With schools set to reopen this week after the holiday break, and more COVID cases in Maine than at any time during the pandemic, they won’t be opening all the way. For most Maine kids, school will operate using a hybrid model, where students split their time between in-person and distance learning.

From what we have seen so far, both in Maine and nationally, that’s not good news. Everyone should have realistic expectations about what, and how much, can be accomplished this year.

There are going to be gaps in the amount of material retained and mastered compared to normal school years, but like so much else about the consequences of the pandemic, they will not be evenly distributed. Some students are falling behind while others are making gains in their learning. Both groups tell a story about how much we ask schools to do, and what students need to succeed.

The report cards are starting to come in for the first four months of hybrid learning, and the grades are disappointing.

Some of Maine’s largest districts report that high school attendance is down, class failures are up and test scores are in steep decline.

Teachers are saying that they have trouble engaging with students, especially on the elementary level, where children are not used to working on their own and are not familiar with distance learning technology.

It’s not because of a lack of effort. Ever since the coronavirus arrived in Maine last March, teachers and administrators have been working hard to come up with a system that will keep students and their families safe without losing too much ground academically.

Few teachers or families were enthusiastic about the all-distance learning programs that had to be created on the fly when schools shut their doors at the start of the pandemic last spring, and were hopeful about a plan that would get kids back into the classroom at least part time until the coronavirus subsides.

According to an analysis by the McKinsey Group, students will suffer an average of seven months of “learning loss” if remote learning continues in 2021. Latino and Black students will fall a little further behind, McKinsey found, and low-income students will lose more than a year. Special education students and those who rely on schools for nutrition programs will suffer in other ways.

At the same time, some students are doing surprisingly well under the circumstances and are not just holding their own but making learning gains. Early childhood educator Erika Christakas wrote recently in The Atlantic that some parents report that their children are less stressed when they’re away from school and are getting more exercise and sleep. She cites polls that show about 20% of students say they have been bullied in school, and remote learning has been a break for them, if not for their parents.

She says that the pandemic has highlighted a conflict built in school systems that existed long before COVID. In addition to teaching, schools are supposed to keep children busy so their parents can work, a role that’s not always compatible with education.

“Too often, when we talk about ‘school’ we really mean ‘child care’ — and also nutrition, medical care, mental-health services, and social-skills support,” she wrote. The more we ask of schools, she writes, the less they are able to perform their core function of teaching children.

Family-friendly policies that made sure that more children had secure housing and enough to eat when they are not in school could do more for education than trying to make up for those deficits at school. Meanwhile, all students would benefit from exercise and time to explore concepts without the pressure of drilling for the next test.

Public health officials predict more tough months ahead until coronavirus vaccines are widely administered. Educators will have to figure out how to get through the winter and spring under these difficult circumstances.

But before classrooms can be filled again, parents, teachers and administrators should share what they’ve learned from this forced experiment and apply it in ways that would make schools better.

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