and so forth. They’ve each been assigned to one specific school to provide real time online support for teachers and for principals. That has helped us tremendously as we’ve gone through this. We had already curated a lot of our apps, a lot of our digital curricular tools. One thing that we did to buy some time was to create two weeks’ worth of online learning. We’ve also created eight hotspots across our city.”
We Can Decide What
the Future Looks Like
More than anything else, the Coronavirus has forced us to re-evaluate the way we deliver learning and the value we bring to our learners. Technology has given us the opportunity to elevate learning. Additional technology may give us the opportunity to elevate our teachers and their ability to do what teachers do best — use their humanity to connect with learners. According to author Tamara Fyke, “During this quarantine, we have the privilege of re-imagining what education is. As my friend Richard Gerver shared in an interview conversation we had recently, “We must consider the end result. Who do we want our children to become? The answer to that question will guide us as we redesign school, beginning with the end in mind. I believe what we can all agree on is that we want our children to be courageous, honest, kind, generous, cooperative, persevering and dependable.
“In my opinion, one of the greatest tragedies of this time would be to go back to school as it was before the pandemic. We have the opportunity to connect students with others around the world according to areas of interest and gifting. Imagine if student learning was happening in much the same way that scientists and researchers are collaboratively working to find a solution for the pandemic. Let us give students a problem. Match them with others who have similar passions. Mentor them with experts in the field. Watch them reshape the world. It is time to release our control. We never had it anyway. Instead, let us guide and direct our students by engaging in conversations and tackling real-world problems...together.”