As an educator who has remained in the classroom for in-person instruction through the COVID-19 pandemic, I cannot express my sincere gratitude for every person involved in the herculean task to bring a vaccine online on a timescale never before witnessed. It is truly astonishing, and the vaccine is our pathway toward a resumption of “normalcy” in our communities including our schools.
But is the return to a status-quo prior to COVID-19 in Idaho’s schools really something we want? For all the devastation COVID-19 has caused, it also provides our public schools with a unique opportunity to reinvent themselves stronger and more robust than prior to the pandemic.
Let’s start with counseling services for our students in schools. We know that when many students finally return to in-person instruction after an isolating experience with distance learning, they are likely to need more counseling support than ever before. The American School Counselor Association advises that the ratio between students and school counselors be no more than 250 students per counselor, yet Idaho ranks among the nation’s worst with a ratio of 549 to one. Do we really want to return to that norm?
Let’s talk about class size. Many schools in Idaho made the decision to break their student bodies into two cohorts and only have half of the students in attendance daily to accommodate for physical distancing within the classroom. While I would very much like to see every one of my students every single school day, I must remark on the difference that having fewer bodies than minutes in the class period makes in teaching and learning.
It turns out that being able to get to each student’s question in a timely manner and having the ability to assess each student’s work in real-time has a major impact on students’ learning. Who would have thought? Do we really want to return to packed classrooms in our state?
The value of an up-to-date textbook was highlighted with the arrival of COVID-19. Unfortunately, it is far too common in the Gem State for instructors to have a single class-set of textbooks for the course instead of a text for each student. Without a text for each student, teachers made do with hodge-podge approaches to facilitate distance learning. Our students deserve better than a class-set of texts that have not been updated in a decade.
As if there was ever any doubt that school nurses are heroes in their own right, the pandemic deeply exposed the disparity between schools in full-time staffing of these professionals. Far too many schools in Idaho have only a part-time — or even no nurse — for their students. This reality means that untrained and uncertified staff are often asked to distribute medication, respond to emergencies, treat injuries, quarantine students with possible COVID-19 symptoms, perform contact tracing, etc. I don’t think anyone wants to continue that norm.
This list, of course, could continue. COVID-19, of course, didn’t cause any of these shortcomings prior to its arrival, but it sure did a good job putting the spotlight on each and every one of these faults in our public school system. But it also provides us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape public education.
We can choose to come out of this pandemic with public schools finally resourced and equipped to meet our students’ needs. Or we can choose to go back to the same. I know what my choice is.