BUTCHER: Giving Every Child Hope For Success This School Year

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Jonathan Butcher Goldwater Institute
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that students should return to the classroom this fall so they do not fall behind in their education. You can find a counterpoint here, where Glenn Sacks, a teacher and co-chairman of United Teachers of Los Angeles at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, argues that students should not be allowed to return to the classroom in person until precautions have been taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

What would parents give to have a crystal ball right now? As summer slides into back-to-school season, many are left wondering if students will be at home or in class when school begins. While some large districts have announced their plans, at least dozens more across the U.S. are still in limbo.

At the onset of the pandemic, my research for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University recommended that traditional school districts that closed their doors attempt to educate students using online instruction. The move would be a significant adjustment for everyone, but if the alternative was to do nothing or wait until the pandemic was over, then educators should make a good faith attempt at virtual learning.

The report cautioned, though, that district schools should follow the best practices from existing full-time virtual schools instead of trying to reinvent online education. Nearly two dozen states enroll students in online courses through state-based virtual schools, while another 200,000 to 300,000 students attend full-time online schools, according to the most recent figures, all offering examples to follow.

Lessons from these schools include regular interaction with a child’s teacher and a steady diet of reviewing existing material before jumping into new content, especially because the switch to full-time online learning would take some getting used to.

Now the returns are in, and 40 percent of parents in a recent poll said they did not have even weekly contact with their child’s teacher. A Wall Street Journal report said that in Jackson, Miss., a consistently low-performing district, “school officials essentially gave up on requiring remote learning… In late April the district allowed children who were passing before the shutdown to skip the last two months of school and still receive an overall passing grade.”

For every success story such as the example set by charter schools in Arizona and Pennsylvania, there are disturbing reviews of places such as Jackson and other localities, such as Fairfax, Virginia, and Bibb County, Georgia. A widely cited study from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), creators of the diagnostic Measures of Academic Progress test that measures periodic learning gains, estimates that students will have lost between 30 and 50 percent of the academic material they normally would bring to their new grade level in the fall.

More troubling are the reports from cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit that thousands of students did not log in to access online coursework. Achievement gaps between low-income students and their peers have persisted for generations in these areas and now may widen.

Large districts, including L.A., San Diego, Nashville and Atlanta, have announced plans for reopening that only offer remote instruction. While local educators and medical professionals should develop plans based on health data and student needs, we should be asking if traditional schools must open to keep both students and district officials on task.

Families do not need a national consensus, but they do need to know that local school administrators are taking into consideration the latest evidence and potential that children could miss the equivalent of an entire semester — or more — if schools do not resume classes in-person.

A growing list of health organizations in the U.S. and Europe are recommending in-person learning this fall, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, and, most recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. These reports cite mounting evidence that young people are the least likely to be affected by the virus.

The organizations are also calling for substantial spending increases on education, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that school officials have only spent a small fraction of new federal spending dedicated to schools in March for pandemic-related needs. How can we know if more is needed? Instead of more money, policymakers should consider using these resources to give parents and students additional learning options if their child’s assigned school building is closed.

Teachers and students concerned about preexisting conditions or special needs should take reasonable precautions, from masks to rigorous cleaning protocols to moving school activities outside — or remaining at home. Those showing any symptoms must stay home. Yet none of these circumstances warrant keeping all students out of the classroom.

Health data, combined with evidence that thousands (or more) of the most disadvantaged students in the U.S. fell through the cracks in the spring, begs the question: If some of the largest districts in the country are preparing to attempt online instruction again, is this the best option for students?

While a crystal ball is hard to come by, it does not take a Magic 8 Ball to determine “My sources say no.”

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute.