It is the first day of school and I am rushing to school with my bag and laptop. I arrive at 7:30 am, ready for students to start arriving at 8:00 am. I will be teaching 7th & 8th-grade Algebra and have planned out my first day: getting to know kids, letting them get to know each other, and some fun Math activities to get an idea of their academic Math level.
My goal is to foster a love for Math.
I am interrupted by the pressure cooker whistling and am rudely reminded that this is all a dream. I am close to turning 40, just standing in my kitchen, imagining what could have been.
Some people have dreams to change the world, reduce carbon emissions, find a cure for cancer, but I just want to teach middle school Math. It is a culmination of many things over many years that has led me to my purpose.
I was an average Math student in elementary and middle school. In fact, my parents feared I would do very badly in high school and hired a tutor. I think having my two dear friends with me in Math tuitions was a transformative experience. All of a sudden, my attitude towards Math changed. I put in hard work and reaped the results of getting a good grade in 12th. It was around that time that I also figured I enjoyed studying Computer Science and eventually, I started working as a Programmer.
I got married and moved to the USA during the dot-com boom. I was in a new country, in a new marriage, and with a new job in tech. Math was on my mind.
After the birth of my son, I stayed home and did not get much of a chance to practice Math or Programming – I had to trade it for storytime and park dates.
My son’s elementary school was a parent-participative school which meant parents could be in the classroom helping teachers. In 2005, I signed up when my son started Kindergarten and although at first, it was my way of learning the American School system, I soon found that it brought me fulfillment. I looked forward to the day where I would attend school with my son and would prepare for it. I knew that if I ever went back to work, it would be in a school setting teaching Math.
Once the goal was set, it was about continuously doing things to reach my target. With my husband traveling for work, I could not afford the time to go to college to get a degree or a credential in teaching. So, I continued to volunteer every single year and honed my teaching, communication, and lesson planning skills by observing and helping the teachers.
As I was helping my two kids, I came to a very big realization – that as fortunate as my kids are to have me teach them at home, not all kids have this luxury.
I shifted my focus to teaching kids who are falling behind or those that just need that extra help. I offered my services to teachers to help such students. It made me become patient and be a non-judgmental parent to my own kids. I definitely learned a lot from the kids I taught and I suspect, sometimes, more than what I taught them.
With my son in his senior year of high school and my daughter just a few years behind, I could not put the burden of another college degree on my family. Life is strange in that when you have time, money might be an issue and when you have money, the time might not be right.
I decided to start at the very beginning and when an opportunity came up last year to be a middle school Math Intervention Aide, I jumped at it.
This is my second year working and I love every bit of it. My goal is to take the Single Subject Math exam which consists of three parts. Passing this exam and getting a Master’s degree in teaching will give me the certification needed to be a full-time classroom teacher. I am keeping this one in the pocket for the year 2021, a year of new possibilities.
Now, I am in my Zoom classrooms in the morning and the pressure cooker is exchanged for an Instant Pot. Cooking and teaching can happen at the same time.
I have a long way to go to have a Math classroom of my own and but for now, I am happy. Math makes me happy.
Vasudha Ramanrasiah is an Instructional Aide in a public school and a mother of two. She enjoys all things food, hiking, and volunteering and is passionate about helping students understand math.
As more summer programs were being canceled, I saw there was a need for keeping students engaged and stimulating their creativity. Being a high school student myself, I could only imagine that those younger than me must be struggling. With COVID-19 bringing in a new distance learning environment and a summer lockdown for students, a group of eight middle school students (Milpitas Golden Knights) with my active volunteer guidance came up with a creative plan to spend the summer holidays safely indoors and socially connected – engaging in Public Forum Debate.
How did this idea begin?
Eight 6th grade Merryhill school students showed interest in practicing and learning techniques for public forum debate. With my assistance and leadership as the debate Advisor and judge, the debate club was formed and sessions were organized. I helped design the debate classes and practice sessions every week for 12 weeks with the idea to keep the students connected, stay mentally healthy, and keep connected during challenging times.
About the Debate Sessions
With dedication, we started to practice from the end of May and the kids continued to learn and acquire the skill that would assist them through middle school. Every week, the team gathered in a virtual meeting session and reviewed through debate materials/rules, watched debate videos, and practiced speeches. The program was executed as four teams with two members in each team. For every debate topic, the team members were regrouped to support each other. The debate team independently handled work sessions between themselves during the week to prepare for the debate and keep connected. This helped the students to learn and practice teamwork. At the end of each debate, the group voted for the next debate title and continued to challenge themselves. In addition to debate sessions and in the spirit of rewarding and motivating the students, the program was expanded to include a general knowledge quiz, which covered topics like science, history, geography, politics, and sport, at the end of each debate session.
By the end of the debate session, the kids were able to meet at a local park to celebrate their achievements, while social distancing. It was their first time meeting in real life since the start of the summer and the kids enjoyed catching up. They were presented with trophies and medals to congratulate them on their progress and improvement in debating. Team pictures were taken and speeches were given to thank everyone for their participation in the program.
The final debate session was attended by the Principal of MerryHill School, Ms. Quinn Letan who recognized the effort put together by the students. The students were also given the opportunity to present the program to Mayor Richard Tran of Milpitas. In the end, the credit really goes towards all students of this program – Nalika, Diya, Saatvika, Aadya, Sohan, Adithya, Hrithvik, and Katthir.
If you would like your child to join the debate team, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info!
Meghaa Ravichandran is a high school sophomore at Notre Dame High School is the leader and coach for the Milpitas Golden Knights team.
Can schools safely reopen though the pandemic shows little sign of waning and educators stumble towards the first day of school in the absence of a clear cut strategy?
The answer is uncertain.
In early July President Trump demanded that schools “open quickly, beautifully, in the fall” for normal, in-person instruction.
The CDC responded with guidelines instructing school districts to build supportive community infrastructures to counter the onslaught of COVID-19 as schools reopened. They urged school officials to implement hygiene and social distancing practices and develop ‘proactive’ plans with health departments, parents and caregivers to deal with potential outbreaks.
A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ for K-12 schools.
Keeping active kindergartners apart; keeping their masks on; fewer students on school buses; limited class sizes; keeping staff safe; sanitizing; PPE; social distancing; online SATs; remote learning; iPads or computers for all.
For many schools, adjusting to the new normal would be a complicated and expensive endeavor.
School systems which struggled with pandemic restrictions would face even greater logistical and financial burdens meeting the new CDC requirements, leaving them with no other option than to continue with virtual classes moving forward.
President Trump tweeted his displeasure at the “very tough and expensive guidelines for opening schools,” and, under pressure, the CDC retracted its message, effectively relinquishing the decision making to school administrators. At the behest of the White House, the CDC emphasized the “importance of reopening America’s schools this fall,” and warned that extended school closures would “be harmful to children.”
What is certain however, is that a safe return to in-person school comes with a hefty price tag – a whopping 200 billion dollars or more, or about $490 per K-12 student. At a panel discussion on how to safely reopen schools hosted by Ethnic Media Services on July 31, Domenech explained that the costs would cover laptops for students and an array of preventive measures that include sanitizers, masks, PPE and safe busing, before schools could consider opening their doors to staff and students. The expense would place an unprecedented financial burden on overstretched school district budgets in the next academic year.
So, a safe reopening would need a huge injection of federal funds (that the Council of Chief State School Officers projected would cost between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion,) but the government is threatening to cut funds for schools that don’t fully reopen.
Many school districts cannot afford the expense, so policymakers at state and local levels are choosing to wait before making a decision on whether to reopen schools, based on assessments of COVID-19 threats in their region.
Is it safe to go back to school?
In a press briefing, the White House pushed the idea that the greater risk right now is to children’s learning, rather than to their health and wellbeing, announcing that, “We don’t think our children should be locked up at home with devastating consequences when it’s perfectly safe for them to go to school.”
Till recently, the common belief was that young children were not affected by COVID-19 and were unlikely to spread the virus. In fact the CDC reiterated that children pose no risks, stating that, “The best available evidence from countries that have opened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children, at least in areas with low community transmission, and suggests that children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus.”
However, new research from a pediatric hospital in Chicago that published its findings in JAMA, indicates that children carry high levels of the virus in their upper respiratory tracks and may efficiently spread infection by sneezing, coughing or shouting.
“In several countries where schools that have opened prematurely, such as Israel, we have seen a rise in cases,” said Pedro Noguera, Dean, USC Rossier School of Education.
As findings like these make parents and educators uncertain about reopening schools in a pandemic, it may be prudent for school districts to first assess the threat of COVID-19 infections in their area before making plans to send children back to school, suggested by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in recent interviews with PBS and the Washington Post.
Inequities in K-12 Education
As schools juggle in-person classes versus online learning and hybrid models, some wealthy families are resolving their uncertainty by creating private learning pods or ‘micro-schools,’ with hired tutors to educate their children. It’s an arrangement that reflects the inequities experienced by less privileged students from special needs, disadvantaged and low income backgrounds. Without tutors or pods, and limited access to internet and laptops, these children are likely to fall further behind and “experience tremendous learning loss,” noted Noguera.
The current education crisis stems froma lack of leadership, said Noguera, adding that “The real questions facing the US is when will leadership emerge that can provide the guidance that schools need on how to manage instruction…safely … and how to reopen appropriately, in a manner that does not place lives at risk.” He called on local and community leaders to step up in the interim. It will be up to local and community leaders to create innovative ways to deliver education and support children and families, in the short term, said Noguera.
Moving forward into the future will be challenging for schools because the scope of funding required to make changes is not forthcoming from the federal purse . Without adequate funding for health and safety measures in place, Noguera stated that school districts will have to contend with, for example, teacher unions who recently announced they will go on strike over unsafe conditions.
Eleven million children do not have the laptops they need for remote learning, said Domenech. So, even though technology offers valuable learning platforms, it can be a double edged sword, when teachers are ill prepared to use it effectively and students who have little or no access to technology lose out on their learning.
Schools will have to show teachers how to close the “digital divide,” advised Noguera, by training them “to use the technology to deliver meaningful instruction to kids.” But, whatever devices students use for learning, without access to reliable Internet and Wi-Fi, low income and disadvantaged students would face inequities of digital access, warned USC Professor Shaun R. Harper. In LA, school districts have invested in making screens and hotspots available within communities so children can access learning; but children in rural areas have even less connection and risk being left behind.
Noguera suggested that instead of trying to adapt curricula to cell phones, another option would be to go back to “old school approaches to education” using pencil and paper, adding that “they worked before technology, and could work again.”
“For now, whether our education looks like mini learning pods, pandemic pods, micro schools, or collaborative tutoring with college students….that’s still going to provide inequity in our educational system.” cautioned Eddie Valero, Supervisor for District 4, Tulare County Board of Supervisors. He was referring to economist Emily Oster’s prediction that clusters of home schooling families are going to happen everywhere regardless, and “that will create an economic divide.”
Re-envisioning the future of schooling
Panelists offered several perspectives on when and how schools should reopen.
In working with school superintendents on reopening of schools based on CDC guidelines, said Domenech, the future could feature one of three options – the popular hybrid model, with students on weekly shifts between online learning and in-person classes seated 6 feet apart, total remote learning, or returning to school full-time as before.
However, the continuing rise in infections across the country means that most schools may open remotely. It may be possible for students to return to school only in areas where the rate of infection is below 5%, advised Noguera, suggesting that less risky, outdoor learning may be one way to address the problem. However, places experiencing a surge in cases such as the Imperial Valley in southern California, will have “to rely on community organizations like non-profits to support families and deliver education to children in concert with the school district,” he said.
Noguera’s view was echoed by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, USC Associate Professor at the Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier School of Education, who suggested tapping into the “huge cohort of college-ready high school graduates” and using their skills as a resource for tutoring younger students. Engaging young people as a ‘brigade of community tutors” could help solve the shortage of people in teaching and learning, and give them a sense of purpose,” said Yang.
Professor Harper, who leads the USC Race and Equity Center warned that ‘raceless’ reopening policies from school districts would “yield racially disparate outcomes”. He suggested that more consultation with communities of color was needed to “racialize input” into the K-12 reopening strategy. That would involve considerations like providing proper PPE, testing and contact tracing for essential workers in schools who are more likely to be employees of color and are disproportionately exposed to infection, as well as trauma and grief support for staff and students of color, who are more likely to have experienced loss of a family or community member to the virus.
The panelists called on the private sector, specifically high tech companies and philanthropists, to step up and help avert the crisis.
Big tech firms like Amazon said Noguera, which have accumulated huge profits during the pandemic, have a responsibility to assist.
Harper described this timeframe as an opportunity for philanthropists and foundations who want to close racial equity gaps by helping finance “accessibility to learning pods for poorer students who cannot afford it.” There is also a role, he suggested, for nonprofits, youth organizations and college access providers to add to their agendas and recreate pod-like experiences for disadvantaged youth during the pandemic.
Schools are relying on Congress to pass funding that will get K-12 education back on track safely, and Domenech predicts that the majority of schools in America will start the school year with remote learning because, ‘in order to bring any children into school, dollars will be required.”
Valero closed out the discussion by inviting policymakers to re-envision what school should look like for the future by thinking “in creative ways that disrupt our everyday normalcy for something different,” but he urged, “honestly it begins with access, opportunity and fairness for all students.”
“We need to model our classrooms with our most struggling students in mind.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents