Something extraordinary happened to start the month just a few miles beyond Philadelphia.
Kids from kindergarten through fifth grade walked into actual brick-and-mortar classrooms on day one of the school year.
This happened in an otherwise ordinary suburb called Ambler. It happened as districts both poor and affluent across our region bailed on in-school learning, instead feeding even their youngest students computer-only instruction with no sense of how those children, if at all, would or could be supported through it all.
This feat in the Wissahickon School District is no half-in, half-out hybrid offering, even. It’s the whole deal. They’ve opened their elementary school doors for five-day-a week, full instruction for all families who desire it. Others are receiving virtual instruction from home. Only higher grades, due to staffing shortages that have not yet been figured out, were given a virtual-only option.
While coronavirus infection numbers could derail even this well-intended plan, it is nothing short of remarkable for debuting at all. Many other districts have punted rather than giving something like this a shot. This can be done. It is being done. And in a bona-fide, decent-size school district in our midst.
“It’s going great so far, actually,” Wissahickon Superintendent James Crisfield told me Thursday. “I went to one of our elementary schools the first day and it looked like the normal first day: joy and anticipation and angst. Some kids were just racing into the building, couldn’t wait to get in there. Some kids were walking parallel with their parents, nervous about their first day. We had our typical few criers. ...
“It had a first-day-of-school feel,” Crisfield added, “which was so welcoming after all of this summer agita.”
Six months after COVID-19 shut down schools, this should be the norm.
It is not. And that is a disgrace.
We have allowed our toxic, polarized politics, fanned by a chaos-adoring president, to prevail in hampering our pandemic response as it regards reopening schools.
Kids and families are the greatest casualties of this extraordinary failure.
I had heard about Wissahickon after a column I wrote last week about the inauspicious debut of virtual schooling. Readers stuffed my inbox with grateful emails. A silent majority of suffering Americans, and their children, felt heard and seen, finally.
“I just wanted to thank you for putting so many of our thoughts into a well written article,” wrote a mother of at least one elementary-age student who began all-virtual in our region. “I very much hope we can find a different solution for these kids soon. My heart breaks for them + the strain on families is so incredibly stressful.”
A father said this:
“I’ve never written to a journalist to thank them for an online article. After reading your zoom and gloom article I felt compelled. I am a father of 4. Two children in elementary, one in preschool and the last is just over a month old. We are going through the same struggles that you and your family seem to be having. What do you think we can do to stop this nonsense and get the kids back to school?”
Virtual learning, especially for our youngest kids, is unsustainable. It seeks to aim for zero transmission of the coronavirus in a school setting but at the as-yet unquantified expense of children’s mental health, their social health, their families’ economic well-being — the list is very, very long.
Computer instruction from home requires extraordinary time and effort of teachers. It exhausts children. Technology vastly limits what is taught and how it’s taught. And for every teacher at least one or more caregivers must be present, especially for younger students, to make sure they are not kicked off the computer, lost in thought, or just lost, period. Never mind the damage to families who must also somehow work to keep mortgages and rents paid, to keep food coming into the house.
How many children will be left to fend for themselves instead of having attention for 35 or more hours a week of so-called instruction at home? It’s scandalous that we even are left to contemplate this cruel, if unintended, consequence of abandoning in-school instruction.
A major reason Wissahickon managed to reopen is the Montgomery County district has a strong, if also economically diverse, tax base. It serves 5,000 students in four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. It includes Ambler, Blue Bell, and other communities in Lower Gwynedd and Whitpain Townships. It had new-enough facilities, and ample-enough financial reserves, to gear up for the costly-beyond-budget, in-class plan now in place.
Also key: Four out of 10 families in the district opted for all-virtual learning. This freed space in elementary schools for roughly six feet of social distancing per student.
“For an elementary school of 500, right there that’s 200 of the kids,” Crisfield said. “So now we have that many fewer students to start. And we’ve hired 10 teachers, additional teachers, to help with distancing. With that many fewer students you have a few [extra] classrooms available so we’re able to spread out a little bit more than we ordinarily would.”
The superintendent prioritized bringing the youngest children back to school. The youngest are least able to be taught effectively, to be nurtured, to self-navigate and learn through tiny, eyesight-straining computer screens.
Elementary teachers unable or unwilling to teach in school due to health concerns were assigned virtual-only classes. Extra staff was hired to fill in other gaps. Hiring additional teachers for middle school and high school vacancies, however, has proven more difficult since the supply of biology-certified teachers, for instance, is much smaller, Crisfield said. That puzzle is still being figured out.
What can we learn, then? Schools need space to reopen safely. They need money for additional staff. They may need money for all of the above. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has refused to allocate the emergency funds to do this.
Where, then, has the visible and loud lobbying been for both? Where are elected officials in Harrisburg, in Washington, in our counties and cities, pounding the drum? How about superintendents? School boards? Teacher union heads? Parents?
Instead, colossal districts in Philadelphia, Cherry Hill, Lower Merion, Central Bucks, Radnor, and beyond — districts well-financed and starving of capital alike — are opening their doors only virtually.
We can do better.
It’s time to demand it.