Brian Murphy: Don’t miss this chance to reimagine education

Brian Murphy: Don’t miss this chance to reimagine education

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The coronavirus pandemic has raised many questions in St. Louis and the rest of Missouri, but one thing it has made crystal clear is the deep and long-standing inequities in our community.

A recent story in the Post-Dispatch focused on the disparate ways the virus was impacting St. Louis’s black community but failed to highlight the systemic inequities in our education system that have been underscored through this crisis.

Schools and families across the country are struggling to figure out ways to keep children learning from home, but many of the most effective solutions require access to devices and the internet, access that has been difficult to obtain for many of our most vulnerable families.

The forced closure of school buildings for the rest of this year is only causing the educational divide in Missouri to widen.

I commend teachers across the state for their heroic efforts to adapt to this new reality and figure out innovative ways to help their students, but trying to do so in an already broken system of inequity has limited their impact.

The students who are trapped in some of the poorest performing districts in the state have lost weeks, if not months, of learning as they wait for internet-capable devices. Contrast this with students in already successful districts that are having daily check-ins with their teachers and are operating under a clear learning plan.

Many of the most disadvantaged students initially only received online worksheets they were expected to print out and complete at home regardless of their access to the internet or printers and with little guidance or instruction.

In some areas, physical copies of these worksheets were distributed with meals, but as coronavirus concerns grew, meal-distribution and other such efforts were suspended, resulting in districts pulling back on rigorous online instruction plans.

It did not have to be this way. The current educational crisis is a result of a lack of leadership from the state level.

The Missouri Legislature passed a bill two years ago that opened up virtual education to all Missouri students, but delays in implementing the program, coupled with blatant resistance from both school districts and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, have drastically dimmed the impact that the effort could have had, especially as Missouri students cope with learning challenges during this pandemic.

Perhaps for fear of losing control of their students, districts across the state did not abide by the law for the first year. Parents had trouble accessing full-time virtual education programs this year, possibly because districts deliberately made it difficult, resulting in lawsuits that have been decided in favor of the students.

One district, Springfield Public Schools, developed its own online learning platform and has been a successful outlier for districts being able to successfully transition to online learning during the pandemic.

Imagine how much easier this would have been for all of Missouri if districts and the education department had supported this alternative learning environment from the beginning instead of focusing on protecting the status quo. I fear that we will make the same mistakes as we move out of this crisis.

We should not be trying to return to “normal” because it is clear that normal is not serving our children. Instead we should, as a region, state and nation, take this opportunity to truly reimagine education and build a system that works for all of our children.

We need to carefully consider things like how to integrate in-person and online learning, examine school day start and end times, revise our school calendar to avoid “summer slide,” and work to eliminate the digital divides that have left so many of our students behind in this crisis.

But more importantly, we must accept that education is not about buildings or institutions but is instead about helping our children gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Let us use what we have learned to create a system that puts parents and students first and leaves behind the focus on preserving outdated institutions that are clearly not designed for the challenges of our new reality.

Brian Murphy is board president of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri.

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