The end of the 2019-20 school year was unlike any other in our lifetimes. So was the first day of the 2020-21 year. The past year ended abruptly in March when state officials reacted to the coronavirus pandemic by closing schools and so-called nonessential businesses. Some learning took place at home between March and May, but for all practical purposes, the school year as we knew it was over.
Schools in all three states have reopened, more or less. Some are all online because of the virus while others are combining in-school learning with computer-based learning at home, also known as virtual learning.
Even that strategy is iffy, as schools could be forced to cancel in-school classes and go all virtual, as happened with Wayne County when the color code changed from yellow to orange on Saturday night because of the rising number of coronavirus cases in the county. That left teachers scrambling to adjust their teaching methods for all-distance learning with only three days’ notice.
Because coronavirus case numbers change week to week, schools could shut down or reopen with only a couple of days’ notice until the pandemic is officially over.
Students returning to their buildings found changes that have been made to keep them separated — or, as it is now known, socially distanced. With the use of blended learning, where at most only half of students are in the building on a given day, classrooms at Huntington East Middle School have only six to 11 students in them at a time.
The best case for students who attend classes at home either full-time or part-time is by the internet, but that’s not always possible. Some counties are taking action to help families who don’t have internet service. Logan County Schools, for example, has been awarded almost $375,000 in state grant funding to provide internet access to families who might not be able to afford it. As reported by The Logan Banner, Assistant Superintendent Darlene Dingess-Adkins said contracts with local internet providers — namely Suddenlink, Shentel, Frontier and Armstrong — to install internet in homes of students without it will be up for the board’s approval on Sept. 21. Chapmanville Regional High School, whose district includes the Harts area of Lincoln County, has 50 students who say they have no internet service at home, as one example.
The unavoidable truth is that virtual learning will be a larger part of education in the future, and West Virginia is just not prepared for it. Some school systems are providing computers and tablets for students whose families can’t afford them, so that problem is taken care of. But large parts of the state don’t have the infrastructure installed for broadband internet service.
The state must also address the issue of having families prepared for events that close schools — natural disasters, weather and epidemics among them — and force students to engage in home-based learning.
We have to deal with the problem at hand, but longer term, school officials and families everywhere must accept the fact that things have changed. K-12 education in 2030 may look very much different from what we saw in 2010.