No substitute for in-classroom learning

Earlier this week, I put on my shirt and tie, but instead of roaming the halls of Congress, I spent the day substitute teaching for Mrs. Pierson’s middle school English classes. Amid the debate on if, when, and how to open our nation’s schools, I decided to get a firsthand look at the challenges.

Serving as “sub” reinforced my view we need to do everything we can to keep our kids in school and keep them safe while they are there. According to Bellwether Education Partners, approximately 3 million of our most educationally marginalized students have not experienced any formal education since March. Students of color, those with disabilities, students learning English, low-income students, or those in foster care are disproportionally classified as “educationally marginalized” and too many of them aren’t in our schools right now, either online or in-person.

Once I got to the classroom, it became obvious to me I was substituting for a dedicated and organized educator. She had prepared a five-page memo for me, outlining the things I needed to keep in mind when dealing with specific students and specific assignments. Many of the instructions related to how best to integrate technology into the day and how best to engage those students who were “e-learning” or learning from home.

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It was more difficult to teach those students learning outside the classroom, and my experience also highlighted how difficult it is for students who don’t have access to high-speed Internet. In rural South Dakota, we have many students without broadband, but the problem is even worse in some urban areas. For example, in our nation’s capital city, 27 percent of students lack the internet access needed to participate in a virtual classroom and even higher, 67 percent of students lack the devices needed to participate at all. This is troubling. When those students are out of the classroom, they don’t have access to educational opportunities they’ll need to succeed.

South Dakota has its ongoing issues with COVID-19, but thankfully the majority of our schools are open. Over the last two weeks, I visited half-a-dozen elementary schools to observe their school lunch programs. Growing up, I often fell into the “educationally marginalized” category — we weren’t well off. My family relied on school lunches and government nutrition assistance for many of our meals. It’s an unfortunate reality, but if kids aren’t in school that means many of them aren’t being fed breakfast or lunch. It's hard to learn if you’re hungry.

I got to see the precautions our schools are taking to keep teachers and students safe this week. With plastic barriers, masks, social distancing, and the constant sanitizing of desks and hands our kids feel safer. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a better alternative than keeping them out of the classroom.

I was grateful to step into our teachers’ shoes — I know it was only one day, but it was eye opening. Our teachers are passionate, and our students are bright. All students, regardless of income, deserve the opportunity to get back in the classroom, safely and in-person.

Dusty Johnson represents South Dakota at large and is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.