Schools should not end up as diploma mills as a result of COVID-19

NON-TRADITIONAL LEARNING: The staff at Luis P. Untalan Middle School wait to greet parents to pick up for their Grab & Learn calendars. 

Guam Department of Education schools now have a target date for the new school year to open. It will be on Aug. 11, barring any worsening of COVID-19 cases.

This new school year, GDOE essentially gives families and their students three options:

1. 100% online learning from home.

2. 100% home-based learning on a paper-based curriculum for students who don't have access to computers.

3. Traditional face-to-face classes in school but allowing only one-third of students on any given school day on campus. Students will be divided into three groups, and each group of students will be on campus once or twice a week depending on the schedule.

The release of the plan and the target date to open the new school year is an essential start of conversations that should continue to take place community-wide until this is refined – with the interest of the students foremost in our minds and the convenience of GDOE employees and teachers taking a backseat consideration.

If there are ideas to make these options better, or to revise these options, then GDOE and its board should be open to embrace them.

There's a lot of work ahead to ensure the students and their families are well aware of what each of these choices entail.

For the students who opt for purely online-only learning, the middle to high school students might do well with this arrangement, but it takes a lot of follow-through on the part of teachers and parents or guardians to ensure the students are learning what they need to help set them up for success after high school.

What we don't want to see is our public high schools ending up as an online or home-based diploma mill, setting up our students to fail after high school because they didn't have the foundational learning they need to join the workforce or go to college. If these options essentially give students a way to slack off and still graduate, then we all have failed as a community – with COVID-19 to blame or offer as an excuse.

Adult supervision, safety issues

Allowing kindergarten to elementary-age students to get 100% online learning will be a challenge, especially on the issue of adult supervision for households with both parents or guardians working.

Even with the face-to-face learning on campus, this new way of providing public education to more than 30,000 of our students also puts additional pressure on the parents and guardians to ensure, at least for the elementary-age students, that these minors have adequate supervision for the rest of the three or four days in a week that they're not in a physical classroom.

We commend GDOE and the Guam Education Board for trying to adapt, coming up with new ways to provide public education in light of the social distancing requirements that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted our community to adjust to.

Social distancing aside, there is a lot of work to be done here to ensure no child is left behind as a result of giving students the option to get 100% online learning, 100% paper-based learning at home, or limiting attendance in physical classrooms to only once or twice a week.

For us adults in the room, let's not kid ourselves into believing these options will offer a 100% guarantee that these are the best choices we can offer to our students even with the constraints resulting from this pandemic.

Our public school students, for the most part, have for years fallen behind on certain basic learning and test standards in math and other basics.

Allowing them to go to school only once or twice a week, and allowing some to learn only by picking up paper learning materials or through 100% online learning will fall short for some students who were already falling by the wayside learning-wise even before the pandemic set in.

Abuse and neglect may fall off the radar

And poverty and neglect in some homes will put additional pressure on educators and social service workers to keep tabs – if there's a plan to do so – on students who were already showing signs of neglect in the previous school year.

We have heard of students who come to school starving, without a fresh change of clean clothes or with physical injuries from abuse. How will the system ensure these children will not further slip through the cracks without teachers to see those red flags?

There's a lot to discuss with this new way of providing education to Guam's public school students.

Superintendent Jon Fernandez on Wednesday said there will be more discussions and more outreach efforts in the community.

These discussions are a good, integral part of what we as a community need to invest time in.

In these discussions, we should also ask these questions to elected officials, the Guam Education Board, GDOE, parents, guardians and others who care about the future of our schoolchildren: Are these three options the best we can do? Are there more efforts we ought to explore with the best interests of the schoolchildren in mind?

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