As public school classrooms continue to reopen after Labor Day, the state is sticking to its mandate for in-person learning this fall — and for good reason. Learning subjects like math, reading, and science at home, on computer screens, proved enormously difficult for many students last year. Some struggled with poor Internet connections, others fell behind academically, and still others had serious mental health problems; local hospitals reported a big spike in admissions for young people who had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide.
The risk of returning to the classroom, moreover, is low. Even as the Delta variant fills up hospital wards across the country, children remain very unlikely to get seriously ill or die. And schools that take reasonable precautions have not played a substantial role in the spread of the coronavirus.
But the in-person mandate faces real resistance, nonetheless; there are some parents who are vowing to home-school their children and others who may keep their kids out of school altogether. Some are afraid of the virus; others maintain their children did better in remote learning.
So what to do?
One option is to create stand-alone virtual schools — allowing a subset of students to learn remotely even as most stick with in-person learning. The state gave seven districts permission to open schools of that very type this fall: Attleboro, Brockton, Chelsea, Peabody, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Westfield.
Azell Cavaan, a spokesperson for the Springfield schools, says the district decided to open the Springfield Virtual School amid “great interest” from district families. And last week, about 550 students in grades K-12 started logging in from all over the city.
“We intend for it to be permanent,” Cavaan said. But the district, she added, will keep an eye on how it performs this year.
Vigilance is key.
Even before the pandemic, the state operated two virtual schools, TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School and Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School. And the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave them underwhelming marks in their latest evaluations, released in March.
New virtual schools operated by individual districts will have to be tightly monitored for their performance. And if they struggle, they may need to be phased out when the pandemic becomes manageable — or even before then.
Boston Public Schools was among a handful of districts that expressed interest in opening a virtual school in the spring but never completed the process. When the state asked some questions about the district’s plan, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told the School Committee in June that there wasn’t enough time to revise the proposal and get a school up and running by the fall.
The delay could prove costly if large numbers of families decide not to send their kids to school at all with no virtual option. But it will give the district some time to evaluate enrollment patterns, to judge the success of virtual schools in other communities in Massachusetts, and to look around the country for best practices. Officials should make good use of that time.
Even apart from the pandemic, a remote learning option may prove useful for some children with disabilities or social anxieties — or for those who simply learn better on their own. And it’s too hard on teachers to ask them to juggle the duties of in-person and virtual teaching simultaneously, which means virtual schools can be more practical than hybrid classrooms.
But we shouldn’t forget the lessons of the last year and a half. Distance schooling can lead to real problems. In-person schooling should remain the norm, and any exceptions must be rare, carefully considered, and rigorously scrutinized to ensure they don’t make the educational gaps that have opened over the last year even worse.
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