Snow Days Show Why Schools, Blended Learning Matter

No, this isn’t another piece about how online learning can allow students to continue to learn even when school is canceled because of snow—although online learning could arguably help a select number of parents who can work from home solve the problem faced when this happens.

Instead this is a piece about how important physical brick-and-mortar schools are in our communities and why, even as online learning grows, those schools likely won’t be going away. The insight is one reason why the future for most K–12 schools and students is in blended learning.

As yet another snowfall battered New England on the heels of the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory, my Facebook feed featured messages from parents bemoaning another snow day—and, presumably, the challenges it posed to them for finding child care or keeping their kids occupied productively.

The point is that families and communities don’t just hire schools to impart learning to students. What the education reform community too often misses is that families hire schools to do many other services, including a custodial job—to care for children and keep them safe while parents are at work or otherwise unavailable.

As Heather Staker and I write in our new book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, the same analysis in Disrupting Class that shows that 50 percent of all high school classes will be delivered online in some form by 2019 also reveals that homeschooling and full-time virtual schooling will not substitute for brick-and-mortar schooling, as their growth flattens out at just under 10 percent of the U.S. K–12 student population. That suggests that over 90 percent of students will continue to depend on adult supervision at brick-and-mortar schools.

This 90-percent estimate rings true. As my Facebook feed on the topic of snow days illustrates, most children need a safe place to be during the day outside of the home while their parents are busy. Watching over and keeping children safe is critical. Most students also want a physical place to hang out together and have fun, as well as a place to receive help from their teachers, two other important aspects that can be separated from content delivery.

There is another important point here as well. As schools shift more of the management of content and instruction to the Internet, they will have the opportunity to refocus and devote more time and resources to providing world-class physical care. Many schools could certainly afford to improve in this regard. During the 2011 to 2012 time span, 35 percent of Chicago’s 681 schools failed food inspection at least once for reasons such as no hot water in bathroom sinks, food kept at unsafe temperatures, and more than two hundred rodent droppings found in food service areas. Such deficiencies in the basic care of children are horrifying to parents but often overlooked, as educators are compelled to prioritize the job of imparting content and instruction.

As the snow continues to fall this winter and children delight in their days off, let’s not forget how important those school buildings and educators are for the nation’s families—and not just because of the important academics they impart.

– Michael Horn

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