The 2020 school year so far has seen unprecedented challenges and lots of upheaval. The teachers we talk to have shared their own individual experiences and they run the gamut. Some are back in school full-time, some are holding virtual classes online, or a hybrid blend of the two, and many have decided to sit out this school year in favor of staying home to work with students one-on-one in private tutoring.

The parents we talk to need help dealing with the huge increase in homework combined with the lack of attention their students are experiencing. As parents struggle to manage work and home responsibilities, they are finding it difficult to also be proxy teachers to their kids. And all the while they are worried that their students are falling behind.

Change is Constant

With countless schools on lockdown to one degree or another all over the country, there is no universal plan for moving forward. Individual school districts, counties, and states all have varying levels of authority to decide what form instruction is taking this year and this has led to a lot of frustration for all concerned. Some schools have changed course once or twice already in the first month of school, having started in-person instruction only to revert to remote learning because of spikes in positive COVID-19 test results.

Just looking at the state of California, it’s obvious how chaotic the situation really is. Counties are moving from purple to red in the state’s four-tiered color coded tracking system. While the state has invested heavily in distance learning technology, gaps exist where many students just don’t have the access they need. In fact, parents have sued Los Angeles Unified school district over what they consider an “inadequate” plan for remote learning.

School districts in the Dallas area are still figuring out how they’re going to handle this school year. They’ve discussed using a hybrid model for nine weeks and then reevaluating. That means half of the students would go to school on Monday and Tuesday, have a “flex” day on Wednesday, and the other half would go to school on Thursday and Friday.

Teacher Shortages Force Last-Minute Changes

In New York, inadequate staff for in-person classes has led to schools being forced to quickly switch to remote learning. At one school, the change happened on the first day of school. In some cases, blended learning where students alternate between in-classroom time and online-from-home time has been implemented.

Colorado schools have announced that “we are in a crisis” due to their COVID teacher shortage. “Districts are getting creative,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. “I’ve even seen districts asking parents if they want to consider getting a substitute license to help them fill the gap.”

The Tri-State area of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois has reported a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers. As teachers are hesitant to head into the classroom, schools are finding that they are unable to find substitutes. And to add to the shortages, they are also having trouble finding reliable bus drivers.

Federal Funding to Help

In March, $13.2 billion of the CARES Act stimulus package was dedicated to K-12 schools. Continued tax revenue losses due to the COVID-19 shutdowns will have an ongoing negative impact on education funding. As a result, the House, the Senate, and the administration are currently in negotiations to pass another bill that would continue to help fund education, along with many other relief programs. Schools are asking for assistance in funding coronavirus school safety measures as these are additional operating costs that were unanticipated and unbudgeted.

Is There Any Positive News?

Regarding the coronavirus, a new study of COVID-19 in schools brings good news. As of September 25, there was a confirmed infection rate of 75 cases per 100,000 students and 140 cases per 100,000 staff members. That translates to 0.075% of children and 0.14% of staff. An associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins is quoted in the Washington Post’s coverage of the survey as saying, “We’re not seeing schools as crucibles for onward transmission. It’s reasonable to say that it looks promising at this point.”

Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts reports that the back-to-school season “is off to a fine start” as they focus on the importance of in-person learning in communities with low COVID-19 risks. Assistant superintendent Erin Perkins said the challenges of bringing students and staff back into school buildings were made worth it by “the way children lit up as they entered the room.”

On the community level, the Trees for Cities charitable organization is urging teachers and parents to help children embrace outdoor learning at home or school. They are providing free online educational resources and curriculum guides to help students do more outdoor learning. Creative approaches to teaching and learning are cropping up all over.

Local heroes step up to support at-home students. In Columbus, Ohio, a non-profit called Impact Community Action is building desks for children who are learning virtually from home. Local artists are painting the desks. Another group in Maryland, Desks by Dad, is also producing study furniture for children. And in Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Community Desk Project is doing the same.

Students helping students – a teenager in Reno  has started a company with her friends with the goal of providing learning kits for children with special needs. Priyanka Senthil formed AUesome to make customizable at-home therapy kits. Senthil partnered with 4 friends to launch the company as part of a summer entrepreneurship program for high school students worldwide. There are many examples of students who are using creative ways to help other students through these uncharted lands.

There’s a lot going on, and that can be stressful, but hard times also bring out the best in people, and on a grass-roots level, people are creatively coming up with ways to help students and parents get through the challenges they face this school year. Instead of focusing on the negatives, as Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”