It is Teacher Appreciation Week across the country, and especially after the past few weeks, we all owe a debt of gratitude to our educators. What they have done is herculean. Our public schools continue to provide thousands of meals every week to students in need. Our teachers and school staff have turned their dining rooms into classrooms and spend countless hours engaged with students through their computer screens. Our public schools, and the people who work in them, have demonstrated creativity, resilience and a deep commitment to Maine’s students and their families.

As policymakers, we have a lot to learn over the next several months as we analyze the ways schools have responded to this public health crisis. We can certainly expect that some special interests will be looking to take advantage of this situation by presenting new, shiny tools. For example, a recent commentary by the head of the Maine Association of Charter Schools argued for expanding for-profit virtual charter schools. As we’ve learned on the Education Committee, Maine’s two for-profit online virtual charters have experienced chronic problems related to academic performance and student absenteeism.

We must carefully analyze the path forward for our public schools, and we should all be wary of quick solutions, especially those that have shown to be problematic. After hearing convincing evidence about the poor performance of charter schools, the Legislature passed a bill last year to cap the number of students in such for-profit virtual charter schools at taxpayer expense at 1,000 students statewide. That bill is now law.

We know remote learning has worked for some families, but we also hear directly from teachers that too many students are falling through the cracks. Some teachers report they have been unable to connect with students since the disruption, while many are struggling to have regular contact with their students.  

A recent National Education Association poll of parents underscores the deep concerns parents are having. While 88 percent of parents surveyed approve of the job their children’s teachers are doing during the crisis, parents’ No. 1 concern is their children’s lack of social interaction (55 percent cite this as a major concern) and 45 percent of parents claim their kids miss their teachers. As we know and data prove yet again, teacher-student relationships are key ingredients in the successful education of children, and despite many efforts, we have simply been unable to digitally re-create the impact that face-to-face interactions with teachers have on kids.  

We believe the next conversation about remote learning should begin with equity, as we are seeing how remote learning further exacerbates inequities among our students. Some students do not have devices at home, some lack internet and others may not live in a safe environment. Some students may be in homes where their parents are working and unable to help their children with their schooling. For years policymakers have grappled with the so-called “summer slide” – the loss of learning seen among low-income children in large numbers during the summer months. Now our state must grapple with a “COVID slide,” since many of our students may be missing up to a third of this school year. This represents hours of lost learning and instructional time, and less time with the teachers, counselors and all the other educators who have a positive impact on students.

Maine has been forced into this statewide remote learning experiment by a pandemic, and we will have a great deal to learn from it. We will need to carefully listen to the teachers, parents and students, those actually engaged in the remote learning experience, to determine the best aspects of remote learning. We can expect remote learning will likely be a tool in the toolbox for public schools and educators in the future. However, we must be wary of adopting proposals that have already raised significant questions about student performance and achievement. Instead, we must work to ensure that our public education system in Maine pursues policies that strive for equity and promote student success.

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