If there were any doubt that the coronavirus pandemic would be disruptive to schools and families, the last few days have put that to rest. Schools in the Seattle metro area and New Rochelle, New York, are already shuttered. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine just announced that all of his state’s schools will close for a three-week spring break, starting Tuesday. For those in many other parts of America it is only a matter of when, not if, they will follow suit.
So educators nationwide are scrambling to figure out how to keep kids learning at home for what could be a long period of time. Hundreds of thousands of parents, grandparents, and other responsible adults, while struggling with the disruption this will cause in their own work and family lives, are grappling with the challenge of managing this unexpected new—if temporary—form of “home schooling.”
As others are noting, none of this is going to be easy, save for the small proportion of schools that already do a great deal of online teaching and learning. But it is likely to be hardest for our youngest children and their families.
That’s because most middle schools and high schools already have ways to communicate with their students and make assignments online; most of those kids have accounts set up—and email to boot. And thanks to Khan Academy, Crash Course, and similar resources, there’s ready-made content available for this age group. Of course, it only works if kids have devices and Internet access at home, but given the ubiquity of smartphones among adolescents, that large challenge is tough but somewhat manageable.
It’s a different story for elementary school kids. For obvious reasons related to maturity, attention span, and their ability to self-direct, there’s less their teachers can do with them over the Internet. Teachers can’t provide individualized or small-group instruction in early literacy, for example, or easily offer lessons in how to add fractions. To be sure, they can encourage parents and other caregivers to read to and with their kids, and, in a pinch, to stream educational videos or PBS shows. But that’s not going to do the job if school closures stretch on for weeks or months.
So here’s a suggestion: Let’s do all we can to help elementary school teachers keep their students learning while they’re at home—by working together, instead of expecting 1.5 million instructors to figure it out on their own.
According to the Hechinger Report, some ed-tech companies that make games and apps are already pitching in, including BrainPop and Kahoot! It would be great for the other upstart content creators to join them, including Great Minds (publisher of Eureka Math and Wit and Wisdom), EL Education, and Amplify (publisher of Core Knowledge Language Arts).
It surely helps that most elementary schools in America now have more-or-less the same learning goals (thanks Common Core!). Yes, state standards vary a bit, and districts choose from a range of instructional materials. But the variation should be less in the early grades than it is in middle school or high school. Pretty much everywhere, third graders should be learning their times tables, and fifth graders should be writing short research papers. So even though it won’t be a perfect match, offering resources at scale, nationwide, can get us pretty far.
So what if these content providers—either separately or together—made their K–5 resources available for free, online, in a format that parents could handle? And then—really thinking big here—what if PBS started daily broadcasts of fantastic teachers doing some instruction, using these materials, to in-studio “classrooms” as well? The kindergarten class could come on at 10:00 a.m., first grade at 11:00 a.m., and so forth. Meanwhile, local NPR stations could start broadcasting great podcasts for kids.
If all of this could be stood up quickly, the next step would be letting parents and other caregivers know about it—surely through their schools and teachers, but also via America’s churches, neighborhood organizations, and other essential parts of civil society. Plus public service ads on TV and online.
Maybe some of this is already in the works. Maybe some of these ideas are nuts. But what’s the down side of giving them a try?