Put Schools First

Put Schools First

Maria Pia Molina, Editor-in-Chief

Chaos rang through the halls of The Columbus School as 2:50 pm came on Thursday, March 12. Ana Garcia, high school counselor, swiftly entered each classroom telling the kids they would not have any more in-person classes until after spring break. Herds of children left their classroom and emptied their lockers because rumor had it that the school was burning what was inside each one. As the clock approached 3:20, a sea of dark blue and mustard yellow, TCS’s colors, filled the front lawn of the high school coliseum and bus area, yet, that day, instead of the typical sluggish and confident Columbus walk, kids ran with uneasy steps. Soon, confusion and apprehension took over group chats and three weeks became the definition of eternity. This scenario is not exclusive to The Columbus School. In fact, it could be the description of 1.3 billion students and schools in the 186 countries that implemented country-wide school closures  due to COVID-19. Most students and staff, similar to TCS’s, thought they would be out for a month at most. No one imagined 2020 would ring the first time a school year would end online. Although closing schools seemed like the most logical step in the COVID-19 response, the repercussions of distance learning go beyond superficial WiFi issues.

COVID-19 has shed light on the world’s inequality, and the effects of the socioeconomic gap do not exclude education. For most children, school acts as a haven. Learning algebra and writing is secondary for students living below or close to the poverty line because the brick and mortar walls of the institution stand for food, protection, and adult role models. For instance, due to school closures “Over 365 million children are missing out on important school feeding programmes, which keep them healthy and motivated to learn.” In most cases, people fail to see beyond the fact that school closures are about more than kids not having computers or WiFi access; they represent broken safety nets for children. These nets protect the child and without important pieces of it due to school closures, children are left unprotected. When a child cannot eat, finding a computer with decent WiFi seems like a luxury, and families find themselves resorting “to negative coping mechanisms to meet their needs, including child labour or reducing the number and quality of meals.” Additionally, as more families lose their jobs and fall below the poverty line, “rates of early and forced marriage and early and unintended pregnancy increase.” Once again, for the vast majority of students worldwide, education represents an opportunity to enjoy age-appropriate activities and look up to teachers who serve as role models. Without the positive examples most teachers represent, kids living below the poverty line are bound to take desperate measures like marrying or getting pregnant. Although schools do not directly give students the ability to breathe, they are what might give a kid life. Thus, their closure cannot be a binary decision between life or death. 

Furthermore, distance learning has inhibited teacher-student relationships. When one is at school, it is hard to appreciate how much social interaction plays a role in learning. It is the one-on-one conversations students randomly have in the halls with their teachers that present the most valuable educational moments. If the kid and the teacher do not form a relationship that transcends grammar rules or derivatives, then learning is inhibited, and the idea of the role model mentioned above no longer rings true. The distinguished writer and activist Maya Angelou once claimed, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” This phrase captures the essence of teaching and the paradox that is being broken in distance learning. During a Zoom class, the focus is on the content or one could say, the words. There are no feelings palpable through the screen. When a teacher tries to check-in, kids often stay quiet or respond with the typical “ok.” The rationale behind this vague reply is that those intents to figure out a kid’s psychological state do not generate an emotional response in the child. People living in the virtual world think that mass emails “checking in” are the solution, yet these are not remembered by students. A random conversation in the hall or at lunch makes a kid feel special because the adult whose sole focus seemed to be a name next to a grade is suddenly interested in their life. Then, the next day, that teacher’s class becomes about more than just content. If there is a gift WiFi cannot give, it is the one of feeling, which has hastily been sucked out of distance learning.

Distance learning has also brought with the question of how much kids are learning. When asked if she felt her amount of learning had been the same since her school closed, junior Andrea Cardona at College Du Leman in Switzerland and former TCS student asserted, “No, no, no. I’ve learned much less in distance learning because for some reason you take so much more time doing everything… Because you have no interaction [with teachers] your work is slower and because there are less activities, you are less productive.” One of the realities of distance learning is that the virtual world advances at a slower pace; therefore, activities that would’ve taken one class back in November are now taking three, cutting the amount of content students would see in a normal school year. Additionally, due to the monotony of quarantine life, kids might feel overwhelmed by complex pieces of homework; thus, schools have encouraged teachers to lower their standards. It would be erroneous to claim that children are being given the same amount of content or are finding value in an education that in most cases is not even given by their teachers but by online tools. Learning is not about absorbing content and regurgitating it into millions of online tools like Padlet, Schoology, Flipgrid, Google Slides, Edpuzzle, YouTube, WordPress, etc. Without in-person school, not only are students noticing how the amount of content has decreased but the value and intention behind it are not clear because as Cardona said, there is no interaction with a teacher. If a kid sits behind a computer and stares at information that cannot be called learning. Once again, the issue lies beyond access to technology and Wifi. Kids need to find a purpose behind the work they are doing, which cannot be given through 20 divergent online tools. 

The worldwide closure of schools is a pandemic as complex as COVID-19. Closing them reiterated the importance of education goes beyond content. Distance learning is not the safety net children need among the uncertainty; opening schools is part of protecting children and society’s future too. Education should have priority over other sectors when re-opening each country. Instead of thinking that schools should open last, politicians should be thinking about how to open their doors again, letting the herd back in.