U.S. teens envision fall school reopening during COVID-19 pandemic

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When U.S. schools begin the next academic year with the country still fighting the coronavirus pandemic, students should spend half their time in classrooms and half doing online activities that pinpoint their individual learning style such as videos or reading.

That advice comes from Nimish Mathur, 17, and his team from DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

The “I’m So Confused Gang” team submitted its idea for re-opening school in the age of COVID-19 to a competition sponsored by Discover Your Genius (DYG), a nonprofit company that challenges young people to solve real-world business problems.

First place and $1,500 in prize money went to Team Finn from Northwood High School in Irvine, California, DYG announced on Monday. Team Finn members included Miya Liu, Matthew Kim, Helena Zhou, all 16, and Henry Chen, 17. The rest of the winners from the competition, which involved team members age 13 to 24 from 23 states vying for a piece of the $5,000 prize, will be announced on Tuesday.

Mathur’s team would use any winnings to buy a URL to activate their website, Virtual Aristotle. It was named after the Greek philosopher and a teacher of Alexander the Great, who became ruler of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia.

“We were looking at how Aristotle personally tutored Alexander the Great. That inspired us,” Mathur told Reuters.

“We were like, ‘Wow. How can we put that in a website so that everyone can have their own personal tutoring experience?’” said Mathur.

The coronavirus pandemic that locked down U.S. businesses and schools starting in March gave a challenging assignment to the nation’s roughly 57 million K-12 students and 20 million college students, and the educators tasked with teaching them. They had to find ways to learn everything generally taught in a classroom but remotely, typically using digital links to teachers and instructional material.

As the 2019-20 school year drew to a close, critics pronounced remote learning a failure for younger pupils. Students lost as much as one-third of their expected progress in reading and as much as half in math, according to a working paper from the non-profit NWEA, Brown University and the University of Virginia.

The declines were particularly steep for less affluent communities or far-flung communities with less access to home digital technology, researchers said.

Looking ahead, some districts like Denver public schools expect to offer both remote and in-person classes in the fall, in part to accommodate parents who do not feel comfortable sending their children into classrooms during a pandemic.

About four in 10 parents and teachers oppose returning to school until a vaccine is available, according to a USA Today/Ipsos poll released in May.

With the start of the 2020-21 school year just two months away, many school leaders and education boards are scrambling to make opening plans amid countless unknowns about how the virus spreads.

Some experts said the best ideas may come from students themselves, like those in the DYG competition. They noted that schoolchildren have risen to safety challenges before, particularly in response to mass shootings.

“Student input is critical,” said Sandra Chafouleas, a psychology professor at University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “We can’t just assume that we know best because we are the adults.”

The Louisville team’s Virtual Aristotle website is designed to be used by grades K-12. Half of each class would learn remotely for half the week before switching schedules with the rest of the class, keeping classrooms sparsely filled so students can self-distance to thwart virus spread.

It would also help students prepare for another round of 100% remote learning if a second wave of the virus hits, Mathur added.

Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by David Gregorio