In a matter of months, the novel coronavirus has swept across the globe and entirely up-ended our understanding of normality. Now, as the virus continues to rage and signs of a second surge are emerging even before the first has ended, we’re rethinking everything we’d assumed and hoped for at the start of the lockdowns. One of the bigger questions that educators, parents and students are having to face right now is how to return to school safely, if at all?
There’s a lot at stake behind the decision to return to classes this fall, especially if you are a college student hoping a degree would promise a better career. For many students, especially first-generation college students and those from immigrant families, a degree is a ticket to a better life. Having to put your education on hold simply may not be an option for those who are struggling to make ends meet and have limited resources, for whom a delay may easily become denial. Delays may mean that students won’t be able to find the resources to finance their degree at a later date or that life’s momentum will simply carry them further away from their dream of a college education. In fact, studies show that those who delay going to college by a year or more are 64% less likely to earn their degree.
Keeping the Academic Community Connected During the Pandemic
And that can mean not only a loss of education but also a loss of a career. Fair or not, in an increasingly competitive job market, those college credentials might be the determining factor in getting the job that opens the door to the rest of your professional life. For instance, those wanting to score big bucks and land a career where demand is only predicted to grow in the coming years may well end up in the tech industry. Some of the most lucrative and prestigious careers in technology require advanced master’s degrees.
But even at the entry level, they’re not just handing out tech jobs on the street corner. Even if you don’t complete a full undergraduate program, you’re still going to need, at the very least, a good deal of training and, better still, a certification or two in software development, network administration, cybersecurity or a related field just to get your foot in the door. What all this boils down to is that for a college student trying to weigh up the present health risks against hopes and dreams of a professional future, the question of whether or not to return to school this fall is far from straightforward.
A Question of Safety
As undeniably important as education is, health is even more so. After all, pursuing an education will mean very little if students contract the virus and have a bad outcome because of it. Studies are increasingly suggesting, for instance, that those who recover from more severe cases of COVID-19 may have significant long-term impacts, including cognitive and physical impairments that may linger or may even prove permanent. But because we simply don’t know what the lasting effects of the virus may be, we also don’t know how this might affect survivors’ future academic or professional life.
There’s no question that COVID-19 is a terrifying enemy. And the fear of the danger that it may pose to students, teachers and their families is leading many to wonder if campuses should continue to be shuttered, at least through the start of the fall session. However, we are learning rapidly about this new pathogen, including how to identify unexpected symptoms and what kind of hygiene, isolation and quarantine practices work best. When it comes to the question of school safety in the age of coronavirus, though many questions remain, we also have a lot of important answers.
First, there are many actions that we know can help slow or even prevent the spread of the virus in schools and on college campuses. That includes reducing class sizes to enable social distancing. It also involves rigorous cleaning and sanitizing of school grounds and meticulous hygiene for anyone coming and going. This includes not only frequent and vigorous hand washing and sanitizing, but also wearing face masks when at least six feet (or two meters) of distance can’t be maintained.
That’s also going to mean that schools, colleges and universities will need to have a plan in place to trigger a lockdown and swift transition to online learning if infections escalate to unsafe levels in the community or region. Currently, some of the largest school districts in the US, particularly those in hard-hit areas such as Florida and New York, are beginning the fall semester online and plan to transition to in-person classes if and when infection rates fall.
This is in keeping with the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) guidelines, which recommend that districts base their decision to open, and to remain open, on rates of community spread or on the regulations that have been put into place by state governors. But online learning doesn’t mean learning less. It doesn’t even mean having to struggle more with your courses. For some students, it is possible to thrive if you’re studying remotely.
For those who do struggle, the difficulties are significant, and it comes down, unfairly but likely not unsurprisingly, to socioeconomic factors. In Los Angeles, students in low-income districts may have been thriving pre-COVID, but once schools were shuttered and students went into quarantine, the lack of resources was immediately apparent. As documented in this Los Angeles Times story, Maria Viego did well in her classes, but once her campus closed, it took weeks for her to receive her district-issued computer. Once she did, the damage was already done. She was one of the children COVID-19 is leaving behind, although luckily not all districts in LA had the same experience.
Even the more affluent areas are finding it difficult to offer consistent access to online learning for students. In some cases, the sheer size of school districts leads to major technical issues. Server problems nationwide caused the online learning tool Blackboard to crash on the first day of distance learning for Idaho’s largest school district, West Ada. Idaho is a perfect example of how much access differs among districts in a state despite a lack of physical distance.
In some cases, supporting distance learning is difficult because a household is run by a single parent who provides for the entire family. There is no time during the day to help with homework. Districts are also becoming much more acutely aware of how little parents may be involved in their children’s schoolwork when they’re at home. In this new era of full-time distance learning, this is highlighting the chasms in education.
To combat these issues and others, various education systems from around the world have adopted a number of models. Israel has created an online portal through which parents can access learning materials as well as data on their children. The national education system also broadcasts daily lessons for six hours a day in both Arabic and Hebrew. Estonian families receive all materials in both digital and hard copies, making it easier for families who struggle with tech or don’t have it at all to support their young learners.
Getting an education in the age of COVID-19 inevitably amps up the stress and anxiety in what is already a stressful process, but no virus should rob young people of the future they deserve.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.