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Commentary: This is how we make face-to-face teaching work in SC

On Thursday, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman recommended in-person learning for “students who need it most.” This is correct if we are to ethically support our younger learners.

It is difficult for many students to learn to read without face-to-face instruction. The myriad reasons why students need to go back is that it’s difficult for many of them to learn to read even with direct instruction. The problem begins with the lack of literacy resources in many students’ homes. It continues with the limited time children may have with a caring adult who must work, and it may also rest with a caregiver’s inability to teach language, especially the written word.

The problem compounds itself when added to other diversions homebound students have to occupy their attention and interests. These distractions exacerbate the already difficult task of learning. Remember the children who have ADHD, as well.

The pandemic has illuminated the significant obstacles parents and students have with online learning: It requires ample access and time with adult guidance, and the ability of the adult in the home to perform direct or corrective instruction. When a student has difficulty reading or learning, the home as a school site becomes impracticable. It also requires a robust technology infrastructure that is reliable at both ends of the streaming.

We can solve these problems by getting students back into the classroom, but it requires some tough decisions.

The process begins with triaging the curricula and prioritizing what ought to be taught during a shortened school day of about three hours at the K-8 level. This would mean teaching only literacy and numeracy to K-5 students and literacy, math and science to grades six through eight. High schools require a different approach that can be dealt with more readily with a blended model of instruction.

We also need split sessions where students are divided into two groups, with COVID-19 protocols in place, with at least one-hour separation between sessions to enable school personnel to sanitize the facility. The school schedule is best handled by the principal who knows the parameters of the entire school setting.

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It continues with adjusting the calendar to consider extending the school year, altering the daily schedule and truncating holiday periods. Site-based planning is key. All of our students lost a valuable three months of direct instruction last school year, and all started this year in a delayed or scattered fashion. Educators are keenly aware of the regression factor.

Budget revisions need an explanation. Teacher schedules and assignments must be aligned with restructured curriculum goals. Transportation logistics must be addressed, feeding staff and students is a significant factor, discipline procedures require focus and possible revisions, and parental needs are part of the equation. It is a formidable task that needs our immediate response and is best handled at the district and school levels.

Bringing students back to the classroom will not be pretty. It will not be easily accomplished and will necessitate hard decisions. Planning should be for the year with the hope that the situation can change by the semester break in January.

Struggling nonreaders are not the only students who suffer by not being in school. Our best and brightest also need the rigor and connection of direct instruction with their peers. Learning is a dynamic, interactive process based on real-time give-and-take with peers and teachers.

If failure is not an option, as education leader Alan Blankstein argues in his book by that name, then neither is failing a generation of learners by not courageously planning now.

Tough decisions require a resolve to consider all the ramifications of our actions and respond accordingly. If we do not shoulder the burden, I shudder to project what the impact on learning will be as our younger students prepare for high school and beyond.

Steve Driscoll has worked for 46 years in education as a teacher, principal, director of curriculum and other central office positions.

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