On April 21, Mitch Daniels, the President of Purdue University, announced plans to open the university in the fall fully. He noted in a television interview that week: “I don’t pretend to have a plan yet.” Five days later, Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote an oped in the NY Times entitled College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It. My response, two weeks later in Washington Post’s, The Answer Sheet, was that this was folly. It was unrealistic, I wrote, to think that students would not engage in risky behavior and that the virus could be contained in such an environment. More and more colleges, including Brown, are now delaying and canceling live instruction and delaying bringing students back to campus.
The same is true of school districts. After New Jersey’s Department of Education laid out a 104-page document, The Road Back, on guidance for school’s safely reopening, David Aderhold, Superintendent of West Windsor-Plainsboro School District published, on June 28th, 451 Questions, Bless the Broken Road highlighting the logistical and financial hurdles to such an undertaking. The Superintendent of South Brunswick Schools, published an open letter on August 1st, wondering why we would consider opening schools before other indoor venues and government offices. He noted, “it is vital that the State of New Jersey recognizes that schools should not be the venue to “experiment” on whether we can safely open large-scale indoor environments.” This past week, Governor Murphy declared that schools may now open with fully remote instruction, and numerous districts have already announced plans to do so.
Despite entreaties and threats from our national leaders, it was never a realistic option for schools and colleges to open safely. We had none of the requisite needs met in any of the plans put forth. We lack the testing capacity, sufficient personal protective equipment, effective barriers, and financial resources. Even if these were in place, it is unrealistic that elementary students could and college students would act in ways to minimize contact and behaviors to spread this disease.
The enormity of the planning for the safe opening of schools and colleges cannot be understated. Temple University, in early May, established five teams, Academic Continuity, Operations Continuity, Student Life, Business Continuity, and Research, that were meeting daily to plan every aspect of campus life. Schools and colleges across the country were doing similar planning.
This past spring, after most schools and colleges switched to remote learning, it is evident that we were incredibly unprepared for this sudden need for on-line instruction. We were understandably flying by the seat of our pants, trying to make the best of a sudden and unexpected situation. Schools and colleges muddled through, but there was an almost universal acknowledgment that teachers and professors were not delivering engaging instruction. Many students lacked internet access. Students with special needs could not get the support they needed. Many college students found it not at all comparable to the on-campus instruction. Few thrived educationally.
If we had put a fraction of the resources into improving on-line instruction instead of planning for in-person classes, we would have developed plans and trained teachers to make virtual learning engaging. There are plenty of resources out there to assist us. This lists over 350 on-line resources for teachers. On-line platforms like Aleks, MyMath Lab, and No Red Ink, effectively teach math facts and grammar skills while assessing and monitoring student progress. Most colleges have some effective on-line instruction, and many are entirely on-line. Unfortunately, most teachers and professors lack training and experience on these platforms. The planning and implementation of online learning resources, training, and instruction are now beginning a few weeks before schools and colleges are about to open.
It is not too late. It is time for all schools and colleges to acknowledge that it is not feasible to begin in-person instruction safely. Every school should develop a Marshal Plan to design and implement engaging virtual learning. Developing an effective blended learning plan has the possibility of actually improving student performance and engagement. We must begin the planning and training now to move forward. Without such an initiative and commitment, we are doomed to have many more months of ineffective learning and instruction.