If home learning has been so successful, why not do it all the time?
Public schools in Duval County were some of the first in the country to shift to home learning.
Students are logging on, connecting with teachers, learning new skills and interacting with peers, all from home - a remarkable achievement at lightning speed.
So, during a recent City Council meeting, the question arose -- why don’t we do home learning all the time? Do we really need to invest in upgrading school buildings with a half-penny if Duval HomeRoom is going so well?
Tax revenue -- and therefore education funding -- could plummet because of the recession. Home learning, some have pointed out, is much more affordable than brick-and-mortar schools.
Certainly, technology is changing the way our children learn. But our public schools can never be replaced by online learning. They do much, much more than what distance learning can provide. Here are nine critical roles of our public schools that online learning can’t match.
1. Leveling the playing field
First and foremost, our public schools’ most important mission is to close the opportunity gap so that all children can fulfill their potential to learn and achieve their life goals.
Home learning has thrown a spotlight on the digital divide -- inequities in access to computers and the internet. Some students have their own desks and computers, with parents around to help, while others don’t have access to computers, internet, and parental guidance. Some of our students live in cramped housing where they don’t have a suitable space to learn, or don’t have permanent homes at all.
Kids of parents who work multiple jobs to pay the bills and can’t afford to hire help are going it alone with home learning. Siblings in some households are having to share laptops, and older kids may be the only ones helping younger kids stay on track. Even when children are provided laptops during a crisis like COVID-19, they are unlikely to have the same skills as peers who have access to computers all the time - and whose parents are also tech-savvy.
By providing high-quality teachers and adequate learning spaces, public schools can help level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.
2. Allowing parents to work outside the home
Public schools underpin our economy in more ways than one. They employ thousands of people in steady jobs. A report out this week highlighted another aspect: child care. The Florida Council of 100 business group surveyed working parents and found, unsurprisingly, that two-thirds say their productivity has suffered as a result of their kids being home. The Council estimated the economic impact of a six-week school closure to be a whopping $858.7 million.
3. Developing well-rounded people
Public education is about much more than academics. Schools help kids develop into well-rounded people through art, music, and clubs. They help them prepare for their futures through career counseling and college prep. Schools also help kids develop social skills - getting along with others, respectfully interacting with adults, and how to work in teams.
“Being able to collaborate with others and learn in community is important for all students,” said Ale’ta Turner, a mother of three and 2019 graduate of Parents Who Lead, which JPEF supports with partners. “Even home school students have work groups or cohorts that they participate in.”
4. Preventing child abuse
A sad fact about public schools is that they are our children’s first line of defense when children are being abused at home. Teachers are often the caring adults outside of a child’s family who spot signs of abuse, and they are legally required to report it. Florida’s Department of Children and Families recently told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that abuse hotline calls are down 20 percent because teachers aren’t seeing students to spot the signs.
5. Providing mental health counseling
Schools also play a critical role in children’s mental health.
“The most common ‘extra’ job for a teacher is to serve as a counselor for their students, to explore why a student has their head down, won’t participate or seems upset,” said Warren Buck, JPEF Director of Teacher Leadership. “Teachers must lend an ear and provide counsel dozens of times a day, even on the best days, to keep their classes running.”
Programs like Full Service Schools allow children in Duval County Public Schools to regularly see a mental health counselor.
6. Playing doctor, dentist, even Santa Claus
Public schools moonlight as community centers that provide essential social and health services to children and families. Public schools host mobile medical and dental clinics to give kids physicals, teeth cleaning, and screenings for common childhood ailments like scoliosis or vision problems.
Schools also help connect families to subsidized health insurance like Florida KidCare.
“This is an extra layer of health care that is vital in poorer communities,” said Buck, a former principal at KIPP Impact, a public charter school in Northwest Jacksonville. “Students in online school are too spread out to make this an efficient use of time.”
We’ve heard a lot about the role of schools in feeding students who would otherwise go hungry. In addition to school breakfast and lunches, public schools also run food pantries, provide clothes and other essentials to students and work with churches and nonprofits to provide Christmas gifts. The list goes on.
7. Preventing tech fatigue
As many adults are learning after workdays stuffed with back-to-back Zoom calls, tech fatigue is real. Studies have shown that online reading doesn’t measure up to print reading for comprehension and focus. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum - to reach our young learners, especially our struggling learners, we need face-to-face teaching that allows warm relationships with caring adults.
8. Doubling as hurricane shelters
Brick-and-mortar school buildings serve a number of uses other than schooling. For example, public schools are our shelters in emergencies like hurricanes. That’s a big part of the plan to upgrade school facilities in Duval County.
9. Addressing diverse student needs
Education experts are worried that the students who were already behind in school are going to fall even further behind because of the pandemic. The situation is particularly worrisome for students with special needs.
Whitney Touchton, another graduate of Parents Who Lead, shared her experience with three kids in public schools.
“For my high schooler and middle schooler the distance learning has worked well for them,” Whitney said. “For my youngest child, the virtual school has not worked at all. Not only is she a young elementary school student, but she also has special needs…I am not trained in the many areas of special intervention services that she receives.... Even with the challenges we face in our family, we have way less barriers than likely exist for many families.”
Another gap in this area is having educators available to help identify students’ special learning needs. Ale’ta Turner said her fifth-grade son was undergoing screening for learning disabilities before Winter Break, and now it’s unclear if he will need an individualized education plan next year -- and what he’ll need if school has to go online again if the virus re-emerges.
“For students and parents navigating new knowledge surrounding ‘unique learning gifts,’ it's important for the district, teachers, and administrators to keep in mind that screenings have been postponed,” Ale’ta said. “If a virtual school setting continues in the next school year, there will need to be thoughtful consideration about how parents and students can best work together.”
Online learning is not a silver bullet
Online learning can be part of the picture in public education - and it has been for years through Florida Virtual School - but our students would suffer if we stopped any of these critical functions that brick-and-mortar schools and in-person teaching provide.
This pandemic is showing us just how important it is to close the digital divide so that all students truly can learn with the support of technology - and learn the technology that will open doors in their careers.
“It is important to note that technology cannot replace teachers,” Karen Cator recently wrote on the blog of Digital Promise, an education innovation organization that focuses on equity. “On the contrary, when used in powerful ways, technology supports teachers in their efforts to help students engage and achieve.”
Modern school buildings can help our teachers and students leverage technology. That’s one of many reasons why we need a half-penny for our schools in Duval County.