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The school year is far from lost

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Is the school year lost? Will my child graduate? How can my children show what they’ve learned this year? These are questions I hear repeatedly from families who, understandably, are also overwhelmed by other upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers, too, are trying to deal with a cascade of concerns — from how to make sure low-income students get meals, to how to help students keep learning at home, to how to juggle their own families’ needs. Teachers are proverbially building the plane while flying it, and as they work to address these basic needs and logistics, many think about how to land that plane — how to help their students demonstrate what they have learned all year and end the school year on a positive note.

At this extraordinary time, let’s trust teachers. I propose giving teachers the latitude to sum up either the semester or the school year, depending on how long schools are closed, by creating age-appropriate capstone or term projects that demonstrate students’ learning for the year. The U.S. Department of Education is rightly waiving federally mandated assessments as a result of the school closures, and New York State’s Board of Regents is considering what to do about the Regents exams for graduating seniors. But since the majority of the instructional year has already taken place, there are still meaningful ways teachers can help students sum up their academic progress and bring closure to this school year.

We all feel the shockwaves of this crisis. But teachers still want to teach, and we know that students love to show what they know to people who matter to them. We need to trust teachers to design meaningful, educationally appropriate tasks. For example, elementary school students could complete a composition on a favorite book they read this year, which could be turned in by sending it back on the same bus that is delivering grab-and-go meals (while observing scientists’ recommendations regarding safe paper handling). Middle school students could hold a virtual debate on the internet, or they could interview a relative for a family history. High school students could research a topic they won’t be covering in class and present their research via video on their phone. Because many students do not have access to computers, smart phones or internet hot spots, the tried-and-true writing — or drawing or composing music — with pen and paper should be envisioned as well.

Teachers will need time and support to craft plans for developmentally appropriate activities, given their students’ ages, special education requirements, proficiency in English, physical needs and access to technology. States or districts can help by providing a menu of activities, but let’s give educators, working with their colleagues and administrators, the freedom to figure this out, including how high school seniors can finish the year and graduate.

No doubt, more will be asked of us — as we’ve already seen with New York State’s decision to limit spring break to continue to provide remote instruction to keep kids safe and engaged in these critical weeks.

To parents who are supporting learning at home, please know that the school year is far from lost. Indeed, students will learn unprecedented life lessons from this challenging time, including the lengths to which caring adults and peers support one another. As we focus on the safety and health of Americans and fight to buffer them from economic hardship, I cannot help hoping that, although we are now physically distant from each other, this experience will ultimately bring us closer together.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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