To say it has been a rough year plus for students, parents, and teachers would be an understatement. Schools opened and closed. Some kids lived on Zoom while others were sent homework packets. Women left the workforce in great numbers to help support their now at home full-time children. Teachers left the profession at a larger rate than usual, and those that stayed are exhausted.
As the school year begins to close, there is great debate about what the next year will look like. Discussions around “learning loss,” safety and reopening abound. In California Governor Newsom has doubled down on full reopening of schools this Fall. While I rarely support Newsom’s statements as he tends to be a do-nothing governor, I would be very surprised to see schools not open normally in the Fall. All the data points to this being not only feasible but also absolutely necessary for our students. So, rather than plan more “re-opening” strategies, schools should right now be focusing entirely on re-engaging the community in public schools.
The 2020-21 school year saw a mass exodus of students from the public school system in states across the country. Michigan reported a drop of 53,200 students (4.1%) in December 2020 from previous years. New York Public Schools had their largest decline since 1981, enrolling 66,424 fewer students (a 2.6% drop) than in 2019-2020. California lost 155,000 students, a decline five times greater than the current trend of 20,000-30,000 students to lower birth rates. According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, homeschooling nearly doubled for the year. Schools tend to be funded based on their enrollment. It is important to entice students back to the public schools next year.
Truly, this is an opportunity to bring out the very best schools have to offer. It is a time to demonstrate the creative teachers who have students clamoring to be in their classes. It is a time to show off the robotics clubs and arts programs and sports that connect students beyond the academic classroom. It is a time to promote education as an interactive partnership between teachers, students and parents. Elementary schools should be throwing up fresh coats of paint on their murals and planning community picnics for the summer to welcome the community back. High schools need to take a breath from the college rat race and give students back just a little of all they missed – homecoming events, school spirit weeks, and prom. They need some fun! Many students struggled with online learning and had to balance additional stresses such as watching younger siblings or loss of employment by a parent. The need for human connection goes way beyond academic needs. Schools have to address the emotional well-being of students before they can take on the academic needs.
Schools have been given significant additional funds for next year through federal and state programs. This is an opportunity to provide free after-school programs in programming, the arts, and more. Rather than just think of “returning to normal,” I’d love to see schools transform to even better. Why aim low when we can do even better? Schools are amazing learning environments. With the extra funding coming their way, I challenge teachers, parents and administrators to think outside the box at what could be. What does your dream learning environment look like? Use this re-emergence as an opportunity to take even just one step closer to that dream!