Our View: Class without a classroom

Our View: Class without a classroom
A classroom at the old Douglas MacArthur Elementary School building. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

What has been apparent for weeks was formally announced on July 31: Alexandria City Public Schools will begin the 2020-21 school year with 100% virtual instruction.

While probably the prudent route to take for now, the decision is also disappointing, because students – particularly in elementary school – simply don’t learn as well at home as in physical classrooms.

A few months of less-than-optimal learning this spring could be dismissed as a blip in students’ educational careers, but the prospect of a quarter, semester or full school year done remotely in 2020-21 is much more worrisome.

All of Virginia’s largest public school districts, including Richmond City, Norfolk and Fairfax, have announced they will begin this school year with fully virtual learning. Intense pressure from public teachers’ unions combined with worsening recent COVID-19 markers made it nearly impossible for any large Virginia school district to choose to operate in person this fall.

Still, because Northern Virginia’s COVID-19 outlook is better than the state’s as a whole, and because equity in learning is a priority for ACPS, we had hoped the school district would find a way to include ongoing in-person instruction – at least for elementary students – in its reopening plan.

Unfortunately, at-risk students are likely to be the most harmed by virtual learning.

In order for students of any age, but particularly younger children, to learn from home, having technology and engaged parents is essential. Students for whom school is not just about academics but is also a physical and emotional refuge will suffer with all virtual learning. Occasional in-person tutoring sessions may help academically, but they’re no substitute for the comprehensive support many students receive from being in a school building.

At least several of Alexandria’s private schools and a handful of other Northern Virginia public school districts are attempting limited in-person instruction.

• Episcopal High School, a fully boarding school, will reopen its campus this fall.

• Bishop Ireton High School, a Catholic day school, will reopen with hybrid in-person and virtual learning.

• Browne Academy is reopening on Aug. 25 with some in-person learning for all age groups, emphasizing elementary.

• Falls Church Public Schools will include some in-person learning for elementary students along with virtual classes.

• Fauquier County Public Schools are opening with a hybrid model that includes two days per week of in-person learning.

Several other private schools in the city have not yet announced their reopening plans, but at least limited in-person learning remains an option for most.

We don’t envy the officials who have to make these decisions about how to educate children in the midst of a pandemic. While we know more now about the novel coronavirus than we did in late winter when it began shutting down much of the world, much is still unknown.

Researchers are making encouraging progress on vaccines. Hopefully by later this year or early in 2021, an effective vaccine for COVID-19 will be a reality. After medical and public safety workers, teachers must be next in line to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Instruction will go on in the meantime, but there’s no good substitute for in-person learning.