Common $ents (or not)

By Ryan Langferman, IPLI Mentor and Principal at Milan High School

We have surpassed the first anniversary of when COVID-19 slowly crept across the globe and changed education, as we knew it, forever. As administrators, we have spent the 2020-21 school year holding our breath, ready to react to the next issue that the pandemic will throw at us.  I would say that, collectively,  administrators across the great state of Indiana did an outstanding job in a very challenging year. However, it is time to turn our attention to the 2021-22 school year and address the changes, as a result of COVID-19, that will stay and which ones will fade into our memories. 

Suppose administrators across the state were asked whether online instruction or in-person learning was the best educational model. In that case, I believe that they would overwhelmingly respond that being physically present in the building is best for children. The opportunity for students to be in the same room with the teacher, to discuss a topic with peers, socially interact at lunch or athletic activities can not be replicated in a virtual environment. We are beginning to see the adverse physical and mental effects for online students sitting in the same room at home, with little physical activity and minimal social interaction. Due to the unprecedented amount of virtual learning during the past 13 months,  physical, social, emotional, and cognitive effects will have long-lasting impacts on students.

Considering this, it seems that the answer would be easy for next fall; long-term online learning needs to be avoided, if possible. However, I keep hearing about corporations strongly considering adding online learning as a permanent option. When I inquire why the corporation is considering this, the reply is always the same “…, so we don’t lose students.” The concern being that students will transfer to a public school that is offering an extended online option.  As we all know, a loss of students means a loss of dollars. I want to assume that we are in a profession that always does what is best for children; why should this decision be different?

In my administrator experience this school year, I observed that all but a few students and families who requested comprehensive online instruction were doing so out of convenience and not health concerns. A majority of those students whose applications were approved for long-term online education had higher absenteeism rates and lower grades compared to previous years. Parents would eventually return their students to school when it was clear that online learning was not working for their child, often with low grades and behind on credits. 

Don’t we already have the answer to this issue? Online schools were around long before the pandemic, and students were not leaving public school in droves to sign up. Don’t get me wrong, I think online instruction is a great option to continue the learning process on inclement weather days, but long-term online instruction is not what is best for student learning, in my opinion. Can a child complete homework and earn credits online? Absolutely! However, in the end, we must ask ourselves what is learned? Is the diploma awarded for competency or compliance?

I realize that every dollar counts for our schools, but I fear the immediate impact of keeping a handful of students enrolled by adding long-term online learning will have a far more significant expense for them in the long run. Attendance, personal hygiene, and social and emotional well-being will be compromised for convenience if students choose the online route. Class size, scheduling, and teacher retention will become a nightmare for administrators as they attempt to predict the number of students in physical classrooms versus online classrooms. Our country is in a hurry to “return to normal,”; and I don’t think our expectations for students should be any different.