Last week as we paid tribute to the nurses who valiantly worked the front lines of this pandemic, another heroic group deserved special recognition. Last week was also Teacher Appreciation Week in America.
It has been an especially challenging time for educators who have had to learn to adapt to the conditions imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions and speak into tiny laptop microphones and offer lessons via Zoom. It is yet another example of uncharted territory. To nobody’s surprise, Governor Andrew Cuomo, last week, extended the stay at home orders for most of the state into the month of June, and announced that school buildings - closed since mid March - will not reopen during the current academic year. There will be no regents exams, no proms and no in-person graduation ceremonies, at least not during the month of June.
The governor, last week, announced that New York state is collaborating with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” what schools will look like in the future. The plans will include various ideas around the various ways technology can be used, including: providing more opportunities; reducing education inequality; meeting educational needs of students with disabilities; breaking down barriers to high-quality education.
The collaboration also seeks to learn how to provide educators with more tools to use technology, as well as how the state can deploy classroom technology to re-create larger class or lecture hall environments -- given the ongoing social distancing guidelines. Cuomo also announced the appointment of a 19-member New York’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council. It has raised the fears of New Yorkers who have tried to “reimagine” an educational system without the traditional brick and mortar school buildings. Both the New York State United Teachers and the Alliance for Quality Education signaled for caution.
‘Both the Gates Foundation and Andrew Cuomo have a history of pushing privatization and agendas that have the potential to destroy public schools,” wrote Jasmine Gripper of the Alliance for Quality Education. “This collaboration raises a red flag and real questions about what shape our ‘reimagined’” public schools will take post-pandemic, and whether they will be recognizable as public schools at all.”
Both groups are lobbying for smaller classrooms and less screen time for students.
“Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings.,” wrote New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta.
As the governor has noted in many of his daily briefings, New Yorkers, and Americans in general, learn and adapt from adversity. We emerged from the Great Depression with many public works projects to rebuild our cities. The experiences of 9-11 brought us The Department of Homeland Security and other enhanced security measures. Hurricane Sandy resulted in more stringent building codes. We will undoubtedly adapt from COVID-19 and emerge better prepared for the next pandemic.
So the distance learning experience will help our educators prepare for the future, but we are not ready to close our school buildings. There is still much that happens inside the classroom that cannot be replicated outside those walls. Interaction among students is an essential part of the education process, as is access to guidance counselors and school psychologists and the assortment of extracurricular activities.
There is no doubt that we can emerge stronger from this experience, but the steps that we take in moving forward will be measured ones.