Skip to content

Radio ‘Schools’ During Pandemic

January 25, 2021

When the COVID pandemic struck hard last winter my first question to a friend, who is a public school teacher in Madison, was how youngsters who relied on lunches and food from our schools would be impacted.  I was heartened to learn how those students were not falling through the cracks by receiving meals.

As the months passed along, however, all of us were focused on how the closure of schools due to the virus impacted students, the learning process, and as the Wisconsin State Journal reported above the fold today, how graduating seniors are filing fewer federal aid request forms.

Roughly three months into the financial aid application cycle, the number of Wisconsin high school seniors who have completed the FAFSA is down 13% from the same time last year, according to U.S. Education Department data analyzed by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), a nonprofit trying to close equity gaps in higher education.

The decline is even worse at schools that serve a large number of low-income students and students of color.

Clearly, there is a growing amount of data to demonstrate school closures stymie the learning and development of students. My husband was a college professor for many years in this city.  He has noted the challenges which instructors will face when the next school term starts without students having become proficient with this year’s classwork.  In addition, comes the reality that the economic disparity is playing havoc with remote teaching across our nation.

Today a most interesting article was sent to me from Christine, a friend, and reader. It underscores that the issue of pandemics and long-distance learning is not new. The fact our nation was not preparing for such a time as we now find ourselves is the question that screams for an answer.

In 1937, a severe polio epidemic hit the U.S. At the time, this contagious virus had no cure, and it crippled or paralyzed some of those it infected. Across the country, playgrounds and pools closed, and children were banned from movie theaters and other public spaces. Chicago had a record 109 cases in August, prompting the Board of Health to postpone the start of school for three weeks.

This delay sparked the first large-scale “radio school” experiment through a highly innovative – though largely untested – program. Some 315,000 children in grades 3 through 8 continued their education at home, receiving lessons on the radio.

By the late 1930s, radio had become a popular source of news and entertainment. Over 80% of U.S. households owned at least one radio, though fewer were found in homes in the southern U.S., in rural areas and among people of color.

In Chicago, teachers collaborated with principals to create on-air lessons for each grade, with oversight from experts in each subject. Seven local radio stations donated air time. September 13 marked the first day of school.

Local papers printed class schedules each morning. Social studies and science classes were slated for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays were devoted to English and math. The on-air school day began with announcements and gym. Classes were short – just 15 minutes – providing simple, broad questions and assigning homework.

The objective was to be “entertaining yet informative.” Curriculum planners incorporated an engaging commercial broadcasting style into the lessons. Two principals monitored each broadcast, providing feedback to teachers on content, articulation, vocabulary and general performance. When schools reopened, students would submit their work and take tests to show mastery of the material.

Sixteen teachers answered phone calls from parents at the school district’s central office. After the phone bank logged more than 1,000 calls on the first day, they brought five more teachers on board.

News stories reporting on this novel radio school approach were mostly positive, but a few articles hinted at the challenges. Some kids were distracted or struggled to follow the lessons. There was no way to ask questions in the moment, and kids needed more parental involvement than usual.

This blog, in one way or another, continually stresses education.  Too often posts on CP need to underscore what happens when a lack of education is demonstrated.  I have blasted those who demean education, the teaching profession, and paying the bill to make sure we instruct our future generations.  Now we need to up that verbal game, given the awareness of stunning shortcomings that have been exposed as a result of this pandemic.

We have learned just how unprepared we are to meet the educational challenges. When it comes to our school-age kids the deep economic inequalities are glaring.  We see which school districts have funds for the infrastructure so to allow for the devices and bandwidth.  We see where parents have the luxury to be at home and direct at-home education of their kids.

And we also see where the tax base is not anywhere sufficient to afford the needed means for a sizable segment of our youth to get the education they also should expect during a crisis.    

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: