GUEST COLUMN: Act now to prevent a learning pandemic

By Jason E. Lane

For The Sunday Gazette

The new school year is now well underway — turned upside down by COVID-19.

As we work to ensure the health and safety of our schools, another potential pandemic — a learning pandemic — lurks in the shadows.

None of us has experienced anything like this and few are trained in how to deal with it.

As a parent and education professor, I have been tracking the debates across the Capital Region and throughout the country.

Typically, parents would be focused on teacher assignments, bus routes and back-to-school nights.

This year, the focus is on safety — will students wear masks? How will students be socially distanced?

Will schools have MERV-13 air filters? And, the most fundamental question of all: Will the children be in school or learn remotely?

These are important questions.

The responses have implications for children’s health and well-being, and how much they learn.

Unlike widely available public health information, data about the effect of the pandemic on learning is sparse.

According to UNESCO, 60 percent of schools in 186 countries were closed, forcing some 1.5 billion students into remote learning.

Locally, more than 100,000 students across the 46 local school districts found themselves learning remotely last spring.

Summer learning loss is a common phenomenon that teachers typically plan for. However, recent studies estimate students returning this fall with less than 70 percent of reading and math gains compared with normal years, and losses will disproportionately affect students of color.

The actual impact will vary.

But, the overall impact is clear: The learning gap is significant and existing disparities based on race are exasperated.

Unless addressed effectively, these gaps will widen with ripple effects for years to come.

In the classroom, teachers are thinking differently about structuring learning. Individualized instruction will be important.

Standard classroom interactions will be rethought, given that most classrooms are devoid of anything but desks and that students will be required to stay at a distance.

At the same time, the learning triad of the family, school and student is being remade — with the family taking more of a front seat in the student’s learning experience. And this is likely to continue whether school is in-person, remote or hybrid.

As we debate effective safety strategies, we have to attend to effective learning strategies.

As a public research university, the University at Albany is committed to supporting the needs of teachers, students and families in the region to prevent a possible learning pandemic.

For example, we have been a national leader in preparing teachers to teach in remote and hybrid formats for the past 20 years.

Our expertise led us to launch as a hub to support teachers and families.

There are 1,500 curated online educational resources organized by grade and subject. Visitors can find best practices in remote teaching and learning.

Free weekly edTrends (formerly Community Conversations) webinars feature teachers, school leaders, mental health professionals and UAlbany faculty discussing the most pressing issues facing education in the Capital Region.

The upside is that if we take this opportunity to truly rethink how we teach and how students learn, we can create a more robust, engaged and transformative learning ecosystem.

We have the opportunity, if not the necessity, to rethink how we define learning, how we structure the school experience, how we teach students, how we prepare teachers and how we engage with families.

This is the time to come together to create what should be a 21st-century education.

If not, we will be recovering from a learning pandemic for a generation.

Jason E. Lane is dean and professor of the School of Education at the University at Albany.

Categories: Opinion, Other

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