The new school year: A US election hot topic and an opportunity

US schools aim to offer full-time classroom learning, full-time online or a hybrid, leaving parents scrambling.

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    Schools have varied methods to maintain social distancing between students as they try to find ways to reopen [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]
    Schools have varied methods to maintain social distancing between students as they try to find ways to reopen [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

    At this time every year, parents across the United States are typically gearing up for the new school year, shopping for school supplies and uniforms.

    But with reported COVID-19 infections and deaths still rising across many parts of the country, the first day of classes this year will differ starkly across districts.

    Some schools are planning full-time classroom learning, while others want full-time online instruction or a hybrid system - leaving parents scrambling to find ways to send their children back to classrooms safely, or to manage remote learning, all while keeping up with their own jobs.

    Back to school
    A woman shopping for school supplies at a Walmart store in San Diego, California [File: Mike Blake/Reuters] [Daylife]

    "I don't know how we're going to make not going to school, work," said Joy Soler, a mother of two, aged four and 10, "but we have to do it anyway."

    Soler, who lives in Tucson, Arizona said her school district is offering families a choice between full-time online or full-time in-class instruction. She opted for the online option, largely because her youngest daughter suffers from a rare disorder that affects her respiratory system.

    "I feel like everyone is on an island and we are talking from island to island, trying to reinvent the wheel, it's very isolating," Soler told Al Jazeera, adding that she will have to manage the children's school work and assignments, in addition to trying to reopen her bookstore cafe.

    'Plain dangerous'

    The issue of school reopenings has become a political hot button topic, key to President Donald Trump's re-election bid in November. His administration has been pushing for schools to reopen, which could allow many parents to return to work and help revive the economy. Trump threatened to cut off federal aid to schools that do not comply.

    "Young people have to go to school, and there's problems when you don't go to school, too," Trump said in an interview aired on Sunday on Fox News. "And there's going to be a funding problem because we're not going to fund when they don't open their schools."

    Trump has also accused his Democratic rivals of pushing to keep schools closed for political reasons, rather than over legitimate fears about a pandemic that has infected more than 3.9 million Americans and killed at least 142,000, leading the world in both figures.

    Trump payroll tax cut
    President Donald Trump urged school reopenings saying he would halt funding to schools that did not reopen [AP Photo/Evan Vucci]

    Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has been leading Trump in most polls, on Friday unveiled his plan to reopen schools. His proposal, which he says is based on science rather than political consideration, leaves final decisions up to state and local officials.

    "Everyone wants our schools to reopen. The question is how to make it safe, how to make it stick," Biden said in a video he recorded with his wife, Jill, a former teacher. "Forcing educators and students back into a classroom in areas where the infection rate is going up or remaining very high is just plain dangerous."

    A divisive issue

    Evidence shows that the majority of Americans do not support sending their children back to school. A recent opinion poll showed that 55 percent do not believe it is safe to reopen schools.

    "We're absolutely staying home," said Tina Marie Burgio, a mother of two from Austin, Texas, a state with 351,071 cases and 4,199 deaths on Wednesday.

    "Looking at the infection rate in our area and our school building, which was overcrowded by 250 students last year, this is not an environment that I am comfortable sending my children to," Burgio said.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued guidance that school districts should try to get students back to campuses, saying children learn best when they are at school, but that the decision should be based on the infection rate in the area. 

    School districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Houston have announced they will all begin the school year online only. Other districts plan on using a "hybrid model," dividing classes so groups of students rotate between in-school learning and at-home distance learning. The plan would reduce class sizes and allow social distancing, with an added focus on hygiene and cleaning practices.

    Florida teachers
    Florida teachers, whose largest union is against their members returning to school, hold a car parade protest in front of the Pasco County School district office in Land O' Lakes, Florida, US [Octavio Jones/Reuters] 

    But the issue has been dividing average Americans.

    The largest teacher's union in Florida has filed a lawsuit against the governor and the state over the push to reopen schools five days a week, calling it "reckless and unsafe".

    In Arizona, hundreds of teachers have been protesting against the state's reopening plan with "motor marches" driving around cities with slogans such as, "Remote learning won't kill us but COVID can". 

    Some Arizona parents are planning a "Reopen our schools" protest on July 30 in Phoenix in support of the governor's mandate that in-person classes resume on August 17.

    David Robles, a teacher in Harlem, New York says in addition to offering a fully online option for students, the Catholic charter school where he teaches fifth graders, will be installing desk partitions, disinfecting machines and mobile whiteboards. The school will also mandate the use of masks, gloves, and have hallway and bathroom policies.

    Robles says he is torn between concerns over his own health and the importance of opening schools, which he says is crucial to providing students with the socialisation and interaction they need.

    "There's a part of me that's hopeful, that feels that this will be enough," Robles said, "but there's another part of me that feels that teachers are being sacrificed just to get children into a building," he said.

    'An opportunity to think differently'

    Jordan Shapiro, author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, says online learning could be beneficial to high school students by providing an opportunity to work independently or in small groups - preparing them for higher education.

    But the online format is less ideal for younger children who need to learn social skills, which is difficult to relay on a screen. Elementary students are also less likely to be able to engage with online meetings and lectures, and many require the supervision of an adult.

    "The benefit of online learning should be the ability for people to work in a nonlinear fashion, to be able to work at their own pace, to some extent," Shapiro told Al Jazeera.

    "These learners still need structure, but some people may want to do their work at two in the morning and others may want to work at two in the afternoon," he said.

    Remote learning
    Oakes McClenahan, 7, doing his school work while watching his teacher's recorded lesson on a computer at home, in Seattle, Washington, US [File: Jason Redmond/Reuters] 

    When schools abruptly shut down in March, students and teachers were forced to quickly switch to distance learning until the end of the school year. The lack of planning led to a haphazard system of learning apps, video meetings and emailed assignments that parents had to supervise.

    The system also requires access to tablets or computers and an internet connection, bringing to sharp focus the country's economic and geographic inequities and divides.

    Most schools have yet to detail their online curriculums or lay out how distance learning will be conducted, but polls suggest that the majority of parents are worried about keeping their children's education on track.

    Education experts say for online learning to be successful, it requires embracing the positives of technology, rather than simply reproducing school at a distance.

    Eliza Bobek, a clinical assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, says children and families need connection and community with other people, whether it is a big or small group, above all else. They also need the social services that public schools provide, such as childcare and meals.

    "This is an opportunity to think differently in school districts, if they can be brave and do something about it, such as more teaching outdoors and project-based learning," Bobek said, "and not just replicate what we always do, but just on a screen."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News