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Opinion | Education is failing in the coronavirus pandemic

It’s a tough time for education at every level — students, teachers, administrators and school board members, are being stretched to their limits.

As pandemic fatigue sets in, some students are becoming restless and disengaged with learning, while teachers are reaching their breaking points, trying to juggle technology, hybrid models and safety protocols, in an effort to continue school during this pandemic.

Educational leaders are also trying to make the best decisions with changing COVID data, albeit independently, while also creating a sense of normalcy to meet student needs and parents’ demands to have their children back in school. However, what we aren’t seeing behind the scenes are the long hours educators are putting in, and the stress it’s causing to do that.

Over the past several months, an alarming number of teachers and education leaders have resigned because the pressures have become too heavy of a burden to carry. Student enrollment counts are also down as districts compete to retain students and parents seek other alternatives.

Add to that, a turbulent election season, and there are many reasons to be concerned about the remainder of the school year, and the future of education. Somehow education has gotten caught in the crossfire of politics, and the desire to put students back in school (with masks) has become more about political affiliation, than what is best for children.

There’s no doubt we all want to ensure the best opportunity for students to learn, but with so many emotions and differing opinions on how to do that, there’s no clear way to keep everyone happy (and safe), with limited resources.

Yet, the biggest failure of the pandemic has been the inequity in education, depending on where you live (the suburbs vs. urban areas).

In the suburbs where I serve on a school board in a high-performing district, a large majority of parents have chosen for their children to go back to school face-to-face (approximately 73 percent).  As a result, we’ve had increased input from parents in district meetings, which went from a few public comments per meeting, to more than 100 comments, including lots of daily emails with strong opinions about how schools should re-open. Daily attendance by students remains high, about 97 percent. Students are still being graded as they were in a traditional setting, and the stakes for students continue to be high, adding more anxiety.

However, in urban areas where we serve children through my organization, Friends of the Children-Detroit, we’ve seen declining or inconsistent attendance rates, mostly because parents are coping with life stressors, trying to maintain stable housing and meet basic needs, which means school is secondary for them.  For example, one student missed the first day of school because she had to go to work with her mom.

Child care continues to be an issue as relatives help with caregiving, and some students don’t have the accommodations at home to create a quiet and comfortable learning space.  Less than half of urban families have chosen in-person school compared to their suburban counterparts (or have not been given the option), mostly because they’ve had loved ones affected by COVID, or they know they are disproportionately at a higher risk of being adversely impacted by it. These are not ideal situations to learn in, nor for students to be graded and tested.

So, there is a lot to dissect in this first period/semester of the school year, and if it’s any indication of what to expect over the next eight months of school, we should all prepare to be flexible and allow for a little grace.   

COVID cases are on the rise again, and despite our best efforts, the current in-person models of opening and closing schools due to positive cases don’t seem sustainable long-term.  Yet, the joy it offers students to return to the classroom seems worth giving it a try.

Education is clearly at a crossroads, and our children and teachers need us now more than ever. Let’s remember to keep sight of what’s most important in this moment, and learn from it, so that we can rebuild education better for the future.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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