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As the battle with COVID-19 continues and we daily thank our courageous health care and essential workers, Kansas teachers also need our thanks. They rose to the occasion and kept learning alive.
With the future still unclear, teachers now are envisioning what will become the “new normal” return to school. What changes for health safety and preparedness will be necessary? What federal funding will come? What state budget cuts may occur?
When schools closed, teachers rushed to completely transition classes to virtual learning and take-home packets for students. Currently they keep personal contact to instruct and mentor students through texting, email, phone calls and Zoom.
Nonetheless at-home family support and virtual learning cannot replace the full school experience, particularly fundamental teacher-guided, deep discussions that drive high-quality learning through complex analysis, help for at-risk students and extracurricular activities.
Education research cannot yet provide definitive answers about the benefit of online learning overall or for different ages or groups of students. Nevertheless, the reality is that teachers need to be prepared to use technology in future situations which may call for students to be homebound, to make immediate plans to address the “corona slide” of reduced learning caused by the current situation and to integrate new virtual learning opportunities in traditional classrooms.
The recently enacted federal CARES act provides $13.5 billion earmarked mostly for K-12 schools and an additional $3 billion in education funding for governors to release. The act also specifies a separate rural-development item for distance learning. Moreover, engagement of the Federal Communication Commission may be forthcoming for distance learning.
Federal help may ease the pain in the short run, but it is not a solution to fill all needs incurred by or brought to light by the pandemic or mitigate budget cuts due to economic recession that may come as COVID-19 recedes.
Teachers deserve our thanks, the resources they need to create robust, flexible learning environments and the technology to make it happen.
Almost half of Kansas students attend rural schools where too often they don’t have access to fast, reliable broadband connection or internet service. Students in high-need urban schools often lack the same technology.
A stop-gap solution for Topeka folk during our stay-at-home period is placing the local library’s two “hotspot” equipped bookmobiles in parking lots of two areas with low connectivity. Wi-fi also has been used in school buses for parking-lot learning, but neither effort is a long-term solution.
Currently, Kansas schools cannot supply one-to-one technology — tablets or computers — for every student in each school (although some schools have done so), nor supply broadband and internet needed for every student to do schoolwork from home.
It is essential for the Kansas economy and necessary for public education to provide all students contemporary communication technology. Creative leveraging of federal, state and local resources is vital for overall school budgets if we are to continue learning opportunities as in the past.
The virus exposed weaknesses in the system, but it taught us that Kansans are committed, people, intrinsically connected to supporting public school life and traditions.
Sequestered in our homes, we long for spring music contests, baseball and commencement ceremonies — our students’ wish for interaction with peers and personal contact with teachers. Educational renewal may be the state’s greatest challenge for the future.
Never have teachers been more relevant.
Sharon Iorio is professor and dean emeritas of the Wichita State University College of Education. Reach her at Sharon.firstname.lastname@example.org.