School’s out, but not for summer.
This week, Governor Asa Hutchinson extended the length for mandatory school closures. Instead of re-opening after Spring break, all Arkansas students are to remain home at least until April 17. At that point, the state will decide whether continuing the school closures will still help mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak.
This puts Arkansas students, parents and school faculty in a largely-unprecedented situation; complete remote-learning has never been tried on this scale before. In Craighead County, which reported its first COVID-19 cases a few days ago, Jonesboro Public Schools has spent years unintentionally preparing for this pandemic.
A Public Perspective
“We’re way ahead of the curve,” said Dr. Brad Faught, principal at Jonesboro High School. “We have a one-to-one laptop program, so each of our 1,400 students had a macbook air they could take home already.” Seventeen of their students were day-users, meaning that those students’ parents had requested they leave their assigned laptops at school overnight. “We actually delivered those students’ macbooks to their homes,” said Faught. “We’ve been using the Edgenuity virtual learning program for awhile, so we can do the same kind of distance learning Arkansas State University can do.”
However, education is only one of the many benefits students receive from school. Many students depend on the free breakfast and lunch programs, and ensuring those at-risk kids get the nutrition they need has been another focus for Faught. “We mobilized last weekend to set up locations all over Jonesboro where we hand out breakfast and lunch,” he said. “We fed over 1,000 students on Monday out of a district of 6,000, and we see more coming in every day.”
On the Private Side
“We were very prepared for this. A few years back we had a massive renovation, and a large part was updating our technological infrastructure,” said Steve Straessle, principal at the Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. The school had planned to unveil their new remote-teaching capabilities, but when the CDC put out warnings a few weeks ago about possible school disruptions, Catholic High set a deadline to completely move classes online, just in case.
“We’re definitely entering a new paradigm, where independent, online learning will be the rule of the day,” said Straessle. “We’re using Zoom and video lectures to keep our teachers and students engaged with each other. It’s definitely going to be a challenging transition, but this generation of digital natives will be able to quickly overcome it.”
Straessle also volunteered Catholic High to be a food center for kids around Pulaski County. “We’re happy to do our part, that’s why we’re a food center for all kids in our area, whether they attend our school or not,” he said.
Looking Back While Going Forward
As for now, faculty and staff at all Arkansas schools are being paid during the closure. There are some concerns that distance learning may negatively affect student performance, but it’s really too soon to tell. “Today, President Trump announced that there won’t be any standardized testing in schools, so that takes some pressure off,” said Faught. “Who knows, we may find we’ve been testing the kids too much, actually.”
Faught believes that his students health and safety is more important than having them in class. “When you aren’t supposed to have people in groups of ten or more, it’s crazy to have thousands of kids in class,” he said.
While pandemic-related school closures haven’t been experienced on this scale in living memory, we can look back to the Spanish Influenza, which killed 500,000 in 1918. In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences published this study of 17 cities that attempted to mitigate the 1918 influenza epidemic through implementing different levels of non-pharmaceutical interventions (closing schools and churches, banning public gatherings, etc.). They found that communities that performed these interventions early and aggressively experienced a 50 percent lower peak death rate than those that didn’t.
COVID-19 isn’t the spanish influenza, so the comparison isn’t perfect, but other studies have shown that 75 percent of childhood illnesses are transmitted from child to child, and 35 percent of adult illnesses can be traced back to contact with a child.
There’s another complication: public closings can’t last forever, and the same 2007 study found that those communities that aggressively implemented closures experienced a large second-wave of infection. That doesn’t sound great, but delaying the pandemic across multiple communities may provide breathing room for an overloaded healthcare system, helping “flatten the curve,” if you will.
Circling back, it’s too early to tell the long-term effects of school closures, but with modern technology and proactive school leadership, our students are better-equipped today for the effects of this pandemic than ever before.