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Distance Learning or Neighborhood School?

Updated: Nov 6, 2021



It is becoming common knowledge that susceptibility of children to contract the corona-virus is minimal. Towards the end of May, the Centers for Disease Control reported 81,372 deaths as the result of COVID-19 in the United States (1). Eighty percent of the mortalities were aged 65 and older. Nineteen percent of deaths were between the ages of 25 and 64. Just over one-tenth of one percent of deaths were from birth to age 24, with most of those occurring between the ages of 15-24. So, why is it that the children cannot go to school? Well, for one reason, sacred summer vacation is now upon us.


Although a remnant of the past when more students lived in rural locations and had to work on the farm, summertime has transformed into time spent at the pool and beach, recreation and sports. There is a movement in education, embedded in learning and recall, that since fewer students live on farms nowadays, one long summer vacation (8-10 weeks) should be replaced with several shorter vacations, not withstanding winter (Christmas) and spring (Easter) breaks. That aside, it made sense to pull children out of school this past Spring because of the crisis. Safety came first and in March there was limited data on how the corona-virus affected various age groups.


So, we can expect the 2020-2021 school year to commence in August, right? Not so fast. There is another concern about the spread of the virus and sending students, with a minute chance of contracting the contagion, to school. Students in school have hundreds of personal contacts every day, more than most adults. A CBS news report stated that "80% of kids likely have corona-virus, but they're so asymptomatic you'd never know." (2) Therefore, although children may not be coming down with the illness, their many face-to-face contacts with peers, teachers, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, etc. is cause for concern to those in charge of making decisions about whether to start school again in August.


If, however, education is a pillar of society, it is imperative that students return to school on schedule. Online schooling is simply not an alternative for year-round school, what with the importance of face-to-face, in-person interaction that we have always been told is an important cog in the holistic development of young people. Indeed, social-emotional learning is a key ingredient to student growth. Studies have shown the interpersonal aspect that sports and extra-curricular activities offer to be a more important indicator of future success than simply excelling in the classroom. Moreover, how many times have we heard school-sending parents lament the lack of socialization (whether it be true or not) for home-schoolers. So, it follows that online-schooling should not be a permanent alternative to brick-and-mortar schools.


The importance of re-establishing schools in a safe-and-soon manner has not gone lost on scholars. The very recent report by Wodon (3) discusses impacts and risks of school closures and possible responses of schools. Impacts include losses in student learning, mental health, and the possibility of dropping out. Risks for children include exposure to the virus at school, missing instructional time, and cancellation of extra-curricular activities.

Affects on schools will be losses in enrollment, budget cuts, and affordability. So, what are schools to do in this most unusual setting?


Teachers and administrators will attest that when the corona-virus broke out, many schools were not prepared for distance learning, though a plethora of digital learning resources have made themselves known via the assumption that online learning is the primary alternative should school buildings not be able to re-open. Popular online platforms include Zoom, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, Facebook Live, BrainPop, and Blackboard. Radio and television are other platforms to consider (3) Curricular resources are too many to mention.


Private school communities may be more worried about next school year than those in public schools because of their dependency on tuition and philanthropy over public support and their families ability to pay, though educational vouchers for schools with low-income families would help to sustain such private schools. Private schools can apply to the Educational Stabilization Fund via the CARES Act that allots 13.5 billion dollars to K-12 public and private schools. It is important to support private schools in times of economic downturn as tuition paying families save a significant amount of money from the overall public budget for schools. Imagine if private schools had to close and their students, en masse, had to enroll in public schools. That would bloat the government's current educational budget. With new safety precautions to be implemented in schools across the nation, additional funding will also be needed (3). Thus, school decision makers across the nation will need to make some tough monetary decisions over the summer as cuts may be on the horizon.


Not less important than financial concerns, adaptations to instructional modalities for students will be necessary. Wodon (3) suggests rotations between those present in the classroom, those at home engaged in distance learning, and those involved in extra-curricular activities with the overall goal of keeping a small number of students in close proximity to each other. In any learning format, an emphasis will need to be placed on remedial education from lost learning of last school year. Highly efficacious teaching will be a must in order to play catch-up to the lost learning.


The assumption is that we will return to pre Covid-19 times and large brick-and-mortar schools will continue to teach classrooms of 20-40 students, albeit with added safety precautions. Should there be a spike of corona-virus cases with a return to traditional school, many believe online and distance learning to be the only alternative. However, working parents would find ongoing distance learning to be problematic with regard to supervision and optimal learning. So, is there another option?


Perhaps we need to look at the past for our view to the future, when small, community schools dotted the landscape. Prior to compulsory education, schooling was not un-important to most families. In small villages and towns in the pioneer days of old, families bound together and found a learned, patient, dedicated person to teach their children. So, rather than knee-jerking to an online, distance learning format only, existing teachers, who may not have a school in which to work, can initiate their own neighborhood schools in their own homes or the homes of their students, or perhaps in a local park (weather co-operating), teaching up to 10 opt-in students at a time in an updated version of the one-room school house, with technological advancements of course.


Most traditional school teachers still prefer in-person, face-to-face teaching. They can recruit neighborhood assistants as needed. Should a severe spike necessitate another quarantine, these teachers can keep personal contact with students electronically. Overall benefits will be personal attention, supervision of children, and community cohesion. Humans are social beings. If lock-downs have proven anything, it is that unsettled feeling of having to stay sheltered-in-place for weeks and months on end.


NOTE: Since publishing this post, the World Health Organization declared that spreading the corona-virus through asymptomatic people is rare, but has since walked back that statement, offering that it is still a "very complex question".




(1) https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Provisional-COVID-19-Death-Counts-by-Sex-Age-and-S/9bhg-hcku


(2) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-children-pediatrician-80-percent-asymptomatic/


(3) Wodon, Q. (2020). COVID-19 Crisis, Impacts on Catholic Schools, and Potential Responses| Part 1: Developed Countries with Focus on the United States.


(4) https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/09/who-scrambles-to-clarify-comments-on-asymptomatic-coronavirus-spread-much-is-still-unknown.html

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