Back-to-school is anything but routine

One day this past March, students, teachers and administrators left school for the day and never came back. The threat of COVID-19 kept most educational institutions closed for the rest of the semester. Now, a new school year is about to begin, but it’s anything but routine. Face masks are on the back-to-school shopping list. Some school districts are asking parents to choose be­tween virtual learning and in-person education for their children. Some schools are providing a hybrid of both. Many colleges even plan to close campuses after Thanksgiving to limit the risk.

Teachers are preparing for a host of unknowns. How many students will they have in their classrooms? How many will they have to instruct online? How will they handle social distancing and sanitation among rambunctious young people? How dangerous will their jobs be?

There are no easy answers.

As the parent of two elementary school students and one newly minted middle-schooler, the concerns are daunting. Like many families with school-age children, my husband and I are torn between the fear of COVID-19 and the desire to have our kids in school again. We’d hoped things would be back to “normal” by the time school started back, but that turned out to be a naïve dream.

Our kiddos will be going back to school in person. That’s the choice we feel is best for them and for our family as a whole. It’s what they want as well. My husband works from home, so we could elect the virtual-learning option our school offers, but it’s not ideal. To me, not being in the classroom leaves out so many valuable pieces of the school experience—interaction with peers, feedback from teachers and oppor­tunities for group activities. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

Other families will be making a different choice, either distance learning or home schooling. I understand that decision and don’t blame them. I hope they give us the same respect in return.

Whether in-person or online, there’s no doubt COVID-19 is forc­ing us to rethink education. Same goes for businesses and organiza­tions. Here at MFA, we’ve had to get creative in how we educate, train and inform our employees and customers. In-person meetings, con­ferences and training sessions had to go virtual. Granted, the concept of using of webinars and teleconfer­ences is nothing new, but it’s never been embraced so widely.

The changes bring inherent challenges, however, especial­ly in technology. At MFA, we learned firsthand this summer that live-streaming doesn’t work very well when inconsistent connec­tion speeds are involved. And like school, sometimes there’s just no substitute for real, face-to-face interactions among coworkers, customers and colleagues.

And then there’s the problem of accessbility. This is especially alarming when it comes to school children. I’m afraid that virtual learning will widen the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in our communities. What about the families who don’t have high-speed internet, whether it’s due to lack of access or lack of funds? Or what about those who can’t afford their own iPad, tablet or laptop, and their school can’t afford to provide them?

This pandemic has accelerated the need to address these questions. Making technology more accessible is one solution. In the same way our country has invested in physical infrastructure, such as interstate highways, we need similar invest­ments in technology infrastructure for schools, businesses and homes.

The good news is we’ve seen some progress on that front. In July, Mis­souri Gov. Mike Parson announced the allocation of nearly $50 million, mostly federal Coronavirus Relief Fund resources, to a half-dozen new broadband-related initiatives. Over $20 million will improve distance learning, including K-12 and higher education. Strengthening internet infrastructure will be useful now and well beyond the COVID-19 era.

As this new school year starts— perhaps the most unusual one we’ve ever faced—I urge you to support and encourage the parents, students, teachers, administrators and other school system employees who have had to make difficult choices and alter their way of work and life. I know children are resilient. I know teachers are resourceful. I believe the school administrators have everyone’s best interest at heart. As our kids head off to fourth, fifth and sixth grades—equipped with masks and hand sanitizer—I’m maintain­ing my glass-half-full optimism that everything really will be OK.

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