Schools are returning to in-person instruction, but many students aren't.
This is a problem.
Last week, we closed registration for the second phase of our return to in-person learning. Next Monday, we’ll welcome back students in grades 3-5, as well as students in grades 6-8 with complex needs. Out of 178 students eligible to sign up for in-person learning, fewer than 30 actually did. And it’s not just my school — principal colleagues all over the city report similar numbers.
This is a problem.
In talking with some parents, I’ve heard various reasons for their reluctance to send students back. Some mention the virus spread, which continues to be high in Philadelphia. Others mention the challenge of finding childcare for just a portion of the week. Some have said that it’s just “not worth the hassle” to send students back for what will be seven weeks of two in-person days each week — or just 14 actual days in the building.
And while no one has mentioned testing, I have to imagine our plan to administer state tests to students who return to in-person learning in the waning days of this school year has deterred some families. For those 30 or so students who are returning to the building, they’ll spend 5 full days — morning and afternoon — sitting for standardized tests. Awful, I know.
But what if the reasons students aren’t coming back are the same reasons people no longer use Blackberry’s or DVDs? What if “not worth the hassle” is a euphemism for something else? What if the education market has fundamentally shifted? How do we respond?
Right now, 4 out of 5 families at my school are choosing remote instruction over some form of in-person learning. Let’s assume that ratio doesn’t hold forever, as we improve vaccination and demonstrate that we can safely return students and staff to the building. I have to imagine that some portion of families in Philadelphia will still want their children to indefinitely remain virtual. Even if that number is just 1/20 families, that’s still 7500 students who will be seeking quality cyber schools, of which there are not many. That represents a dramatic shift in public education.
On Sunday morning, my son and I went grocery shopping at the local Whole Foods. It was a miserable experience, as the store was packed, even at the waking hour of 7.30AM, with Amazon shoppers who weren’t amused as my toddler got in the way of their work. Having just returned to in-person grocery shopping, I kinda hate it. Gone is the coffee bar, replaced with coolers to keep online orders fresh. And what used to be a meandering stroll through aisles as I pondered which herbal teas and Bonne Maman preserves I’d purchase has devolved into a rush to get my groceries and get the hell out of there.
At some point, Amazon will realize — if they haven’t already — that the traditional massive Whole Foods grocery store works well for neither the casual shopper like myself nor the busy worker bees fulfilling online orders. And they will adjust to the shifting market.
Can traditional public education systems do the same?
Some districts, like West Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia, are creating their own cyber programs to compete with charter schools. This is smart, as it not only responds to the changing market environment, but also helps districts recoup money they would otherwise pay to the cyber charter schools (PA has a strange funding formula for charter schools). Cyber schools are also less expensive to operate than traditional schools — the facilities maintenance alone is a major savings.
And I wonder if there aren’t more opportunities for us to create hybrid academies that offer some combination of in-person and remote learning. The current system of teaching to faces on a Smartboard while managing a group of students in the classroom isn’t sustainable, but what if students spent a few days learning from home and then came to the school for collaborative projects with their peers?
Traditional public school systems have something that many cyber schools simply can’t offer: actual buildings located all around the city. Much like Walmart is trying to leverage its many, conveniently-located stores to compete against Amazon’s speedy shipping options, perhaps we can rethink the purpose our school buildings serve.
Whatever we do in public education to respond to the changing market desires, we had better do it quickly and effectively. Because parents are already choosing not to return. And while that is a problem, it’s also an awesome opportunity.
Thanks so much for reading. Have a great week.