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Editorial: Shortening SC school year over coronavirus a less-than-minimally adequate response

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Virus Outbreak South Carolina

Catherine Gray, left, a sophomore at TL Hanna, Lucy Gray, a fifth grader from North Pointe Elementary, and Lani Gray study with laptops in Anderson on Monday. In most cases, online learning is not an adequate substitute for in-class teaching. Ken Ruinard/The Independent-Mail via AP

The state of South Carolina has a constitutional obligation to provide all children with “the opportunity to acquire: 1. the ability to read, write, and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science; 2. a fundamental knowledge of economic, social, and political systems, and of history and governmental processes; and 3. academic and vocational skills.”

That was the crux of the S.C. Supreme Court’s 1999 “minimally adequate” school ruling.

Too many students don’t receive that under the best of circumstances. What happens when you start taking away their instructional time, as some states have already done and as South Carolina is considering?

How many first-graders have even the theoretical ability to learn to read and write if we steal weeks or months of their class time? How many third-graders could even theoretically learn to multiply and divide and do fractions if we shut the school doors for as much as a third of the school year? When we tell them to stay home and do the best they can to educate themselves, because it’s just too inconvenient or stressful or expensive to provide the 180 days of instructional time that state law requires?

How many parents have the skills to help a single child through the instruction in the best of times? Much less when they have multiple children, and the added stress that we’re all experiencing?

We understand that the coronavirus poses a daunting challenge to school officials. It also poses a daunting challenge to hospitals, and our courts. But hospitals aren’t canceling elective surgeries until the danger subsides; they’re delaying them. Courts aren’t canceling civil and criminal trials; they’re delaying them. That’s also what our schools need to do.

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It’s one thing to skip a year’s worth of standardized testing, whose purpose is not to increase students’ knowledge but simply to measure it. It’s quite another to skip two weeks of the school year — or as much as a third — in schools that are not prepared to provide the same level of instruction remotely as they do in person.

With the sudden closure of S.C. schools, we are asking a tremendous amount of our teachers. Even more than usual. More than perhaps any other professionals outside of doctors and nurses. Fortunately, it’s hard to find more dedicated professionals than public school teachers, who on a daily basis go beyond the call of duty to provide the best education they can for their students; they have risen to the challenge, quickly assembling online and take-home work packets.

But most are not experts at eLearning or virtual learning or remote learning. And even if they were, contrary to popular belief, not all students learn well outside the classroom. Not all students even have access to online teaching. Instead, they’re sent home with reading materials and worksheets and told to educate themselves.

If we really believe students can do just fine without a teacher, then why waste all this money providing teachers and classrooms? Why not just have one sixth-grade English teacher, one calculus teacher, and so on, to write the lesson plans and worksheets for all the students?

Because with few exceptions, students can’t teach themselves, that’s why. Some students can read instructional materials and learn all they need or get by with the help of engaged parents who themselves understand the material. But many struggle even when a top teacher is working with them one-on-one, face to face.

It is inconceivable that anyone who complains about our state’s “minimally adequate” educational standard would be content with the idea of giving students what is, by definition, far less than minimally adequate. It won’t be easy or convenient or inexpensive to extend the school year as far into the summer as necessary to make up for lost class time. Depending on when schools are able to re-open, it might not be possible to make up all the lost time. But we can’t give up on that before we even try. If we steal students’ instruction time, they may never fully recover.

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