Economy

America resorts to remote learning, against pupils’ interests

GIVEN THE way the fight had been proceeding, it ended in a whimper. On January 10th a stand-off between Chicago’s teachers’ union and its mayor, Lori Lightfoot, escalated to personal insults. Jesse Sharkey, the union’s president, called Ms Lightfoot “relentlessly stupid”. She responded by calling him a “privileged, clouted white guy”. Hours later, the teachers agreed to go back to work, bringing to an end a nearly weeklong strike over covid-19 safety fears. The city stuck to its terms, but agreed to increase testing and supply more KN95 masks.

Across America, more than 5,000 public schools, about 5% of the total, switched to remote learning for one or more days during the first week of January due to covid-19. It is a controversial call. The case for cancelling in-person learning was stronger early in the pandemic. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, whose schools are now open for in-person learning. Without a vaccine and consistent mitigation measures, teachers and pupils were at risk. But prioritising health over education had many serious consequences.

Remote classes led to a huge learning loss. According to NWEA, an education-research firm, pupil achievement declined by 3-7 percentile points in reading and 9-11 points in maths by the end of the 2020-21 school year. McKinsey, a consulting firm, estimates pupils lost four to five months of learning that year. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that pupils engaging in remote learning also had more mental-health difficulties than children attending school in person.

The evidence on the health risks in schools is mixed. A study published in October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that American counties that opened schools saw an increase in the growth rate of cases of five percentage points on average. Another study, published in April by the American Academy of Paediatrics, found that opening schools in North Carolina led to little virus spread. The authors credit the schools’ public-health measures, including daily screening and mask-wearing for pupils and adults, for minimising the impact.

In-person learning is better for many pupils, and vaccines have lowered the risk. But vaccination rates lag in America, particularly among the young: 73% of adults are fully vaccinated compared with 53% of 12- to 17-year-olds. Only 25% of five- to 11-year-olds have received at least one dose since they became eligible in November.

School leaders could encourage vaccination by giving families information on how to get it or by hosting clinics. They could consider mandates similar to the current vaccination requirements for childhood diseases in all 50 states. Frequent testing could also support a safer environment, but America has struggled to provide enough kits. The Biden administration promised to make 200m at-home tests available a month by the end of December, but it has failed to do so (on January 12th it pledged to more than double the number of tests available to schools, with an extra 10m a month). Families are struggling to find testing in their communities, says Tracie Sanlin, CEO of Chicago Collegiate, a charter school in Chicago. She plans to provide free testing on campus.

Research on the general public shows a clear link between masking and diminished covid spread. Yet four states, including Florida and Texas, have implemented mask bans for schools. In Florida eight school districts defied the rule, resulting in a loss of state funding. Legal challenges have been unsuccessful in Florida but others have prevailed. Mr Hinojosa’s school district is one of several in Texas that resisted the state’s executive order against mask mandates. A federal judge ordered a halt to the enforcement of the ban, allowing the districts to insist on masks.

Another concern is a substitute-staffing shortfall driven by overall teacher shortages. Ms Sanlin hoped to open her school last week, but she decided to switch to remote learning when 40% of her staff tested positive over the winter break. “If I only have 60% of my staff, that means grade levels are collapsed,” she explains. “We would have been baby-sitters. Whereas by choosing to go remote, we can teach our kids and actually can get some schoolwork done.” As a charter academy, Ms Sanlin’s school was not hampered by the negotiations between the teachers’ union and the school district. It returned to in-person learning on January 10th.

The union in Chicago claimed that mitigation measures, such as testing, had not been properly implemented. Its teachers refused to return until their concerns were addressed. The city’s mayor rejected this claim. Pupils and their families were caught in the middle. Chicago’s squabble is merely the most public and attention-grabbing. Few imagined that America’s schools would still be struggling to stay open nearly two years after the first wave of closures in March 2020.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Classes cancelled”


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