Our children’s next round of virtual learning must be managed better. Here are some ideas.
We’re approaching six months of children being out of school and out of structured activities, and it’s for good reason that school reopenings are getting significant attention. We know now that in Cambridge most children are not returning to campus – and will very likely be out for the entire year – as of a fall that will be even worse economically, with employers unable to be as accommodating to caregivers.
Studies show that our long summer breaks cause lost learning, with disproportionate impact on lower-income students, and we know our lower-income children have had far fewer options to learn in the first place. I know all kids are suffering and, to be clear, I am not upset that parents with resources are hiring home teachers and setting up private group activities; those with resources can pivot, and many will see an opportunity to even gain advantage for their kids by getting them even more resources. How can one fault them?
But I am absolutely devastated at the thought of low-income kids, who start with an achievement gap and external and personal learning challenges other kids do not, being adrift for 12 to 18 months, and about the de facto segregation that is about to occur by keeping them away from the melting pots of schools and youth sports.
Beyond segregation, let’s focus on the achievement gap and the effectiveness of virtual learning. I was highly critical of Cambridge Public Schools’ representation in the spring of the large percentages of students rated as “highly engaged.” For older students, that simply was not true. Some great work happened, and there were many teachers, volunteers, liaisons, staff and caregivers who rose to the challenge. But a fast closing with little planning left many kids behind.
We have no excuse for failing to plan better for decisions about reopening that will have a historic impact, as it’s been very clear that the fall and more likely the late fall would be high-risk. I suggest adults come together and consider – this time intentionally and without excuse – these proposals:
In-person meetings with every student and family of a child who failed one or more virtual classes and had a non-login percentage of more than 20 percent in the spring. Calling a student “present” for a week because he or she returned a text? That is not “present.”
Set a plan and contract for all students who struggled in the spring, and don’t pursue it by email.
Hold a teacher meeting with every student and caregiver in person, in groups that are safely outside, to discuss expectations on virtual learning. Understand which kids must be in child care or otherwise outside their home because of caregivers’ work schedules.
Hire grad students to work as after-3 p.m. mentors and buddies. We know they’re available – they’re being hired privately.
Set up consultations to help families plan home-based learning.
Establish immediate responses for children not “in class.” Truancy is truancy; stop making excuses for kids and families. I recommend requiring kids to be on video while in class.
Set up accountability and intervention chains for students falling behind.
Hold professional development on issues including mental health, obesity and nutrition, domestic violence, addiction and Internet risks.
Dedicate individuals (and not security staff) to knock doors for families that have lost touch.
Provide ways for teachers to call students and families, and dedicate time for the calls. It’s okay to lose traditional learning time to relationship-building and wellness checks.
Many mayors and school committees have tried to address segregation and the achievement gap in our schools. In 2000-2001 we added socioeconomic factors to the formula for further balance. We initiated the Harvard Summer Academy to help close the gap. We voted to maintain “blind” placement to high school learning communities, and we rebuilt the technical exploratory program to avoid losing in-house technical education. This past six months and the year ahead will define our children and our school system for many years to come. Let’s find common ground and support all children, in school or out.
Anthony D. Galluccio is a Cambridge resident, attorney and a former city councillor, mayor and state senator, as well as chair of a state Senate higher education Committee.