"Seat time," or the legally required minutes, hours, and days that kids must be in class for it to count as "school" is an entirely arbitrary number, and educators have always known that. And I've long opposed the restrictive idea, especially when politicians and pundits make exaggerated and misinformed claims that what American students really need is more time in school. In reality, some kids can benefit from more time, and many can actually benefit from less. So, now that the pandemic and the last ten months turned education on its ear, perhaps we can revisit the ideas we hold about seat time and attendance requirements.
To that point, education researcher and professor Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute opined in Bloomberg last May that perhaps "Half-time High School May be Just What Students Need." Now that we've been through a semester of it, perhaps it's time to have more serious discussion about school schedules. The practice of remote learning, hybrid schedules, and asynchronous lessons, which schools implemented out of necessity in a health crisis, has revealed that students may not need to be physically present in school buildings for pre-set times of the day if they can access curriculum in learning in other ways. Granted, there are many aspects of schooling that ...
no virtual environment can replace .... [such as] football games, choir concerts, musicals and so much more that’s part of the American high school experience.
However, it's indisputable that many students, especially at the high school level, spend countless hours bored and disengaged while in the physical building. And if they can access the lessons, do the work, receive constructive feedback/assessment, and learn in other ways at different times, then we are doing the kids and society a disservice by mandating specific stretches of time.
That said, schooling is not all about content, skills, and coursework. We have long attended school in person because we are communal animals, and much learning is enhanced by a community of learners. I know I benefited greatly from discussions with my grad school cohort, especially when tackling works such as Thomas Pynchon's post-modern masterpiece V. In fact, I doubt I'd have truly understood and benefited from reading it without them. Yet there was as much to be learned from the time spent exploring on my own in the graduate library. And, I completed my degree while teaching full time - so clearly being in a classroom five days a week wasn't indispensable.
Overall, I believe kids need to be "in school" regularly. And the pandemic has also exposed significant gaps in learning, as too many kids have fallen off the map, and grades for many have plummeted. The lack of accountability and access for many children has been catastrophic. Truly, for many kids school is the one constant, the one safe place, the one bit of security and stability. Kids need human connection. But the rigidly arbitrary nature of "seat time" and attendance requirements can change. And it should.