A couple of weeks ago there was an op-ed in The Sentinel in which the authors, Sens. Jay Kahn and Jeanne Dietsch, outlined the educational needs exposed by the present COVID-19 pandemic. They point to insufficient broadband access in the rural communities, a lack of sufficient technological equipment and services for our schools, a reduction of monies for higher education because of the return of monies to students for room and board, and finally, that some students do not thrive outside the classroom environment.
I agree with most of these assertions, but as is often the case, we view these problems through a very different prism and come to far different conclusions on how to resolve the issues. While my Democratic colleagues want to smooth out the current system with more tax dollars, I see these more as systemic shortcomings than road bumps. Rather than looking at the impact COVID-19 has had on our current public school system, I want to ask “what has been the impact on students?”
As the ranking Republican member on the Senate Education Committee, I have had the opportunity to listen to a number of educational presentations during this “shelter in place” period. It has been very interesting to listen to how the different educational systems were prepared for emergency events and to see how those preparations translated during the current COVID-19 crisis. Home educators had no problems. Their curriculum was already in place, and they continued as planned. The superintendents of many of the charter schools had asked their teachers to prepare a two-week lesson plan, just in case they needed to go online.
It was the public schools that were unprepared for such events and it took a while to get them up to speed. Teachers were not used to online teaching and needed help to get started before becoming comfortable with this new technique. I do not mean this as a slight on our public school teachers. In fact, once up to speed they have done a terrific job of educating their students, and It should be noted that students with an IEP or other needed extra services, have been receiving those with little interruption. However, the public school system as currently constructed has worked against our public school teachers’ ability to give their students the best possible education during an emergency such as this.
We’ve seen parents and students adapt, albeit sometimes slowly. The parents have had a chance to see the curriculum and help their kids when needed. Many also discovered that the suggested time for instruction could be significantly reduced. Was that because the instruction was more efficient and concentrated? And while some parents have not enjoyed this enforced at-home learning, many have enjoyed this opportunity to see their children grow in their understanding of different subjects. They have also taken advantage of learning in different environments, looking at trees and plants in nature, or exploring a vernal pool for animals.
Many children have enjoyed not having to take a 6 a.m. bus. Some liked the flexible hours. For some high-schoolers, paid work in the morning and lessons in the afternoon or evening is a perfect option. Kids have different circadian rhythms, and it is nice when school can accommodate that. One parent told me that her son loves online learning so much, he does not want to go back to brick-and-mortar school.
The COVID-19 pandemic, for all its destructive impact, is a game changer and is providing us an opportunity to rethink how we provide education. Eyes have been opened to what is possible. Our present system, with brick-and-mortar schools, with kids sitting in a room at a desk, with regulated hours of instruction, and recess, has come under question. This learning at home has brought another look at how a quality education can be provided. Where is the innovation? Any effort to introduce innovation in our public schools in the past has been met with resistance.
What could the future in education look like?
Many are talking about “blended” education, a combination of online and classroom instruction. With the declining enrollment in our schools, a building could close. We could see one group of children attending certain days, alternating with the other group. That would also free up the time for parents who need to work and also shrink classroom sizes.
A poll done by one of the educational organizations (Center for Education Reform) showed that 56 percent of those surveyed would consider the “blended” option. Another 30 percent thought that we should abandon the current system and start school from scratch. The rest wanted to go back to the brick and mortar school system.
Whichever way we go, I think that it has become evident that a choice in how education is provided is important to many parents and their children. We have to have a system that fits the child and provides the best opportunities for that child, not the other way around where the child has to fit into the system.
Much has been said about the need to educate and train for the New Hampshire workforce. I want to make a pitch for the individual human being with hope and aspirations. We should assist them to become fully human with all that entails and reach their full potential.