Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, May 14

A school year unlike any other ends

The strangest school year that probably anyone can remember, at least in Yankton, is essentially over. As it limps into the past tense and as we head into an uncertain summer, this would be a good moment to give a nod of appreciation to everyone who made this school year work as well as it did under such extraordinary and unpredictable conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t really change any school educational plans; instead, it shattered them. Anything that suddenly locks kids out of schools for months can only be seen as either a) a wholesale undoing of the traditional educational processes that everyone understands; or b) summer.

This left a lot of people to figure out fast how to conduct the remaining quarter of the school year. Online strategies had to work for high school kids as well as for kindergartners. It had to factor in how teachers and parents could help shepherd the process along, and it needed the kids to take on an independent focus that many of them simply may not have been ready for when all this landed on us.

Somehow, they managed to bring the year to the finish line by either implementing or creating strategies that probably weren’t well defined, or even dreamed of, when this school year began late last summer.

As the saying goes, it took a village to make it work. It took the teachers and administrators to devise online teaching plans literally on the fly. It took parents serving as in-house tutors to their kids, and it took students who had to adapt to a new way of learning that they really hadn’t encountered before, at least to this extent.

I honestly can’t imagine how it all came together and worked on such short notice. Remote learning is not easy. Back in college, I took one “remote” class; since it was the pre-internet era, this involved me waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Thursday morning one semester to watch a 30-minute astronomy program on public television. I don’t remember a lot about it (it WAS 7:30 in the morning, after all), but I do recall the focus that was needed to see it through and meet the requirements.

Now, how WELL this semester’s detour into alternate-universe educating worked is unknowable at the moment. I’ve heard that some schools spent this last quarter essentially reviewing what had already been taught, while others attempted to introduce new material to keep the kids at least somewhat on course toward where they were supposed to be by year’s end. The impact of it all may be evident this fall, when learning retention is considered, or perhaps it will show up in the next round of standardized tests. It will be interesting to measure.

This was also an invaluable learning experience for everyone involved. Many school administrators and teachers probably figured out a lot of things in terms of implementing online learning strategies, finding out what works and what doesn’t. The fact that students tend to learn differently in new environments probably became even more evident in this difficult scenario.

Frankly, I also realize that not everyone — from teachers to students — may have been on board with this, for whatever reasons. It probably made some classes or processes more difficult and frustrating than perhaps they should have been. Replacing traditional school interactions with remote connections may have created problematic disconnections.

All these things may well be addressed in the future …

Oh, the future. What a murky mess that is right now. As I wrote in Wednesday’s editorial, the schools are planning to open the fall semester with the kids back in the classrooms, but that’s not a given. While they hope and prepare for the best, school officials also have to plan for the worst: If the virus doesn’t abate or it re-surges, as some believe it will at some point, we may be back in the same place, with distance learning again becoming the necessary norm.

But if that does happen, everyone involved will, at the very least, be a few steps further ahead in the process. It won’t be so foreign to them, and they should have a better idea of how to deal with the disruption and how to make things work.

Hopefully, we won’t have to find out anytime soon how much was learned this spring, but at least this hard, humbling experience can be a handy tool if the situation arises again.


Madison Daily Leader, May 18

A new Civilian Conservation Corps?

We’re facing an intersection of high unemployment and environmental needs. Let’s respond the same way we did last time, nearly 90 years ago.

In the 1930s, American had entered the Great Depression. Unemployment soared. At the same time, this part of the country became known as the Dust Bowl in a time called the Dirty Thirties. The combination of sodbusting and drought years were causing duststorms that blew away valuable top soil and covered small South Dakota towns in a layer of dirt.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. The program hired young unemployed men for projects in forestry, soil conservation and recreation. By 1942, the 3.4 million participants in “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” had planted more than three billion trees, built hundreds of parks and wildlife refuges and completed thousands of miles of trails and roads.

Today, young people are facing high unemployment again. Nearly 7.7 million American workers younger than 30 are now unemployed. Three million dropped out of the labor force in just the past month.

Meanwhile, our environmental needs are different, but the solutions may be similar. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, could be combated by planting oxygen-producing trees. Erosion and water pollution could be stemmed by planting riparian buffer strips. Forests destroyed by bugs need to be managed to prevent large scale forest fires, which threaten humans, structures and air quality.

Here’s a bonus: Many young people are passionate about saving the environment. They might just be the most enthusiastic participants in a jobs program ever.

Here’s another bonus: There are thousands of shovel-ready projects ready to go, with only money and people needed to get started immediately. Our national parks and wildlife refuges have $20 billion in deferred maintenance ready to be tackled.

We even have the employment infrastructure ready through programs like Americorps’ National Civilian Community Corps.

We could argue that this is a much better form of stimulus program than simply writing checks to every American. We understand the importance of the federal government’s recent assistance package because of our need of quick relief. But the next wave of assistance could be so much more effective.

There is important work to be done and we have young, enthusiastic people to do it. Let’s create a new and better version of the CCC.