Home Susan Yerkes Silver linings

Silver linings

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This fall, “back to school” has been anything but back to normal. From online instruction to masks and distanced classrooms, the pandemic is changing education.

Most campuses have reopened to some extent, and progress is likely to continue. But, the going has been tough for parents, teachers, administrators and children. Long-term, several lessons emerged from the Herculean effort in March to keep kids connected to instruction when the novel coronavirus started spreading.

Today, it seems the storm clouds of COVID-19 may even have some silver linings.

The outbreak helped change minds about the importance of distance learning.    

“It has really forced our hand on some things — for instance, getting public schools online in ways that were long overdue,” a veteran teacher told me.

While the mad scramble to get educators and learners linked to digital devices last spring proved a nightmare for many, it brought communities together in ways only a crisis can. Technological advances, maybe delayed because of extra effort and expense, got fast-tracked.

Indeed, virtual learning has some parents feeling more plugged into their children’s education, instructors and institutions.

“I do think the digital needs did move education forward, and continue to do so in a short period of time,” said Principal Mary Jewell of Northside Independent School District’s Rudder Middle School.

Parents and teachers continue to adapt, although it has been difficult for a few adults. Younger students adjusted the quickest, according to educators.

Teachers have emerged as heroes, working overtime and reaching out to students with Zoom conferences and personal help.

Most districts have set up resources to assist pupils and parents with digital issues. While there have been plenty of glitches and crashes, over time, connections will improve as technology is more smoothly integrated.

Though online events and classes may lack the feel of being there in person, the experience reaches a far wider audience. Local arts institutions sprang into action to develop or refine learning modules, making virtual visits more fun and educational.

However, San Antonio still faces a drastic digital divide. Despite students receiving Chromebooks and other data devices in record time, maintaining connectivity became the elephant in the virtual classroom.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s “Worst Connected Cities 2018” found nearly 20% of San Antonio households lacked workable broadband connections. In some areas, up to 25% of learners didn’t reconnect with schools following Spring Break, plus numerous parents were hard to contact, educators said.

Nimble solutions helped, such as the cooperation between NISD, the San Antonio Independent School District, the San Antonio Housing Authority and VIA Metropolitan Transit with the dispatch of VIAtrans vans around town providing Wi-Fi hot spots. In the future, a San Antonio Office of Innovation Smart City coordinator told me, special nodes attached to high-tech streetlights, or smart lights, could send wireless communications into underserved areas.

Meanwhile, simple steps could make a big difference, such as getting Congress to extend the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program for affordable mobile hot spots to cover homes in some areas.

For now, though, the best news for many is just getting kids back to school.

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