Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock


2020-The Year in K-12 Education

 

The COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed all K-12 education news for the year 2020. Teachers and administrators dealt with funding changes, abnormal enrollment trends, teacher and "sub" shortages, curricular and academic challenges, and student management both face-to-face and online. Yet, some school boards and portions of the local government and public were more concerned with the baby-sitting function of school and impact on sports than on academic progress.
 
    Early in the spring, decisions had to be made without a full understanding of the new coronavirus, its mode of transmission, the extent it would sicken and kill across various age groups, its response to warmer or colder seasons and more. While a surge in science research overwhelmed the publishing process, our low level of overall science literacy meant that behaviors that should have been based on science were determined by economics, politics and variable leadership.

    At the K-12 level, it soon became evident that early elementary students were less likely to suffer severe symptoms. But for a few youngsters, a new Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) is a serious inflammation of the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. As of December 4, the CDC reported 1,288 children had MIS-C and 23 died. As of this date, we still do not know the extent young children, who are often asymptomatic, harbor and transfer the virus to classmates and particularly to older school staff. 

    Older students ramp up to the higher rates of adult symptomatic infection, making the decisions on high school policy different from elementary schools. Students lacking symptoms, including fever, make taking temperatures at entrances less effective. 

    Original mitigation efforts assumed the full range of washing hands, wiping down furniture, etc. But over time, data indicate that transmission by droplets and especially the invisible aerosols breathed out during talking, singing and cheering remain suspended for some time are a major mode of transmission. This makes group sports, band, orchestra and choral singing especially dangerous.

    Research soon showed a clear protection provided by face masks in holding in outgoing aerosols and reducing aerosol intake—protection for both the wearer and others. Worries that young students would resist wearing a mask were not realized; many were eager to wear the often decorated masks. Of course, accommodations were needed for students with asthma and similar conditions.
 
    Rapid dilution and dissipation of aerosols in outdoor air makes outdoor classes up to 17 times safer. Indoor classes with open windows and active circulation pulled that advantage indoors. Filtering indoor air through HEPA filters, similar to airliners, will be a major advantage too, but will require retrofitting school buildings over time.
 
    Where schools went fully online, large numbers of K-12 students disappeared, estimated at over 600,000 nationwide. Some were homeless, living with a parent in a car or couch-surfing, where school classmates and teachers provided their only stability. Many students lacked sufficient internet connections. Education Week, the K-12 newspaper of record, runs massive ads by digital companies hawking more expensive equipment and closing the "digital divide," as the complete solution. But most students already possessing solid internet connections and laptops are falling behind.

    Online testing has increased cheating, mainly by students "cooperating" to find answers. Grades have dropped. Academic standards now take a back seat to social-emotional concerns.
 
    Measurement of the extent of learning loss varies from several months to the whole year, dependent on subject and the affluence of the school district. That also reflects the help from parents and others. 

    Face-to-face contact with teachers provided critical mandated reporting of suspected child abuse. With less teacher contact, abuse reports are down but the increased poverty and stress has undoubtedly increased unreported child abuse. 

    Schools had become an important source of nutrition under the free lunch program. With huge parent job losses, nearly one-third of our nation's children are estimated to now be "food insecure." Some schools use their buses to deliver meals. But the number of children served is now far less. 
   
    K-12 education relies on tax-based support. The tax shortfall is providing an excuse for increasing the number of unqualified "teachers" and substitutes to replace those who have left. Teachers still average nearly 20 percent less pay than others with comparable degrees, so our tax-based funding will turn around the small victories recently made in some states to increase teacher pay.  More older teachers have left for early retirement. Surveys show 86 percent of those still in the classroom report low morale. 

    While vaccination may end the pandemic, these losses in learning will be with us for a generation.