By ERIN MCPARTLIN AND WILL JOHNSON | Chicago Tribune | April 27, 2021
When school resumes late this summer, parents will rejoice having their children out of the house and back in their classrooms like it’s 2019 again. The yearning to return to “normal” is reasonable: Students lost a lot of traditional instruction since the pandemic abruptly ended in-person learning more than a year ago.
But simply going back to the way we were would be a missed opportunity to do better for our kids. There’s no question that many children, isolated at home, have suffered intellectually, socially and emotionally, a hardship that hit lower-income families hardest. There’s also evidence, however, that remote learning has benefited some as well. Let’s remember, too, that many traditional schools failed our children before the coronavirus scourged the country. It would be tragic not to blend the most successful attributes of both approaches to instruction to correct these shortcomings and produce a new pedagogy.
As the end of this school year nears, our immediate thoughts probably are shifting to graduations and summer vacations. Now is also the ideal time to begin a more thoughtful and inclusive discussion on how best to reopen schools in August and deliver educational opportunities that are beneficial beyond just logistics. This way, we can more fully assist a generation that’s been scarred by COVID-19, particularly children of color who, ominously, have fallen further behind, according to a McKinsey & Co. study.
To that end, our research shows the effects — pro and con — that distance learning has had on elementary and middle school students. In a national survey this month, The Harris Poll asked parents to assess their children’s experiences in grades K-8 over the past year, when almost all of them, at least at some point, were taught at home. Separately, Tutoring Chicago volunteers asked their students open-ended questions about their own away-from-the-classroom experiences; more than 330 of these students from low-income families in grades 1-7 answered.
Overwhelmingly, parents told The Harris Poll that they want their children in school with their teachers and classmates in the next academic year. Two-thirds would like in-person instruction to resume full time, with another quarter opting for a hybrid structure that includes one to three days of remote learning. Only 6% think full-time at-home instruction would be optimal.
But after our collective crash course in remote learning, 96% of parents say classroom education should be modified, though they’re conflicted about exactly what is most needed. Roughly 3 in 10 would like more focus on social skills, increased use of technology at home, more group work, smaller class sizes, increased use of technology in the classroom, and more homework. But almost as many parents (22%) want less homework. And while 23% see the need for a faster-paced curriculum to make up for lost learning, another 23% want a slower-paced curriculum to help their children readjust.
By and large, students who answered the Tutoring Chicago questionnaire also say they can’t wait to be together again in person with their teachers and friends. “I would like to see us go back to regular school where everyone can come to the building — like before the pandemic,” said a seventh grade girl. At the same time, many in higher grades also want their time in the classroom complemented by a day or two each week of distance learning — assuming they are given the equipment and high-speed internet they need and often have lacked, along with more breaks and perhaps a later start to the school day.
Looking back, many students say their virtual classrooms had pluses. “I learned to be more focused,” said a sixth grade girl. “I have become more organized and more accountable for my schoolwork.” In addition to improving her typing skills, a fifth grade girl, said, “I am more tech-savvy than I was before. I have built relationships with new friends.”
Many students know, however, that they’ve been set back. “I used to be better at math,” said a fifth grade boy, “but it has been hard this year because, whenever I am in math class, it is tough for me to fully pay attention.” “I feel,” said a sixth grade girl, “I’ve lost communication because with the pandemic, I cannot actually see my friends in person. I miss real eye contact and hugging.”
COVID-19 has forced organizations big and small to adapt or sink. And many of those who successfully adapted found their new ways of doing things — allowing people to work from home, for example — were more productive than their conventional ways were. Now, as vaccines enable more organizations the option of returning to their conventional ways, many are choosing not to. Instead, they’re learning from what worked and what didn’t, and taking the best of both times to create a third way that is better than anything that’s preceded it. Harvard Business Review, in its current cover story “How to Do Hybrid Right,” calls this an arrangement “with individual human concerns in mind, not just institutional ones.”
Public schools, of course, are not businesses. And the takeaways from remote learning, as we’ve seen from our research, don’t point to a consensus on how we should proceed. But while we have this unique and timely opportunity as parents, educators and invested community members let’s use it to rethink our approach to education. We need to create a new hybrid experience that parents and grade-school children alike tell us they want and need — and that our next generation deserves.
Erin McPartlin is executive director of Tutoring Chicago, a nonprofit that provides one-to-one tutoring for children at no cost to their families. Will Johnson is CEO of The Harris Poll, a public opinion research firm, and a Tutoring Chicago board member.