Rethinking School

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

Every once in a while, a moment comes along that forces us to rethink how we do things. On the back end of this pandemic, I believe we’ve been presented with such an opportunity as it relates to schools and how we do school. Whether we take it or not remains to be seen, but we have a jumping off point if we want to take it.

The pandemic has prompted us to do things we never would have considered in “normal times.” The other thing the pandemic did was expose things that we knew existed but didn’t want to think about much.

The most obvious thing pertaining to school during the pandemic was remote learning. Prior to the pandemic, we talked about “distance learning” and there was a sense that it was an option—if not a luxury—reserved for specific circumstances. It often took the form of students at one college getting credit for completing classes at another college or older adults taking classes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend in person.

In March of 2020, “distance learning” became “desperate learning” as the pandemic hit and schools shut down. This sudden switch exposed several things we hadn’t been prepared to address. The most glaring was the digital divide. We were confronted with the fact that whole segments of society did not have laptops or tablets to access online education.

We also came to realize that entire neighborhoods lacked internet access. In other instances the internet existed but households couldn’t afford the monthly bill to keep it on. So while students might have had devices courtesy of their school, they didn’t have the internet service needed to connect them with their teachers.

Another thing that became exposed was that some students lacked the space, quiet, and orderliness necessary to focus and learn. Families struggling to survive are often families in chaos. Sometimes the chaos is multiple children trying to share the same device. Sometimes the chaos is a lack of space. Regardless, the pandemic made more obvious those factors outside the classroom that affect learning.

But we’re here now and there is value in thinking about how we might do remote learning or distance learning better. How much of it do we incorporate into the traditional classroom model? Some of the focus will necessarily be on the type and quantity of devices while others will focus on the infrastructure itself.

Is there anything to be done to mitigate chaos and provide an atmosphere more conducive to learning? It’s said that New Jersey schools are among the nation’s most segregated. Does a remote or distance learning framework automatically make this worse, or allow it to be hidden. Are there ways to use the technology to level the playing field?

We’ve been reminded during the pandemic of just how many students count on school for nutritious meals. Also, we’ve been provided more evidence that schools have become the safety net and this too is worthy of rethinking.

We also know, if we didn’t know before, how vital school is for the socialization of students. Whether in the classroom, in the cafeteria or on the playing field, this is where students learn how to be citizens.

The pandemic exposed some things and suggested others. We can’t get back the time, but I think we can redeem it if we take the opportunity to rethink how we do school in the future.

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Mayoral Musings