By Dennis Bogusz
Education reformer Horace Mann once said that education “is an organic necessity of a human being.” As a teacher at the school that bears his name, I suspect Mann would marvel at our ingenuity and adaptability to teaching in the time of coronavirus. Since the shutdown, teachers have quickly moved classrooms online, learning new technologies like Zoom while relying even more on email to follow up on homework. We’re also teaching students how to be responsible technology users. However, I suspect Mann would find that despite our best efforts, we simply can’t recreate school online.
Technology hasn’t made teaching any easier than it has parenting. We’ve shifted full responsibility for daytime childcare back to parents and caregivers, who now realize how difficult teaching can be. Having greater expectations of them has made it clear that online learning is as much a problem of work-life balance as a solution.
Online classrooms have also made inequality among students more apparent. While some have reliable internet and a quiet space to work in, others share a single computer and spotty internet with family members. Some are even joining class from different time zones—a class I teach at 11:00 a.m. takes place at 11:00 p.m. for one of my students.
The newfound familiarity of seeing the homes, babies, and pets of students and colleagues, though welcome, reinforces the irony of online learning. We meet face-to-face but we’re still distant because an online community lacks the connections a school provides.
In addition to teachers, students miss connections with the cafeteria staff who nourish their bodies, the school librarian who helps nourish their minds, the bus driver we trust with our kids’ lives, the public safety officers who put our kids’ lives first, and the school nurse who has always been important to their health and will be even more so now.
There are also coaches, advisors, arts instructors, yearbook editors, psychologists, learning specialists, college counselors, technology experts, club supervisors, choreographers, band leaders, grounds keepers, maintenance staff, administrators, assistants, and more.
The physical space is missed as well—classrooms, hallways, science labs, auditoriums, football fields—and the posters, trophies, and songs and dances that showcase student achievements. All these make education feel human. We’re right to miss connecting with this “organic necessity.” Nevertheless, this end of the school year is an opportune time to reflect on how we’ve helped students manage during this health crisis.
We need to figure out how to protect the health and safety of our students as we consider what returning to school will mean. Schools have been where students can better balance their school and home lives, be treated as equally as possible, secure their health and mental wellbeing, and, most importantly, where they learn to be members of a community. Online learning does not offer this. I hope the new normal will make the space for these connections once again.
Dennis Bogusz, Ph.D., teaches French at Horace Mann School.