Teachers, school counselors and parents have been amazingly creative in shifting to remote learning for students because of the pandemic. But their good hasn’t prevented academic and emotional losses suffered by many children and youth across Sonoma County.
The figures are stark: The number of high schoolers failing at least one class is up dramatically. Student anxiety is up, too. Local and state officials must take new approaches and move quickly to address these issues, including finding safe ways to enable students to meet in person.
A recent school summit was a good start toward identifying solutions and understanding the challenges.
The pandemic underscores what wise educators and parents have long known: Every student learns differently. A one-size-fits-all approach is insufficient. Some students might soar when taking a class online and benefit from the shift to remote learning. But other students struggle mightily. In some area school districts, up to twice as many high schoolers are failing a class, compared with previous years.
An enduring lesson from the pandemic must be that schools can and should provide a wide mix of teaching and learning methods, and they must be willing to pivot quickly when one method is not working for a student.
The immediate challenge staring our community in the face is that students need in-person interactions, both for their emotional health and for their academic growth. School is much more than textbooks and lesson plans. Schools provide a social and emotional anchor for many kids, whether being with friends or having daily interactions with a caring, attentive adult.
Students and families across the region have endured one crisis after another — wildfires, weather events, the pandemic. Put those on top of the normal anxieties associated with growing up, and who can blame them for feeling stressed? In a spring survey of Sonoma County high schoolers, 71% said their top barrier to successful distance learning was anxiety about the future.
Teachers, counselors, administrators and other school employees are stressed out, too, and doing the best they can. Many are in age and health categories considered particularly vulnerable to the serious effects of COVID-19, a disease about which we still have much to learn.
There’s a tension, then. Many adults worry that if they return to school, they could catch the coronavirus. Many students — and their parents — worry that if they don’t return, their mental health and long-term educational attainment is at risk.
Balancing those concerns won’t be easy, but few things worth doing ever are. Holding some classes outdoors might sound unfeasible, but it’s worth trying with a pilot program. Middle and high schools could adopt mini-semester classes, so students take only one or two courses at a time instead of moving between classes throughout the day. That might require pedagogical innovation and updated local and state curriculum requirements. Such are the times.
Continuing to improve online learning opportunities also will be key. Teachers at highest risk don’t belong in a physical classroom.
No doubt others have creative solutions, too, and the best ideas might even come from students. They’re the experts on themselves and know what’s working and what isn’t to help them learn and minimize anxiety.
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