By Ronnie Burt
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we will be starting our next school year in the coming weeks and months. Depending on where you live, there will be really difficult decisions made about how school will proceed during the current pandemic the world is facing.
Will school be all online? If so, will it be better than the online experience most of us had back in March and April?
Will we try some sort of hybrid approach with smaller class sizes where remote and on campus learning is alternated? How will that be organized?
If we are at school, can students really wear masks all day? Can teachers teach in them? Will school be a scary place producing too much anxiety for our kids?
How will parents and caregivers balance school requirements with their own work and other obligations?
How will teachers be able to manage and teach students in both traditional and online locations at once?
So. Many. Questions.
My wife and I are both former teachers with graduate degrees in education, so you would think that we’d be ahead of the curve for homeschooling, distance learning, or being able to handle anything education-related thrown our family’s way. However, we don’t feel that way. We’re nervous that our kids will fall behind, we’re sad for the missed experiences we had hoped for our kids, and we’re longing for normalcy.
But we also want to ensure, like every parent and every educator out there, that we do what’s best for our children.
If you are looking for concrete answers and guidance, I don’t think anyone yet knows the answers. But, as we have been discussing and preparing for the upcoming school year for our own kids, it has been cathartic to put together some thoughts, tips, and ideas here in this post that hopefully may help others in similar situations.
What Will Learning At School Look Like?
Masks and small groups…
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school . I agree, for the reasons outlined below, but how will that go? We can start by looking through the advice and guidelines published recently by the different authorities out there.
Summarizing and highlighting common recommendations for schools made from the World Health Organization , the US CDC , and the Australian Department of Health , this is what school could be like:
Social distancing will be practiced. As a result, class sizes may be limited, school schedules may be changed, and activities may be canceled.
Hygiene will be a focus with more frequent requirements for kids and teachers to wash hands and use hand sanitizer.
Lunch and meals may all be served in classrooms.
Masks may be required or encouraged for teachers and students.
Extra-curricular activities, physical education, and other opportunities for play may be changed or limited.
Schools will be cleaned more frequently to disinfect common areas, desks, playgrounds, etc.
Group work and collaborative learning will be harder to implement.
Parents, volunteers, and non-necessary visitors may not be allowed in the building.
For any student or faculty that tests positive for COVID-19, experiences any possible symptoms, or comes in close contact with someone confirmed positive, they’ll be required to stay away from school for up to 2 weeks.
For the best set of guidelines and guidance I’ve seen so far, everyone really should read this entire 62 page Risk Reduction In Schools Report by the Harvard School of Public Health.
There was a memo going around the web recently from a large company that was preparing employees that have been working from home since March to come back to work. That memo laid out new rules for workers that included no eating in the break room, no using conference rooms (so continuing Zoom meetings), and staying several meters apart from each other.
In short, all of the benefits of having workers in a physical office were removed. Yet, the management wanted workers to return. For these employees, it was likely they’d be more productive at home given all the restrictions.
I gotta say, as I read through the different reopening plans, it feels like if all of the suggested measures take place, we are doing the same with schools – we risk removing many (if not all) of the benefits of attending school in person in the name of reopening. There will also be so much time spent on extra precautions that the day just won’t be as productive. Not to mention real concerns about mental health, anxiety, and stress from all of the protocols and procedures.
There’s a hugely important reason for schools to open as much as possible, though. Many students rely on school for meals, health, and other services – pandemic or no pandemic. It is also true that schools being open is essential for many parents and caregivers to be able to work and earn a living. We can’t get to a place where the fight against the virus causes more harm than good from increased poverty, malnutrition, or social isolation.
I don’t envy the tough decisions by government and school officials who are deciding when and how to re-open. It is an impossible situation.
Home Learning Is Likely
Even with all of the risk reduction and social distancing strategies in place, realistically, many students will most likely experience online, distance, or home education options this school year.
It is also probable that even those that start back in the classroom will need to change back to temporary remote learning on short notice at some point during the year if there is a spike in active cases at the school.
This means two big things are true:
We all must be prepared for learning at home.
Disruptions and unexpected changes are almost a sure thing.
Given that at least some level of learning at home will be likely, we can turn our attention to planning and making the best of it.
Forget About The Past
Let’s reframe a conversation that I’m hearing over and over again. Many parents and students are afraid that this new school year will be much like the experience they had in March through May when schools closed.
I will bet anything that this isn’t true.
Schools closed quickly, often without any preparation or planning. Student belongings, technology, and school resources were left in the classroom. Teachers didn’t have access to their books and materials.
It happened fast. There was basically no plan.
This will be different.
Perhaps, I should say, I sure hope this will be different. But I’m confident that it will be. Teachers and educators are creative, they love their craft, take their responsibilities seriously, and have now been spending summer vacation (and mostly unpaid time) preparing.
So, all I’m saying, please don’t make decisions for the next school year based on your experiences of recent remote learning.
Don’t Fall For The Trap
Regardless of at home or in classrooms, given everything going on, it is going to be tempting for schools, teachers, and parents to want to simplify as much as possible. One giant pitfall to look out for is to ensure that the expectations and types of learning opportunities offered don’t suffer.
Now, more than ever, we have to decide what we want out of school. Are the individual concepts and skills the most important part?
Or do we want to focus on learning opportunities that emphasize creativity, critical thinking, choice, and personal growth?
The ideal scenario is somewhere in the middle and depends on the subject matter and age of the student.
But as you research learning options for the upcoming school year, consider this chart in how you evaluate and choose the path forward:
Not So Good
One size fits all instruction
Rubrics, detailed feedback, etc.
Relationships and collaboration
There have been many great strides towards a richer education experience in the past few decades. In fact, school probably looks very different today than many of us will remember from our own childhood. We risk using the increased complexity and new obstacles during this pandemic as an excuse to move backward.
Perhaps An Opportunity?
Trying to make the best of a difficult circumstance, maybe this is as good a time as ever to really think outside the box. We should fight the tendencies and natural reaction to try and replicate traditional schooling but doing it remotely, and instead, reinvent what school could look like both at home and at school.
Nobody has asked, but if I had the opportunity to design what learning looks like until COVID-19 is no longer a threat to human lives, here’s what I’d consider…
The school day would look nothing like we’re used to. Instead of traditional classes assigned to one teacher, I’d survey and organize all faculty and staff at the school into 3 groups:
Group 1: Small Group Teachers – experienced with or strong at teaching math, reading, and writing.
Group 2: Project Coaches – experienced, interested in, or show potential for organizing and leading independent learning projects.
Group 3: Learning Mentors – a group for providing parent support, one-on-one student mentoring, solving technology problems, etc.
For the Small Group Teachers, I’d use all available data and knowledge about each student to create small groups (or even one-on-one instruction) for math, reading, and writing. These individualized lessons and coaching would take place either in person when possible or remote by video. The goal here would be to make sure, if nothing else happens, all students move forward in their math, reading, and writing skills.
For the Project Coaches, all other academic areas and school subjects would take place via individualized and self-paced learning projects. The school would come up with requirements, timelines, rubrics, and expectations. Students would be given as much choice as possible and would have a Group 2 faculty/staff member assigned to oversee each project. Perhaps no more than one or two projects would be allowed at a time. While there wouldn’t be formal classes in the sciences, social studies, history, art, music, etc. – all would be encouraged to be incorporated into projects.
The third group of Learning Mentors could be thought of like case managers – they would be helping to take care of the entire child, not just academics. Schools will need extra staff to help keep up with increased reporting requirements on health guidelines or even tracking attendance. Parents will have questions about technology and how to facilitate home learning. Students with special needs will have individualized plans and accommodations to implement. This would be a flexible and responsive team to help with social and emotional needs. It might be the most challenging and important group of all.
So, at minimum, students would be assigned a small group teacher for math, another for reading/writing (or maybe one for each), a project coach, and a learning mentor.
Any kids that needed a place to be and learn, I would do my best to ensure the school was open and available – ideally for extended hours too. This would be more like a library or cafe – come and go as needed with supervision and a safe place to do work. Watching TV, playing games, and virtually collaborating with others would be ok too, as long as school progress is made.
Sure, there are probably a million regulatory and logistical reasons why the above isn’t possible, but this is just one quick and simplified example of how schools might choose to respond in more meaningful ways. If given the choice for my own kids, I’d be interested in something that might be experimental if it seems well planned and thought out. We might really have an opportunity for systemic change here.
My Biggest Fear
Will this classroom ever be full again?
Thinking beyond my own children, I worry deeply about the long term effects that a sustained disruption to the education system will have on students, teachers, and communities for years to come.
All schools – public, charter, and private – have funding that is in one way or another directly tied to attendance. As I see more and more families seriously (and reasonably) explore the possibility of unenrolling their kids from whatever school they were previously in, I know the result will lead to teacher layoffs and a catastrophic financial situation.
It can’t be sugarcoated – if students leave their current school in droves, many schools won’t still be there when the pandemic is over. Then what do we do?
Teachers are also contemplating retiring or resigning at high numbers . Will we have enough teachers, especially in disciplines and locations already experiencing a teacher shortage, in a post-pandemic world?
It makes sense that the current focus is on what is best for this school year, but I hope we discuss and think more about how we recover from this when it is all over, too.
When we plan for what is best for our own kids, we should give significant weight to what will be least disruptive and provide the most continuity in the long run too.
Our Plan (Is Not For Everyone)
Where we live, it has been announced that full-time regular schedules in the school building will not be an option when school resumes. At best, we’ve been told that we can expect our kids to be able to attend school in-person for 25% of the time. We’re not even sure what that really means. The school district is also offering a completely remote learning option.
As such, we have tentatively decided that we can rearrange our work schedules (a major privilege and luxury, I know) to support the fully at-home learning option for our two school-aged kids this coming year. However, for the reasons above, we feel strongly we want to keep our kids enrolled and educated by our local public school – just as would be the plan if COVID-19 wasn’t a reality.
Unless community spread is significantly less than it is now in our area, and if kids can regularly attend school (not just once per week), we’ll opt to do it fully at home.
Of course, parents are the experts on what is best for their children and their families. Not all will have the same opportunities or choices available. Different countries, states, and cities will see different rates of infection and hospitalizations too. Unique needs are important to take into consideration.
How is your school currently planning on starting the next school year? What are your thoughts on your own kids returning to school?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below as we all work to ensure our kids and students continue to be educated and taken care of.