We at Cedar Classical Academy are confident that, right now, mid-pandemic, we continue to offer the best K-6 educational option in Lansing. Now beginning our ninth week of distance learning, we have kept our mission alive. Cedar Classical Academy’s culture has been marked since our founding by parental partnership, high standards, character emphasis, and real content. This remains true.
Yet—and this is a big “yet”—distance learning is no match for in-person learning.
A Case Study in Accountability to Parents
Think back to the P.C.E. (Pre-Covid Era), when families went to church and adults went to work and children went to school. Things changed quickly, but in stages. It was difficult to plan more than two weeks at a time. We learned on March 13 from Governor Whitmer’s executive order that we would not be returning to school after our spring break. On that day, teachers sent students home with a handful of their books, since at that time the shutdown was only purposed to last two weeks. On the eve of the initial stay-at-home order, when it became clear that our shutdown would last at least until May, our headmaster prepared the rest of students’ materials and sent those home with a roll of toilet paper for each student. On Wednesday, March 25, with only a 2-day delay after students returned from spring break, Cedar Classical Academy was offering pre-recorded lessons, live math and literature classes, and lesson plans for remaining subjects. This was weeks before local public schools had even decided what their plan of action would be.
In an April 2 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Berkeley Schools Leave Every Child Behind,” Steven Davidoff Solomon wrote about how drastically differently his twin daughters were being educated at two different schools during the pandemic. While his daughter’s private school offered online classes, his other daughter’s public school decided not to offer online classes. “It’s not mainly a problem of resources,” Solomon writes. “The private school went online in two days with Zoom. I’m teaching all my law-school classes online. New York, the country’s biggest school system, is going online. Why not Berkeley?” The school district explained to the writer that the issue at stake was “equity.” Solomon interpreted this in this way: “District officials feel that some students may not have computers to access online services, so they’d rather let everyone drown than save as many as possible and fulfill their educational mission.” Hence the title; out of fear of academic inequity, every child got left behind.
This problem is not specific to California. Governor Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-35, which shut the doors of public and nonpublic K-12 institutions of any size through the end of the school year, also addressed the potential disparity in technological access among students and advised that awareness of this disparity shape schools’ response plans. According to Okemos parents, more than two weeks after the K-12 order Okemos public schools had not even outlined to parents what their response plan would look like. We do not mention these issues to pick a fight with the state’s decision about its public schools. Americans should know by now, from decades of evidence, that “local” public schools are not accountable to the taxpayers funding them or to the parents of the students who attend. Rather, we want to highlight the truly bright stars of this shutdown: private institutions. The Classic Learning Test has received national acclaim for their college entrance exam that has continued even when the SAT and ACT were cancelled. Classical schools throughout Michigan have weathered this era well, and we are proud to be among them.
What we at Cedar have decided to do is offer a hybrid education that is a combination of at-home lesson plans, pre-recorded content, and live online classes. This, rather than only offering at-home lesson plans or requiring a full 8-hour school day of online classes, seemed to us the best way to (1) encourage parental responsibility in this new world of isolated learning, (2) limit screen time, (3) continue to focus on behavior and character as a core facet of education, and (4) continue to focus on the richness of the content over and above how much content we “get through.” Moreover, we decided to distribute the amount of live online classes in a way that is appropriate to each grade level. Sixth graders have more live classes than first graders, for example. Kindergartners—our precious, squirrelly kindergartners—only have one virtual class meeting every two weeks at which time they review Scripture and poetry recitations with one another, and share stories from their outdoor adventures.
Some aspects of our brick-and-mortar school culture have easily lent themselves to at-home learning, like our theology curriculum from the Rafiki Foundation which is aligned across all grades, K-12. After hearing stories from families of other Christian schools who have attempted to keep up with five different Bible curricula for their five children each day, we are grateful for the way our theology curriculum easily fits the lifestyle of a big family and allows them to study God’s Word together. Another easy transition has been our science curriculum. We had planned for the final unit to be ornithography (the study of birds), so in addition to textbook study of bird anatomy and behavior, our 3-6 science teacher has assigned weekly birding adventures to different local spots in the Greater Lansing Area for a social distancing-friendly class activity. Our music teacher has compiled excellent classical playlists to continue exposing our students to good music at home. Our art teacher has continued to assign masterworks copying exercises. Our physical education teacher has continued to offer suggestions for weekly physical activities. Our kindergarten teachers have posted videos touring their gardens and identifying Michigan wildflowers. Our 1-2 theology and history teacher has created such entertaining YouTube videos that even our older grades take time out of their day to watch them.
Our primary focus has been the encouragement of each individual family’s culture by thoughtfully streamlining our communication and paring down lesson plans so that families get a manageable amount of content. There is no denying it—our institutional culture, for the time being, will continue to wither. Rather than mourn that loss, it makes sense that each individual family put energy and time into their own culture—whether that looks like nightly read-alouds, group recitations, outdoor adventures, family dinners, home projects, or a renewed focus on responsibility in household chores. These things are valuable, and we have approached this extra time at home with the attitude of William Cowper’s hymn:
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds that you much dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head.”
Our sovereign Lord can reap big blessings from these strange months.
But It’s Not Great
All that said, distance learning and online classes cannot compete with the value of in-person schooling. In our first semester, we spent dozens of hours refining our in-person school day schedule to minimize, and make the most of, the “in-between times.” We carefully put classes and activities back-to-back which use different parts of the brain or require different levels of attention, to best ensure excellent work from each student at every grade. All of that, of course, has gone out the window.
For our teachers, facilitating distance learning takes twice the time for what feels like half the benefit. During in-person classes, we have repeatedly told our students, “Classroom time is precious.” Spending time in classes on Google Meet, in basements or in front of someone’s kitchen pantry where everyone can see who is sneaking snacks—time is just a little bit less precious. Our students have blessed our teachers and honored our institutional culture by abiding by online class standards, including wearing their uniform during school hours and raising their hand before speaking, but it is still just a different environment. The lasting, larger-than-life influence of a brick-and-mortar school culture is impossible to replicate at home or online.
As a school which has intentionally steered away from emphasis on letter grades in the Lower School, finding them less meaningful than longform assessments when depicting a student’s overall development in both academics and character, it has proven disheartening for teachers to have only percentages to look at when determining how well a student has mastered the content. Online learning changes assessment from a conversation between student and teacher about how to improve into a summary judgment on past performance.
In sum, distance learning has felt about as effective as the tin-can telephone.
You know as well as we do what is coming up next. (In other words, we do not know.) Michigan schools will not reopen this school year before the summer. Michigan colleges and universities will conduct even their summer classes online. Will the state permit public and nonpublic schools to reopen in the fall? We pray that they do. We plan to open on Wednesday, August 26, 2020.
Christians build institutions. This pithy conviction is at the heart of Cedar Classical Academy. We believe, as our board member Pastor Timothy Peng says, that “Christians should build schools, hospitals, and orphanages”—to which I would add colleges, publishing houses, missions organizations, bookstores, law schools, medical schools, dairy farms, mint farms, film companies, coffeeshops, restaurants, auto repair stores, or waterfowl conservation groups. Christians build institutions not because those institutions can save souls or last until Christ’s return (they cannot!), but because humans innately specialize in and associate around important ideas they hold dear. We, as Christians, hold particularly dear Christ’s supremacy over every square inch of the universe, including its myriad earthly pursuits. These localized associations that we form always yield material things and places, be they buildings, incorporations, or conferences. Alexis de Tocqueville found this trait particularly strong in America:
Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”
“To develop a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.” In our case, to cultivate virtue and moral imagination in children by bringing back to K-12 education what it has lost (the full weight of the Great Tradition), we associate. Grateful as we are for the bountiful technological blessings of 2020 that have enabled us to continue to educate students’ bodies, minds, and souls, we also hope and pray for the opportunity to reopen our brick-and-mortar association in Okemos, MI in August 2020.