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Editorial: Distance learning doesn't work for most kids. Charleston schools plan can help.

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Junior Service League sponsors PWAC Children’s Classroom (copy)

The Charleston County School District is working with faith-based and other nonprofit organizations to develop “instructional support groups” for low-income students whose families aren’t comfortable sending them back into the classrooms. Some of them could look like the children's classroom that opened last week at the Public Works Art Center in Summerville.

Distance learning, as we learned this spring, doesn’t work for most kids: Away from the classroom, children don’t do as well academically or socially or emotionally or in any other way. Even teachers and parents who are incensed over the return of limited in-person classes while COVID-19 infection rates remain so high across South Carolina acknowledge this.

Combine that with the difficulty parents have doing their jobs while overseeing their children’s distance learning, and it’s not surprising that some families are starting to form groups to bring their kids together to participate in their schools’ virtual learning programs with the support of a parent, or even hire a teacher and create or enroll in more formal “micro-schools” that work outside the public schools.

It’s a smart way to combat social isolation, allow parents to divide up the supervisory duties that schools traditionally have provided and, depending on the model selected and the parents’ expertise, perhaps provide children with more assistance than individual parents could.

Unfortunately, as The Post and Courier’s Jenna Schiferl reports, it requires a good bit of money or expertise and therefore is so far the province primarily of well-to-do families.

So what is surprising, and heartening, is that the Charleston County School District is working with faith and other nonprofit groups to create “instructional support groups” for low-income students whose families aren’t comfortable sending them back into the classrooms. The program is still in its infancy; in fact, there isn’t a program yet, merely a commitment by Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, backed by the school board, to develop one or more.

“Knowing the learning loss that occurs in virtual learning, we feel we have a responsibility and a desire to provide better support for children in some of our communities who are not well supported in their learning virtually,” she told the board on Sept. 4.

As Dr. Postlewait explained, the idea came from teachers — “before we came across the concept of learning pods” — who wanted to go into the communities where struggling students live and offer one-on-one instruction.

It grew when community organizations, volunteer groups and faith leaders offered to provide facilities where groups of students could gather, either with or without teachers, and the district realized that a disproportionate number of low-income parents, whose children struggled the most with distance learning in the spring, weren’t ready to send their kids back to the classroom.

Karolyn Belcher, the district’s chief academic officer, said that while “some of our community partners are ahead of us” on the planning, the idea is to “create a safe space among other families where the students are learning together, with a family member in the group or a community organization,” because “we know so much of the challenge has been isolation and kids being apart from each other.”

Dr. Postlewait said the programs likely would operate within neighborhoods and target children who are already playing together, so they wouldn’t increase their potential exposure to COVID-19.

The pandemic has interrupted the district’s ambitious plans to transform itself from a two-tiered system, one that for too long did a great job educating the children from middle- and upper-middle-class families and a lousy job educating the children from poor communities, to one that provides an excellent education to all children.

While it’s understandable that some of those plans had to be put on hold, the need to improve is no less urgent than it was six months ago; if anything, it’s greater. So it’s extremely encouraging that the district is still working to improve the education it provides the children who face the greatest obstacles to learning. Officials need to make sure this approach works, or quickly pivot to something that does.

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