Nothing is as usual. Our home is still our castle but it is also a place of confinement. Our friends are still our friends but from at least six feet and six weeks apart. Families are still very much the cornerstone of society. It is now the rule every day, every hour, and in every nook and cranny of home, for three meals or more every 24 hours.

Public and charter schools are still public schools but a school isn’t a place and a classroom isn’t a space without kids and staff. It is this last change, the change in the education of more than 900,000 Minnesota students to which each family must focus their attention.

History tells us that from great challenges can emerge great progress. The COVID-19 pandemic health emergency now gripping our nation is indeed difficult and threatening but it too may hold opportunity for progress. Minnesota has had to implement an online system of teaching and learning for students at all levels.

Prior to the pandemic we could see the emergence of technology in classrooms and we could envision the possible benefits and shortcomings of more far-reaching online learning. It was in the future. But in a few weeks it has gone from a tempered inclusion to being the primary vehicle of delivery for public education.

No one is suggesting that this is an ideal substitute for the education of Minnesota’s students. It isn’t — it’s a substitute in an emergency. It is, however, a chance to learn and test the powers and limitations of the existing technology-based distance learning. Like it or not the experiment is underway and we should fully utilize it and document our experiences.

Early on we heard of system failures. The technology didn’t function correctly early on the first day. Those issues were soon corrected.

We also question the possible discrimination of students who couldn’t access a computer and areas of the state that may not have the necessary communication networks. We think the feedback from parents and students on this experience is critical to understanding what future distance learning efforts will need at the home level.

What were the demands placed on parents? Many are now required to work from home and left with a new task of minding school-age kids while doing their jobs. It also seems logical that the effectiveness of home-based instruction by computer differs by age and grade level. What are those differences? We have seen examples of subject areas that require a varied approach to online instruction, like music, physical education, laboratory and shop classes. How are these handled?

Most critical to the lessons that we can learn from this experience will be teacher feedback. It would seem critical and opportune to gather teacher assessment and documentation of what was gained and what was lost during these months of online teaching and learning.

Learning is both an individual and a social experience. What is lost when other students are not an immediate part of the class interaction and perhaps more important, the after-class discussion?

Hopefully we won’t again be faced with an emergency learning challenge of this magnitude and duration, but in case we are, let’s learn and prepare now. Let’s also take away from these experiences new applications of techniques that can be a part of mainstream learning program without a crisis.

For many students, especially those of you in your final year, the end is compromised and technology can’t replace it. We do not know how long this ordeal will last. We need to find ways to celebrate your great efforts and we wish you well as you move on. Our communities need to work with our schools to help make that happen.  

An editorial from the Adams ECM Publishers Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is a newspaper of APG-ECM. Reactions welcome at editorial.board@ecm-inc.com..

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