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Column: Now is the time to think about the future of education

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Orange County Register illustration -- Amy Ning

For the Valley News
Published: 5/30/2020 10:30:14 PM
Modified: 5/30/2020 10:30:12 PM

The debate on reopening of public schools promises to be far more difficult and complicated than the one we are having now about re-opening the economy. Absent federal guidelines on the issue, it appears that each state will make decisions on reopening its schools and set the guidelines that will apply. In making those decisions, each state will need to balance its budget realities and the advice of its health officials against the desire of many residents to “return to normal” as quickly as possible.

The revenue picture for public education is bleak.

Both Vermont and New Hampshire state governments are facing revenue shortfalls for the current fiscal year, which ends soon, and next year’s revenue forecasts look far worse than the ones used to develop budgets for 2020-21. Town governments are facing similar revenue problems. In addition to facing shortfalls in the next few months, municipalities in both Vermont and New Hampshire are eying potential revenue losses down the road because of the non-payment of property taxes and the closing of small businesses. New Hampshire towns also face the loss of meals and lodging taxes.

All of these shortfalls will inevitably force school districts to cut budgets, if not in the current fiscal year, most certainly for 2020-21.

At the same time, school districts will face higher costs and daunting logistical challenges should they reopen in September. State health officials have already issued protocols for social distancing in the reopening of businesses. If these same protocols are applied to public schools, it would be impossible to house children in the current classroom spaces, transport them using existing bus routes, and feed them using the current lunch schedules and cafeterias.

The medical protocols state health officials are recommending for businesses would also require increased spending when applied to schools. Mandates that school districts require children and school personnel to wear masks, to take the temperature of students and staff as they enter school, to quarantine children who run a fever, and to have students wash their hands more frequently will all cost money — money that is not in current operating budgets.

And, as we’ve witnessed, replacing classroom instruction with online learning requires increased public spending for internet infrastructure and computers in order to provide an equitable opportunity for all children.

Moreover, extended online learning for elementary students will require some kind of child care if parents are required to return to their workplaces.

As complex as the budget and logistical challenges are, they pale in comparison to the political challenges states will face in the reopening schools.

The demonstrations calling for an end to the “shelter-in-place” mandates show that some members of the public are willing to pay whatever price is necessary to “return to normal.” and the president’s recent declaration that “schools will be open in September” adds even more political pressure. States, however, cannot base their decision to reopen on political sentiment. They need to heed the advice of public health officials, most of whom caution against reopening schools fearing that older employees and students with underlying medical conditions will be at particular risk if they are exposed to asymptomatic children and colleagues. States and school districts also will need to answer to parents, who need to be completely confident that their children’s school buildings are clean and that every adult and child in the school is healthy.

Despite the desire of those who want schools to “return to normal,” a survey conducted in late April by the National Parents Union indicates that only 32% of parents want schools to “revert to the way things were before the pandemic began” while 61% said schools “should focus on rethinking how to educate students and should come up with new teaching methods.” Given these survey results, and the complications described above, I offer three possible approaches schools might want to consider this fall:

Offer daily education only to those students in grades K-6. In order to conform to the social distancing currently recommended by health officials while optimizing the use of space for instruction and minimizing the child care complications for working parents, schools could require daily attendance of only the youngest children.

Provide blended learning to students in grades 7-12. Since older children are more capable of independent learning, districts could limit on-site schooling for secondary-level students to two or three days a week and require online instruction for the other days. Such a format complements the personalized learning approaches launched in Vermont and New Hampshire, approaches that use technology to individualize instruction and encourage students to become self-directed learners.

Expand alternative learning opportunities for juniors and seniors. Both Vermont and New Hampshire champion the idea of 11th- and 12th-grade students earning college credits, designing their own independent study programs, or both. In some cases, these self-directed programs do not require students to attend public school. Instead, they attend community college classes or work in apprenticeships.

A recent article of the Axios news website, which included the survey results cited above, concluded with a cautionary note: “Despite the stated desire or parents to rethink schooling, there will be a strong pull toward the status quo because people are longing for a return to pre-pandemic life.” That said, those craving pre-pandemic “normalcy” might want to consider that the pre-pandemic design for public schooling was put in place in the 1920s, before the widespread use of radio, before the invention of TV and before the cornucopia of online instruction available on the internet.

With no fast, cheap and easy way to “return to normal,” now might be an opportune time to determine how we want public schools to operate in the future.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.




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