Opinion | Schools' responsibility to students doesn't change during pandemic

Greg Talberg

Greg Talberg is a veteran high school teacher in Howell Public Schools.  He is also the chairperson of the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council and the parent of two public school children.  The views expressed here are his own.

Michigan students, parents, educators, and policy makers must remain patient in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  On social media, posts abound of parents trying to keep their kids “caught up.” Educators at all levels are scrambling to provide learning opportunities for their students.  These responses are understandable. Parents, educators, and policy makers all want kids to receive the best education possible.

To the parents out there who feel stressed because you aren’t sure how to educate your children from home, or more problematically, don’t have the time or resources to educate your own children, please know it is the school’s responsibility to create the conditions that enable your kids to learn.  The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t change that.

I’ve heard more than one educator describe the current learning environment as an attempt to build a plane while it’s flying.  This feeling stems from our efforts to engage learners in ways that we have not done before, especially the implementation of remote instruction.  Our concerns that kids will fall behind have led many parents and educators to call for changes to the law regarding online learning. As we seek greater flexibility for how we deliver instruction, we must be not just bold, but pragmatic.

When it comes to public schools, providing equitable access to an education for all learners is a top priority. The reasons there are guidelines in place regarding online instruction are to honor the idea of equity.  Equity matters, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it probably matters more than ever. We should not allow this health crisis to further exacerbate the achievement gap between various student groups.

I am not advocating that parents, schools, and policy makers do nothing.  Schools and teachers should be empowered to provide continuity of instruction for students and families based on the resources they have available.  Policy makers should consider ways to support students and districts as we navigate this unknown educational landscape. I am advocating that we recognize how important it is that we meet all our students where they are.  We shouldn’t leave many of our most vulnerable students further behind in our efforts to keep up. 

In addition to empowering students to continue their learning remotely, school districts must plan to address the needs of their students when we return to the classroom.  Leaders in education must pay attention to the issue of equity now more than ever before. While school districts are doing some changing of the tires while driving the car, they must also be prepared to do maintenance and repairs when it gets back in the driveway.  Michigan educators and families are resilient and there are myriad actions that may be considered in school districts that will enable us to ensure that all students get the education they are entitled to. Perhaps some districts start earlier in the Fall. Perhaps other districts add time to the day for the 2020-21 academic year to provide remediation.  School districts already have in place Multi-Tiered-Systems-of-Support that they may rely on to adjust to the needs of all their learners.  

While public schools are vital to all Michiganders, we are in the midst of a health crisis. As we do our best to enable our students to continue their education, we need to be careful not to exclude our most vulnerable learners and families.  As we remind ourselves that this is a health crisis, we will gain perspective and in the midst of this pandemic, we will hold tightly to the promise and hope that public schools provide for all Michigan students and families.

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