A catastrophe hit American public education in early 2020. The pandemic and the damage and grief it wrought upon schools and society are terrifying in scale. Eighteen months along, American educators are preparing cautiously optimistic plans to return to familiar patterns of in-person schooling for all. Not quite an immediate return to normal, but as close as can be imagined.
In response, the Biden administration has established the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund to provide one-time funding to states to help reopen schools safely in the fall. Much of this funding is dedicated to support programs and services to address learning loss.
Prince William County schools are expecting to receive another $87.9 million in federal fund…
Because of this guaranteed investment in schools, hundreds of tech companies are lobbying districts to invest a significant portion of their ESSER funds in their businesses, claiming their proprietary online programs and assessments will rapidly help students catch up.
One lesson we have learned this year is that more technology in our schools is not what we need to recover. Our children have spent hundreds of hours in front of a muted cameras on Zoom, watching teachers explain content and skills. That technology, powerful as it is, did not and does not meet our kids’ social, emotional and academic needs. Instead, we learned that our children’s mental health declined from being isolated at home; that their ability to retain information waned; and that their ability to actively participate in discussions and make connections with classmates suffered.
Kids do not need more time in front of screens to do online remedial programs or assessments when they finally return to school. What schools need is a large investment in human capital.
Children and teachers long for connections with good people who can guide students’ recovery to meet social, emotional and learning needs. There is nothing richer and more fundamental than in-person interaction that allows teachers and students to learn and connect in safe, trustworthy and caring communities. Studies in human development, teaching and learning confirm this position: cognition develops through interaction with others in meaningful activities that allow students to participate with a teacher and peers.
Moreover, we have learned these lessons before: we read better when we read and discuss with others using authentic texts that are in books we can touch and hold. We listen and absorb mathematical concepts when we discuss concepts and explain our problem-solving skills. We understand abstract ideas when we design and build bridges; play musical instruments; debate concepts, causes, or events; write speeches; make presentations to our peers; and act out timeless human dramas. These are all memorable moments that educators create in person in their classrooms to ensure that our kids are actively engaged in learning and developing the skills they need to be successful in school and in life.
We need more teachers, more paraprofessionals, more humans to work with youth when they need the support and leadership that only caring adults can give. Human capital is our most precious resource, and human development is where school districts across the country should dedicate resources.
Parents who pushed to open schools did so because they saw the technology leaving our children behind and they believe in the sacred teacher-student relationship. As we return, we must double down on those relationships and commit to ensure each student has the care and attention they need.
Examples of worthy spending should include reducing class sizes; hiring more reading and math specialists and teacher aides; and carving out more time for individual or small group attention to students. More technology cannot and will not work. Believing the school year should start just like all other school years is a mistake. We must make the adjustments now to allow for more human interaction. If we do, we will realize the benefits.
Kate Olson-Flynn, Ph.D., is a Prince William County parent, a member of the Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Equity and an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School of Education. Dr. Babur Lateef is chairman at-large of the Prince William County School Board. Christopher M. Clark, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of Michigan State University’s College of Education. The views presented are their own and not necessarily those of George Mason University, Prince William County Schools, or Michigan State University.