david kerr H&S

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School, whether in public schools or at the university level is tough enough, but this year, thanks to the coronavirus it’s, gotten a lot tougher.  Since almost all students are at home, it’s now a lonely undertaking, as well. Something that preys on the mental health of everyone involved.

When the spring semester started at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) it seemed like the beginning of any other semester.  Save, of course, that the winter was milder, and just for the record, I was convinced I had landed an unusually good group of students.  Of course, I say that every semester. However, though we study political science, and not medicine, it was clear, just checking the news outlets during the winter break, that something ominous was lurking.  

Having a medical school means that VCU is a little more tied into medical happenings than most universities.  But it didn’t take a doctor or an epidemiologist to figure that the virus rearing its corona-shaped self across the Pacific was looking more and more like big trouble in a small package.  Even before the winter break, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued notifications saying that the federal and state governments should start emergency planning.  

Virginia started planning and VCU planned and waited to see how fast the virus progressed.  Classes went on, already with some social distancing guidelines in place, but, just after the spring break, VCU decided to go virtual.  It wasn’t a surprise. The university had done a good job warning us and moved quickly in trying to corral the tools and approaches to virtual instruction.  After all, lots of students regularly take between-semester courses over the Internet. But it still happened fast, and it was total. The campus, during the week, when it should be bustling, is still.  Dorms, classrooms, campus amenities are all closed. For my little part of this switchover, I have done what’s called “asymmetrical” instruction. Sounds like a military reference, but actually it’s doing recorded lectures and slide presentations, the occasional Zoom session, and about tripling the number of emails I normally send and receive from my students.  So far, so good.  

The same switchover has also occurred in Virginia’s extensive community college system.  In fact, they seemed particularly adept at making the switch. Northern Virginia Community College and Germanna Community College, that between them have about 20 or so campuses in our region, all seemed to make the switch to virtual with ease.

But, what about the public schools?  The college instruction model doesn’t really apply to them.  Students from elementary school to high school have seen their instruction dramatically disrupted.  The challenge is what to do about it? To their credit, our area school systems have tried to cope with the situation.  They have some good plans, and even working remotely are trying to keep their kids engaged, but there are only so many tricks in their toolbox.

The strategy seems to be to rely as much as possible on the first two quarters of the year, third quarter grades as far as they went and pretty much consider the fourth quarter a wash.  Most of our school systems allow students to do extra work to bring up a grade, but that path isn’t particularly clear. Also, work to cover lost instruction during the last part of the year is for the most part voluntary.  Oh, and what about students who don’t have access to a laptop or the internet? Schools and private groups are helping, but filling that gap completely is almost impossible.

Then there is the question of what to do about “curriculum tracking?” That’s a fancy term I learned while I was on the school board which refers to students knowing what they need to know at the end of one grade before they start the next.  With the coronavirus, this smoothly orchestrated progression, something educators work very hard at doing, is going to be seriously out of whack. There also is the inevitable loss of skills and knowledge that occurs over the summer break. Only, now, this break is going to be almost six months long.  Talk about an endless summer.

Getting through these challenges and filling in the gap is going to take some serious creative thinking.  Saturday schools perhaps? It’s been done before. A longer school year in 2021. A longer school day. An all hands on deck accelerated curriculum.  They’re all possibilities.  

In the meantime, its virtual education for colleges and universities and hopefully in a challenge that has very little precedence, a lot of out-of-the-box thinking for public education.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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