Come September, K-12 Classes Should Be in Person, Not Online

May 24, 2020 Updated: May 27, 2020


University and college campuses are going to look quite empty this fall. That’s because many post-secondary institutions have already announced that virtually all their first semester classes will be taught online, with a real possibility of continuing the online format for the full academic year.

With universities moving to a distance learning format, some politicians are suggesting K-12 schools follow suit.

For example, Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew recently posted a tweet asking why the Manitoba government was planning to resume in-person classes in K-12 schools when colleges and universities were putting their courses online. The problem with this question is it assumes that K-12 learning works the same way as post-secondary learning. It doesn’t, for a number of reasons.

For starters, university classes are often many orders of magnitude larger than K-12 classes. First year courses in major universities often have upwards of 150-200 students. These classes take place in major lecture halls and can consist of professors giving extended lectures while students take notes. If students are lucky, they might get to ask an occasional question.

It’s not difficult to replicate this type of learning in an online format. Record the lecture, put it online, and students then listen to it whenever they want. In some ways, this might make things easier for many students since they will no longer need to drive to the university campus. Plus, there typically isn’t a lot of student-to-student interaction in huge lecture halls so students won’t even miss out on much socialization.

However, this is not what learning looks like in any K-12 school in Canada today. While teachers, particularly at the high school level, still make use of lectures, even the most traditional classrooms are far more interactive than the one-way transmission of knowledge you get in a university lecture hall. A key part of learning at the K-12 level is the student/teacher relationship, and it’s difficult to cultivate this relationship online, no matter how good technology might be.

In addition, distance education requires students to do most of their learning independently. It’s one thing for university students to complete their courses online, but it’s another thing entirely to expect the same from Grade 1 students. The reality is that if K-12 classes remain online this fall, parents will be faced with the unreasonable burden of overseeing all of their kids’ learning while at the same time trying to keep up with their regular jobs. You can’t give elementary students tablets and send them off to do their own thing. That would be a disaster.

Teachers across the country worked incredibly hard to convert the last couple months of classes into some sort of online format. However, let’s not assume that what worked in the last few months of the school year will work just as well in September. It’s one thing to conclude a school year in an online format, it’s another thing entirely to start a new school year this way.

Expecting teachers to develop quality online relationships with students they often haven’t even met in person yet is unrealistic. The only reason distance education wasn’t a total disaster this spring was because teachers could lean heavily on the relationships they had previously built up with students over the course of a school year. Without this personal connection, it is naive to assume that distance learning in the fall would work as well as it did this spring.

It’s also important to remember that K-12 schools do far more than teach academic subjects. School is where kids get involved in sports, socialize with their classmates, and develop strong connections with adult role models. Often, schools provide at-risk students with their only healthy environment since home is not a safe place for them. It also becomes a lot harder for school staff to identify and report possible child abuse cases when their only contact with students is through a computer screen.

Finally, we know a lot more about COVID-19 than we did several months ago. The best information we now have indicates that school-age children are less likely to contract this virus or develop serious complications from it than anyone else. If it is safe for children to visit grocery stores and hang out in public shopping malls, it should be safe for them to attend regular classes at school. Keeping all students home until scientists find a COVID-19 vaccine isn’t a viable option, particularly since it could be many months, or even years, before a vaccine becomes available.

Provincial governments would be wise to signal now that they will do everything they can to resume in-person K-12 classes this fall. Extended online learning might work for post-secondary institutions, but it will not work at the K-12 level.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.