There is a saying credited to Edward R. Murrow that goes, “Anyone who isn’t confused, really doesn’t understand the situation.” That probably applies to many people as the new school year approaches.
Whether in higher education or pre-K, the beginning of this school year will be radically different from the one that began a year ago. Higher education works on a more flexible schedule than public education, and public education is where the most uncertainty lies.
Gov. Jim Justice had hinted at a big announcement last week, but it turned out to be something close to a nothingburger. He provided a list of steps that could happen should the COVID-19 situation deteriorate, but for now local school systems are proceeding with their previous plans of offering a mix of in-school attendance and home-based learning.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in the next week.” Justice said. “We hope and pray that we’re moving in the right direction and everything, but we may very well have to change again.”
Change — abrupt or slow; expected or unexpected; minor or major — has been the key word since schools in West Virginia and elsewhere shut down at the beginning of spring as the novel coronavirus spread throughout the nation. School officials have had to make many difficult decisions in the five months since, and many more are to come.
Parents and other custodians of school children have their own decisions to make, and they may have to change those decisions a few weeks after school starts. Uncertainty will be the rule.
But what about beyond September, October or November? The coronavirus situation could present problems that last well beyond then. Schools could very well have to deal with the effects of this virus for the next dozen years or beyond.
We don’t know how many children will have lost a year’s education or more by the time this is over and things are back to normal — whatever that may be. Children who were struggling before schools shut down must have their needs met. Many who would have been in the graduating Class of 2032 might not graduate until a year or two later.
And what about dropout rates: Will students who were already at risk be more likely to give up?
As school officials deal with the immediate problems of when, how and whether to open for the new year, they are probably looking ahead to problems the rest of us haven’t thought about.
America’s public education system is built on an industrial model. You bring the learners together at a set place at a set time and expect them to perform a minimum number of learning tasks in a specified time. The novel coronavirus has thrown that model into disarray. Part of the long-term solution could be moving toward a different model of education that is geared more toward individual learning than toward mass production.
Or maybe not. A lot depends on how this all plays out in the near term.
Here in West Virginia, the Legislature will have to take an active role in these decisions. Public schools are tightly regulated by laws the Legislature enacts. Those laws were written before COVID-19 changed everything. If the virus remains something to be dealt with come January or February, lawmakers will have to make the tough decisions they’ve been able to duck so far.
It may require a special session before then. We just don’t know.
As noted here before, we’re in uncharted territory. The situation changes quickly. Mistakes have been made and will be made again as we learn how to deal with all this.