Amid a public health crisis called COVID-19, our schoolchildren will be left behind

high school classroom, school, education
With COVID-19 cases still surging, students may -- or may not --be filling up classrooms as the new academic year begins. Credit: Pixabay.

In the days of “No Child Left Behind,” part of the George W. Bush-era effort to improve America’s public schools, particularly for low-income and minority students, a lot of people complained about and criticized NCLB’s regimen of state testing and tough deadlines for bringing kids up to par academically.

The criticism was so intense that the 2002 federal law fell by the wayside after more than a decade, though pieces of it have been cemented into other federal education laws.

NCLB was ultimately replaced, but educators, administrators, researchers, families, and students will likely remember the name of the program because it said something powerful: No Child Left Behind.

Unfortunately, in July of 2020, amid a public health crisis called COVID-19, our schoolchildren will be left behind.

Left behind in their K-12 studies. Left behind in the track that leads to high school graduation. Left behind in the push for students to get a college diploma or a pursue a career field.

That’s because many students in Florida will likely begin the 2020-21 academic year doing  “online learning” that in the past has been ineffective, rather than in-class instruction in a brick-and-mortar school that should be completely prepared and safe come August.

Everyone knows that having a teacher in a classroom in front of students is the best way to provide instruction to millions of schoolchildren.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week published a report called “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall.” It said, in part:

“For many students, long breaks from in-person education are harmful to student learning.”

“The best available evidence indicates that COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children.”

“School closure disrupts the delivery of in-person instruction and critical services to children and families, which has negative individual and societal ramifications.”

On the other hand, online learning hasn’t worked.

In March and months later in Florida, some kids didn’t even have laptops. Others didn’t always go on the computer. Some parents struggled to help their students with difficult assignments, and educators were still tackling remote-learning technology. Many families were tired, with moms and dads working jobs as well as playing the role of teacher.

What’s worse, children may not be learning what they need to know to advance to the next grade. According to one study, kids may return in the fall with less than 50 percent of typical learning gains, which likely would lead to major impacts on student achievement.

The social and emotional element of school also is important.

As the CDC report said: “Schools play a critical role in supporting the whole child, not just their academic achievement. In addition to a structure for learning, schools provide a stable and secure environment for developing social skills and peer relationships.”

But with the new academic year looming, COVID-19 infections and deaths have surged in recent weeks in Florida.

Teachers and staff are frightened. Some have already died from COVID-19.

The pressure is on to retreat to online learning only, at least for the first semester of the new academic year.

The Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials, saying that for schools to be safe a number of things will need to happen, from reducing class sizes, adding more staff, ensuring schools have enough protective equipment and supplies and adding plexiglass shields, among other measures.

It’s been five months since the first two coronavirus cases in Florida were made known to the public. The day was March 1.  Now, Florida has nearly 450,000 COVID-19 infections.

To be put the numbers in perspective, nearly half of all infections are in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. (Each school district encompasses a county in Florida). Many other counties have few infections and deaths, which could mean that brick-and-mortar schools may be the best choice for teaching children come August.

Still, five months have passed since March 1, and it’s still not certain that all schools will be prepared – and safe — for in-person instruction. And why did it take a lawsuit to push the state to ensure all schools are safe?

Families are struggling over one of the most important decisions of their lives — should their children go to a brick-and-mortar school come August or continue online instruction during the pandemic? – and the state is now wrapped up in lawsuits and politics.

With all that going on, it seems inevitable that many children will be stuck again in online learning instead of a brick-and-mortar school.

That means state leaders and school administrators must quickly and dramatically make online learning more effective, or children will be left behind.