Editorial: More questions than answers on school plans

State Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona and Gov. Ned Lamont

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where teachers and parents would be happy with a plan for K-12 education this fall.

A return to full-time, in-person learning would raise concerns about safety, not just for students and faculty, but for anyone who interacts with them outside of school. While Connecticut has done well in tamping down the coronavirus outbreak, it would not take much for what’s happening today in the South and West to make a return to the Northeast. Without a vaccine or a viable treatment, the fears of the virus are nowhere near over.

At the same time, a plan to focus on distance learning raises huge concerns, too. Studies have shown large numbers of students, especially those in lower socioeconomic brackets, are in danger of falling even further behind in the absence of in-person learning. The challenges for special education students are severe. And for every student, the loss of socialization that is as much a part of school as any textbook or worksheet is a major price to pay.

Then there are hybrid models, which offer in some ways the worst of all worlds. Safety can’t be guaranteed if students and teachers are spending any length of time in poorly ventilated classrooms, whether it’s two days a week or five. At the same time, as soon as e-learning starts, the risks of falling behind begin anew. A combination of in-home and at-school learning may put some people’s minds at ease, but it’s no panacea.

So the state with its hundreds of school systems will be forced to choose the least-bad option. Along with educational concerns, this will be balanced with an eye on the economy, since parents of young children will likely be without child care if schools aren’t open full time, and will be hard-pressed to do their jobs and supervise home-schooling in a distance-learning model. That’s a lesson a lot of people learned the hard way in the spring, and nothing about the fall looks like it will be any easier.

In fact, it could be much harder, since at least in the spring classrooms were transitioning to e-learning with students and teachers who knew each other. The fall begins a whole new school year with new teachers and unfamiliar habits that will take time for everyone to get used to. It could be a much bigger struggle.

The governor has said a final call on expectations for the fall will arrive in August. In the meantime, the state Board of Education said this week the school year can be shortened by three days this year if the extra time is used to plan for coronavirus contingencies. Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona said the requirement that districts plan for three separate opening plans necessitates extra time for training.

This will likely not be the last concession the state has to make to the ongoing pandemic. The hard truth is that as well as Connecticut has done to limit the virus’ spread in recent months, we are not prepared for the coming school year. There are too many unanswered questions. State officials have a monumental task to try to answer them.

Connecticut Media Group