Closures show schools provide much more than instruction

Closures show schools provide much more than instruction

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the longest school closure in Kansas history and most school districts pushed back the start of fall classes compared to last year. Most students will not start until after Labor Day. School leaders are struggling to balance demands to open schools with safety concerns. What lessons have we learned so far?

Schools provide far more than classroom instruction. These services should be valued.

As the Centers for Disease Control noted in its school reopening guidance:

“Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work. Schools also provide critical services that help to mitigate health disparities, such as school meal programs, and social, physical, behavioral, and mental health services. School closure disrupts the delivery of these critical services to children and families, and places additional economic and psychological stress on families, which can increase the risk for family conflict and violence.”

Over the years, Kansas public schools have increased funding for services beyond instruction, from meals to health and psychological services to safety programs. School boards have sometimes been criticized for such “non-instructional” spending. The pandemic has proven the importance of these programs.

Schools provide vital childcare to families and employers. It should be expanded to pre-K children.

In a state where 70 percent of families with young children have every available parent in the workforce, it is no surprise that both business groups and many parents are calling for schools to reopen so parents can get back to work. The state economy needs labor, families need income and students need an education.

However, even when schools fully reopen, Kansas will not provide quality early childhood programs for children below age five to all families that need it. Thousands of parents can’t work because they can’t find or afford day care, and their children lose the benefits of early education to prepare them for school at the age when they need it most. Expanding early childhood would help children, families, employers and the state economy.

Most students need in-person instruction in a school setting at least part of the time.

When schools were closed last Spring, districts were required to offer “continuous learning plans” using either internet-based services or take-home packets. Some students did as well, or better, in a more flexible environment, and some parents still want to keep their children home for safety reasons. However, it’s clear that most children want and need direct contact with teachers and interaction with peers.

We won’t know the full impact of the pandemic on learning until students return and can be assessed, but it is expected to be particularly damaging to students with the greatest needs, like poverty, disability and other adverse experiences. These students will need extra assistance to avoid long-lasting effects on their future education, employment and income.

Sports and activities matter and should be made more available, not less.

Some of the most passionate arguments for in-person learning are for school-based sports and activities. For many students, these activities play a critical role in in teaching life skills like teamwork, character and problem-solving that Kansans have said are even more critical than academic skills.

However, because these are “extra-curricular,” some students miss out on the benefits because of cost, transportation issues, need to work and other factors. In recent years the Legislature has cut state aid for sports facilities and introduced proposals to limit funding for activities. The benefits of activities should be available to all students, not just those who can afford them.

Remote learning has a place and should be available to all.

Despite the problems with attempting to provide education entirely remotely, virtual education has important uses. In some cases, it may be the only option available, especially in communities with rapid disease spread, for individual quarantine, or other health or safety reasons. Remote learning can also offer more learning flexibility for students and families and provide much wider learning options, if properly supported.

To be successful, educators, students and parents need more training and time to develop more effective virtual programs, and all families need access to high-speed broadband internet service and adequate equipment. This means the same type of commitment as was made to rural postal service and electrification, free student transportation to get students to school, and free textbooks for students who need them.

The challenge of the current pandemic is not simply in “getting back to school as it used to be.” It is learning how to maintain the important things our schools do and make them better.