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The Cost of Education in the Time of the Coronavirus (Education Series 8/14)

My best friend’s daughter had her first day of school this week. Imagine twenty kindergarteners sitting on Zoom, most having never been in a traditional classroom before. Some kept getting up to go play with their toys, some closed the Zoom window to play games, and some fell asleep.

Now imagine being their teacher.

Now imagine being in a classroom with these first-time classroom attendees. Who don’t know how to socially distance or understand why we have to. Who don’t want to wear their masks. Who sometimes have accidents. Who cry.

In the time of a national crisis, when a pandemic is threatening lives of Americans across the country, neither scenario is attractive. (For the record, neither scenario is appealing even when there is not a pandemic. Honestly, kindergarten teachers are absolute saints.)

Kindergarten is a microcosm of the reason why having a socially distanced classroom is, at the very least, difficult. They pick their noses. They hug each other. They require hand-over-hand guidance when writing their letters. They have no concept of personal space. And they are always sick.

But they are also the age group that benefits the most from a classroom space. Of the many benefits, perhaps the most poignant is that studies have shown that “positive experiences in kindergarten can improve social and behavioral skills and early test scores, and even increase the likelihood that children will attend college and ultimately make more money as adults” (Mader 2020). Furthermore, the benefits of in-person learning extend beyond kindergarteners. Multiple studies have demonstrated the detrimental effects of virtual learning for most students. 

Also consider special education students and English Language Learners, or students with physical disabilities who require occupational therapy or adaptive physical education. What are they missing in virtual education? And what are teachers missing by not having students physically in their classes? That is to say, teachers are able to look at a student and just know the student needs a little more help. A more serious consequence of teachers not being able to be with their students is that teachers are no longer able to recognize the signs of child abuse.

Further complicating this entire reality is that virtual learning requires access to digital tools and internet. A recent study found that 16.9 million children lack internet access (Riddell 2020). Districts are trying to provide the necessary tools and infrastructure, but it all costs money—that no one has.

School districts are funded based upon average pupil attendance from a variety of funding sources. There is a financial incentive for schools to have in-person classes, as attendance in virtual learning declined. But in-person classes come at a cost, too. Personal Protective Equipment costs money, and kids lose everything, meaning schools will have to have copious extras on-hand and ready to go.

None of the options are optimal.

Do we send our kids to school, pay for PPE that we hope they use, and endanger teachers, janitors, school bus drivers, and other staff?

Do we support virtual learning, pay for necessary infrastructure, and pray this isn’t a waste of a year (educationally speaking)?

Join us next week as we continue to explore education in the time of COVID-19 and the long-lasting implications associated with this time.

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