Children have some advantages over adults during a crisis like the one we're enduring right now. They worry less than their parents. They don't pay mortgages or utility bills. Plus, they have less of a sense of their own mortality — which is a nice way of saying that they don't spend much time pondering worst-case scenarios.
Furthermore, kids are resilient. They bounce back. The inherent optimism and innocence of youth at least partially inoculates them against the fear that is taking a heavy toll on our nation.
So, amid the ever-worsening global tragedy that is killing tens of thousands and pushing millions of Americans to the brink of financial disaster, we're not sounding any big alarms about the possibility that students might go six months without setting foot in an actual school building.
They'll recover. Even if they were to do no academic work between now and Labor Day, we're confident that one year from now, students would be right back on track.
Fortunately, they're doing something right now. "Distance learning" is underway statewide, and on Monday students in Rochester will officially begin learning in "virtual" classrooms.
Expect some glitches.
Our state's teachers, administrators and technology coordinators got roughly two weeks notice to completely reinvent their lessons plans, teaching strategies and delivery methods. That's a big ask. Good teachers are part performer, part psychologist, part role model and part motivational speaker, and their training for this role was hinged on being in a room with students.
Suffice to say that teachers are going through a crash course in online education right now.
And, before online learning can even begin, teachers have to actually connect with their students. That's a colossal task, especially in a large school district. Imagine the difficulty of ensuring that thousands of families have the hardware, internet connectivity and technical know-how to allow students to attend a "virtual classroom."
Providing equal online educational opportunities for all students will be the biggest challenge many districts face. To that end, high school students in Rochester have been allowed to check out school-owned laptop computers, but not every district will have such resources available. Some kids will fall through the technological cracks, while others — special needs students, for example — require assistance that simply can't be provided online.
In the long run, however, this sudden plunge into online education could prove beneficial. Necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps the best way to fully embrace technology in Minnesota's educational system is to simply jump into the deep end and start swimming.
While there are plenty of unknowns right now, we're absolutely certain that four weeks from now, we will have a much clearer picture of what works and what doesn't work in remote learning. Districts will recognize the gaps and equipment needs in their networks. We'll know what kind of training our teachers need to lead virtual classrooms. Many parents will have little choice but to embrace technology that their kids mastered long ago.
With this experience under our belts, our state will be better prepared for the inevitable mid-January week when the temperature is -25 and schools are closed. Students who are sick for a few days will have greater opportunities to keep up with their school work.
But that's down the road a ways. For now, the best advice we can offer parents is to be patient and not to worry when your child can't connect to a virtual classroom, misses an assignment or is confused by a teacher's instructions. Online learning is very much a work in progress, and trial-and-error is seldom pretty.
And, if all else fails, remember that learning can happen in unscripted ways. If you have kids in elementary school, read to them. Watch some classic "Schoohouse Rock" videos on YouTube, or check out Bill Nye the Science Guy. Go outside in the evening and listen to the birds, frogs and insects.
If your kids are older, do some online exploring of colleges. Listen to your teenager's favorite bands — and try to make them listen to yours. Test some new recipes in the kitchen, and let the kids help. Watch some classic movies together, the kind that rely on rapid-fire dialogue, rather than special effects.
Families are going to get to know each other very well over the next month, and that process could prove to be just as educational as what's happening in any virtual classroom.