When going back to school means staying at home

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Empty classrooms will be a common site as many schools in Ohio move to distance learning for the start of the new year

The lead up to the new school year has been as tumultuous as everything else in 2020, with a late-summer spike in the coronavirus causing many Ohio districts to back off of plans for a return to in-person instruction in favor of a full-time online model. Understandably, the decision has rocked everyone from parents, many of whom already spent a bulk of the spring juggling full-time jobs while managing houses unexpectedly full of children, to teachers, who have been forced to adjust lesson plans and approaches while adapting to a still-new educational frontier.

“At the beginning of the summer, it seemed like we were going to be back [in the classroom] in some way, even in a hybrid, and then for a while things were just up in the air, which made it impossible to plan,” said musician and teacher Noah Demland, who’s worked at Arts & College Preparatory Academy (ACPA) for 16 years. “As a music teacher ... I have guitar and percussion classes where kids might not have access to instruments [from home]. … So I have to change my content pretty drastically in order to teach online.”

One thing sometimes lost in the ongoing back-to-school debate is that teachers want the same thing as parents: a return to traditional, in-person instruction. “I really want to be back in class with the kids,” Demland said. But, at the same time, there are still enough unknowns about COVID-19, including its long-term health effects, how susceptible children are to serious illness and the threat of viral spread posed by younger hosts, that the potential risks outstrip the clear benefits of resuming class. Indeed, even if children are less likely to experience serious health ramifications from infection, schools are still filled with all manner of potentially high-risk employees, including teachers, administrators, custodians and lunchroom staffers, among others.

“I just don’t feel like it’s safe to [return to the classroom] right now,” Demland said. “I know we’d be putting a lot of vulnerable kids at risk, and not just the kids but their families and anyone else they interact with.”

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At the same time, Demland said he always trusted that the ACPA administration would make a decision that was in the best interest of the community (the school announced on Aug. 7 that classes would be fully digital when school resumes on Sept. 1). So, while somepublic school teachers have drafted wills or even pre-written obituaries in preparation for a return to the classroom, Demland said he never felt similarly endangered while preparing for classes to resume.

“The world that we’re living in … feels really dire, but I’ve been confident the school would take this seriously and consider not just the health of the students, but also the staff,” he said. “I have another friend who teaches in a school where they’re going to a hybrid [of online and in-person instruction], but my friend is a music teacher, and even in this hybrid they’re going to see 700 kids a week. You can make a little pod in the classroom, but if that pod is going to the gym teacher and the music teacher, then what about those teachers? They’re still going to be exposed to every kid.”

Demland acknowledged the imperfections of online instruction, pointing to everything from the cancellation of the spring concert, which has always served as a capstone to the semester for his music students, to those kids who essentially disappeared once classes moved online in March. Demland and ACPA executive director Tony Gatto both traced these absences in part to some families lacking the proper at-home infrastructure for distance learning, such as a reliable Wi-Fi network an issue administrators are attempting to address prior to the start of the new school year, particularly with online instruction currently slated to carry through the December end of the first semester.

“I actually worked on a grant [application] this morning … that is specifically for getting kids Wi-Fi and getting kids internet access and devices,” Gatto said of theBroadband Ohio Connectivity grant, which allows schools to apply for up to $250,000 in funding that can be applied to the purchase of devices and services that aid students in gaining online access. “We’re trying to collect as much data as possible to see who needs help.”

Despite the challenges inherent with online instruction “It is exponentially more challenging [to teach] when you’re not physically in the room with the students,” Gatto said Demland remains focused on silver linings as he preps for the new school year.

“I’m thinking of guest artists I can bring in, and this opens up a whole new world since anybody can be a guest artist and they don’t have to live in Columbus,” Demland said.

Demland also talked about adopting a new mindset, which he described less as a product of this COVID-driven shift in education than the continual sense of reinvention with which he has approached the entirety of his teaching career.

“The biggest thing that I really was trying to get the kids to focus on [in March] was that every musician in the world right now is freaking out because everything that we worked for has kind of just evaporated overnight. So we were spending a lot of time [in class] asking, ‘How are musicians dealing with this?’ … And then we would talk about how right now we get to reimagine what the future is going to look like,” Demland said. “The idea was to get them to move toward problem solving rather than dwelling on what we have lost. It was getting them to ask, ‘What can we learn? What can we gain from this?’”