Five Tips For Weathering This School Year

While there is no shortage of press coverage regarding ‘back to school’ plans across the countries – and certainly no clear national path or strategy – we’re yet again tossed into a situation where parents will continue to incur hefty tax burdens (property taxes, state sales taxes, state income taxes, federal income taxes) to support the education of our nation’s youth while also trying to juggle jobs, family responsibilities and the assumption of a greater share of the educational responsibilities for our children.  While it’s easy to get lost in the discourse around public vs. private, charter schools, vouchers, home-schooling, pods and other forms of K-12 education let us return focus to the 55 million children who were suddenly tossed into a strange new normal and, as of yet, are still not quite sure what this upcoming academic year holds in store for them.  So here are five tips for weathering, and succeeding in, what is shaping up to be another tumultuous year of education.

1. Children need our support – now more than ever.  The 24×7 never-ending COVID-19 news cycle is now running in parallel with the 24×7 never-ending political news cycle leading up to this November’s elections.  Add in the expiration of added unemployment benefits, an unemployment rate of 11.1% and the uncertainty around safety protocols and the assault on science magnified by partisan spats and parents are not the only ones feeling stressed.  Children lack the frames of reference to categorize and manage these issues in their heads and they now lack the traditional social support – be it friends, classmates, teachers or regularly spending time with other family members – that they rely on to help figure out the world as they grow and develop.  Having grown up during the height of the Cold War with a constant nuclear threat was challenging for me, but I was able to talk about it with an extended group of people and manage information a little more readily in the era before the Internet and pervasive social media.  If you have a child, or know one you’re close to, please do check in on them regularly and ask them how things are going. Get them to talk about their concerns and listen closely. They need someone to listen.

Julia Cameron – Pexels.com

2. Connectivity is critical.  Sure, we have to have high-speed Internet connections and device proliferation (and support!) to facilitate blended and fully online learning models but the human connection was lacking in the sudden shift online this past Spring.  Reach out and set up small groups, virtually, to get together on non-academic topics where possible.  Our nine year old son set up a Zoom book club with four of his friends and they would read a different book – not assigned by his teacher, just for fun, every few weeks and get together and discuss what they had read.  Part informational, part educational, but absolutely social – and that connection matters.

3. Schools have been, are, and will continue to be a safe haven.  That means being hyper-careful about reopening and, arguably more importantly, having appropriate procedures in place to quickly identify, triage and stop outbreaks in their tracks so we don’t have to live in an ongoing, heightened, state of fear and paranoia which is both mentally and physically draining.  Look to support your local educators on the front lines however you can and make your voices heard – attend school board meetings, send emails in with feedback on plans and participate however you can.  We are a community, and our voices matter.

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4. Power off.  Yes, put the phone down, turn off the computer, tuck away the tablet and no TV for a bit.  Children are not accustomed to our Internet-enabled working world of constant screens, nor should they be for many years to come.  Get out in nature when/where you can even if it’s walking a few blocks to a local park to sit on a bench and bird watch.  If you’ve never tried fishing, now is a great time to give it a shot (catch and release!).  How about some low-key hiking through the woods as the Fall foliage descends on the northern half of the country in the months ahead?  Our first foray was buying a tent – thank you Amazon – and pitching it in the backyard and spending a summer night sleeping under the stars.  Most of these activities cost very little money, but they can be exceptionally valuable life moments that your children will remember.

5. We WILL prevail.  I’m no politician and I am not running for office but this is not an America vs. The World battle, all of humanity is in this together and we have the resources and know-how through science and funding to figure this out.   Breakthroughs will come – in therapeutics, vaccines and prevention strategies – but that’s the funny thing about breakthroughs, it’s hard to predict when.  Later in 2020?  2021 perhaps?  I don’t know enough to hazard a guess but there is an end, even if it is not squarely in sight today.

August de Richelieu – Pexels.com

The novel coronavirus has brought novel stress to all of our lives, and it has to our youth as well.  Without traditional outlets of sports, schools, social activities and friendships let’s make sure that they don’t remember this period of their lives as having been locked away with little connection to the world outside of a blaring TV screen and a 4 inch phone screen with TikTok videos and glamorous Instagram photos of a world that feels oh so far away.  Academics matter, and you’ll see plenty of that advice as schools open, but the social and emotional support for children – that’s going to be everything this academic year as it will inevitably be unlike one any of us have ever experienced.

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The author is the founder and CEO of Junction Education, a learning platform-as-a-service company that enables any content provider to quickly build and deliver personalized online courses to K-12 schools, colleges/universities, and professionals in over 160 countries around the globe.  He also co-led one of four public-private working groups chaired by the US Department of Education and FCC under the Obama Administration to chart a course forward for accelerating the digitization of the nation’s schools aiming to close the ‘digital divide’.

The “New Normal” in Education is Anything But

On March 1st, 2020 only 1.6 million K-12 students had taken any course fully online yet within the weeks that followed that number grew not by a little, but by an astounding 45.3 million learners.  What did we learn from this sudden experiment with massively scaled online learning and what does it mean for the future of primary and secondary education?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Two decades after the dot com boom, high speed connectivity is often assumed but that was the first flawed assumption of many.  Care to guess what percentage of learners aged 6-18 have home Internet access?  

33% sounds too low in this always-on era.  Maybe 93-98% of school aged children have home Internet access in 2020?  Not quite…

Only 78% of school-aged children have home Internet access with the main household device being – a parent or family member’s smartphone.  Now smartphones are great tools for learning certain short topics, I recently learned to change the oil on my car with a YouTube video, but I wouldn’t recommend them as a primary form of delivering engaging, supportive, learning for an eight year old to fully replace an entire 8am – 3pm school day.  By the way, that also means that 22% of learners did not have home internet access – that’s over 11 million students who were suddenly disconnected from learning, social support and for many a dependable source of food. 

While we’ve all read stories of the takeover of online school sessions via Zoom, Skype, Meet or other videoconferencing solutions another item that is not discussed is bandwidth.  Bandwidth and Internet access are not (yet) utilities so widespread public access, as we noted above, remains a significant hurdle for scaling digital learning.  If you’re reading this with 200Mbps, 400Mbps or even fiber-optic connections of 1Gbps coming to your home as you stream Netflix, listen to a podcast and conduct real-time video calls in HD while continuing to keep up with your email, Slack and other work tasks consider yourself exceptionally fortunate.  More than half the population of the United States has a home Internet connection speed of less than 25Mbps.  Oh, and Skype recommends a 8Mbps connection for group video calls of 7+ people.  With an average K-12 classroom having well more than 7 people, it’s safe to triple that bandwidth requirement and then hope that while millions are working remotely that no one else in the household also needs to use the Internet for any reason.

Oh, but we haven’t addressed the challenges thrust upon the nation’s 3.7 million educators who may have young children at home, older parents to isolate and monitor, and had at most a few days of professional development before teaching fully online.  Teaching is far more than dog-eared textbooks and photocopies of math problems, it’s an artful balance of diagnosing each learner’s needs, matching the available resources and tools to those needs all while maintaining adherence to multiple layers of educational standards that must be taught to the dot point.  How specific are these standards?  Let’s share an example for Grade 8 of a single standard (amongst hundreds) from New Jersey’s 99 pages of math standards:

While it’s true that there are no shortage of learning platforms and technologies that help educators assess students, group them and offer remediation suggestions it’s exceptionally optimistic to believe that every student was armed with a (relatively new) computer, high-speed broadband, food and support at home, and access to teachers, family members or others who could provide social, emotional and educational support.  

As we reflect back on the last four months while summer recess is in full swing and the push is being made on many fronts to return students to schools full-time let’s pause to consider what happens if we end up in a fully online learning environment again?  How many of the 15,000+ school districts across the United States have used this time wisely and have they been able to make the investments to insure better learning outcomes in a fully online world, should that moment come, as they grapple with declines in state funding due to reduced sales tax collections correlated with the declines in economic activity?

We will get there, together, but in order to protect the learning progress of our littlest citizens let’s do what we can to insure that we’re equipping and supporting educators, opening up (extremely affordable) bandwidth to people’s homes, expanding 1-1 device programs for equal access and supporting stressed educators, parents and family members with a range of back-to-school options this year that work for them.  

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The author is the founder and CEO of Junction Education, a learning platform-as-a-service company that enables any content provider to quickly build and deliver personalized online courses to schools, college and universities, and professionals in over 160 countries around the globe.  He also co-led one of four public-private working groups chaired by the US Department of Education and FCC under the Obama Administration to chart a course forward for accelerating the digitization of the nation’s schools aiming to close the ‘digital divide’. 

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels