The opportunities of remote learning outweigh the challenges, if we can take bold actions now
First, let me recognize the many teachers and staff that have been working very hard since schools closed March 13. I also applaud the school department and city taxpayers for making sure employees of the department are paid. I am disappointed Gov. Charlie Baker did not require each school system to submit a plan or, if state law would not allow that, urge each system to create a plan three weeks ago. I wished that teachers unions, which I support, did more to recognize that the rules have all changed.
That said, Cambridge should never wait on the state or anyone else to make our kids a priority. This week, Superintendent Kenneth Salim unveiled a learning-at-a-distance plan, without addressing the likelihood of school not returning or containing any minimal benchmarks that must be achieved. Starting April 20 ,the schools will go on “vacation.” Why this is still occurring is a real question; some school systems will work through April vacation, for obvious reasons. When schools were closed, teachers were not required or asked to come, in person or remotely, and create an at-home learning plan. Staff was disconnected, and teachers used what online tools were available. The school system did not ask for help or acknowledge how defining this moment is for students; instead of deciding to get ahead, we have waited for the next update about closings from the governor.
Before the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the system began to address the race and class divide in our schools. Manifested by the achievement gap, we all know well that minority and low-income children are underserved in comparison with other urban systems with far less resources – something called out by The Boston Globe in detail. For some reason, residents do not engage on school issues. Maybe they are afraid of divisive school politics or just not comfortable, or just don’t feel inclined.
The superintendent’s letter on this topic says “nothing can replace the in-person school experience.” I would rather say: “This opportunity to reach parents and children at once while at home is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make learning personal.” As a coach and mentor for years, and a former not-so-interested student with a single parent, I see this as all opportunity. My mom and my sisters at home together, with a teacher talking to all of us, would be a game changer.
The superintendent’s outline misses the target on personal outreach – specifically, on individual parent-student remote meetings. This is new and not typically available within school hours, but now it can work. The outline acknowledges the school day will be shorter and should indicate the ability to be far more flexible with time. Teachers who have their own kids can teach less, but schedule students and parent calls whenever.
Trust is necessary as long as goals and standards are set. If we accept that we may cover fewer chapters but can reach more children and families on a far more personal level, this could lead to new strategies to close the achievement gap. If we keep the same defenses up and think under the same limitations, we are sunk. I applaud teachers doing amazing, out-of-the-box work, including serving food, explaining technology and delivering Wi-Fi hotspots. The superintendent is right: This is unprecedented. It’s an unprecedented opportunity, and we have unlimited resources. The MCAS debate is far less important to me that our own system setting high and clear standards for this period.
It is unlikely our kids are returning to campus, and a large portion of students without structure or focused learning for four months will be devastating. Let’s acknowledge our reality and ask for help. Let’s engage teachers and families – our most valuable resources – and embrace this before it’s too late. As a community, we can achieve anything and turn a challenge into an opportunity to build personal relationships and understanding that will last far beyond Covid-19.
Anthony Galluccio is a Cambridge resident and former mayor, chair of the School Committee and state senator.