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PTO: Distant learning will be hard for some families | COMMENTARY

Schools are turning to online learning to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, but some worry some students will get left behind.
Schools are turning to online learning to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, but some worry some students will get left behind.(Courtesy Photo)

Coronavirus has tested both our economy and health care systems in unprecedented ways. With school closures in nearly every state and tens of millions of students sent home nationwide, our educational system faces equally uncharted waters. We must keep our focus on defeating this virus and safely returning to our physical schools, not creating temporary fixes like distance learning that threaten to leave too many students behind.

We represent the parent-teacher organization (PTO) of Mount Rainier Elementary, a school of about 370 students in a closely-knit community bordering Washington, D.C. More than 80% of our students are lower-income and depend on the school for daily meals. We’re proudly home to many immigrant families who sometimes face a language barrier. Many parents work multiple jobs in professions that are now laid off or impossible to telework. In fact, even basic communication can be a challenge for families who lack home computers or internet access.

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This crisis has upended the traditional role of a PTO. Instead of organizing potluck dinners and school concerts, we’ve mobilized to become a rapid response communications resource for as many parents as possible. We’ve established food pantries, similar to Little Free Libraries, to help families who face food insecurity. And we’ve worked to actively promote social distancing guidelines to keep our community safe. As a PTO, our message is simple: physical schools may be closed but our work continues. And we’re here to help.

As state and local leaders make decisions about how to navigate this crisis, it is more important than ever that local school districts have the maximum flexibility to implement policies that best fit our communities. As our school system begins distance learning next week, we are concerned not enough attention has been paid to the disparities such a system could create. For a school like ours, with many families unable to rely on consistent internet access, ensuring an equitable educational experience for all students is a real concern.

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Prince George’s County already faces many everyday inequalities that impact our children. We can’t solve those issues immediately, but we do have a duty to make sure we don’t make those existing disparities even worse. Any education plan must be mindful of existing technology and educational and economic gaps — and give local schools and school districts greater flexibility and autonomy to address these challenges in the months ahead.

We have great confidence in our individual teachers and school leaders, but as the PTO of an elementary school, we also have concerns about the challenges of distance learning for younger students and families where English is their second language. As millions of parents juggle their own careers with their new role of part-time substitute teacher, many of us have a renewed appreciation for the work teachers do every day. We also acknowledge that we simply don’t have the time or training to adequately replace our children’s regular teachers.

Yes, parents worry about lost progress on reading, math and science as our children miss time in their classrooms. But we worry more about the basic challenge of keeping our kids and communities safe from this virus. And far too many must also worry about lost jobs or economic insecurity. There will be days to catch up on missed academic lessons. For now, we must keep our focus on what matters most: survival.

As a PTO, our job is to advocate for all students — and success must be measured not by the students and families who navigate this crisis, but by making sure no members of our community are left behind. Making sure that most students have the tools to continue their education is simply not acceptable. We must fight for all of them.

We know this crisis has led to many questions about education policy. If school is closed for the remainder of the year, will students automatically advance to the next grade? Can students really afford to miss three months of classroom instruction? What happens to those unable to complete work from home? There are no perfect or universal answers to these, but they are one more reason why one-size-fits-all plans cannot be the solution here in Maryland or nationally.

We are grateful for the leadership shown by state and county officials, as well as our local school board and administrators, and look forward to working with them in the weeks ahead. We are one out of 208 schools in the Prince George’s County Public School system and know that every one of them will have their own unique needs and challenges. These are unprecedented times and, more than ever, our local schools need unprecedented flexibility.

Shonin Anacker is president of the Mount Rainier Elementary PTO, Timothy Meyer is vice president and Danielle Schopp is treasurer. They write on behalf of the entire PTO and can be reached via e-mail at mountrainierpto@gmail.com.

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