07/30/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Doing the Hard Work of Education Planning in a Pandemic

Like others, we’re anxious about the coming months. But we’re also hopeful.

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The 2020-21 school year has just begun and it’s already heating up to near boiling point.

This month, both the Los Angeles and San Diego School Districts announced that school buildings will remain closed and all students will learn online this fall. Other large districts around the country have announced hybrid programs for the fall, with the caveat that locally rising numbers of COVID-19 infected people can change the plan quickly to online learning. Meanwhile the President of the United States and the current U.S. Secretary of Education are demanding that all public schools open for in-person learning. This call comes with no federal support for the essential health and safety measures needed to open schools safely, but it does come with the threat of financial punishment for schools that decide otherwise.

While we keep tabs on education stories in the national spotlight, in truth we spend more time listening to, talking with, and reading what thoughtful educators have to say about schooling this fall. And what we’re hearing from schools is the opposite of the federal dysfunction. Caring educators at all levels are working incredibly hard this summer to figure out how to offer quality education a month from now. They are sharing the best ideas and practices, focusing on the health and safety of children, as well as on the health and safety of their communities. In other words, they are doing what is right. They are doing what adults are supposed to do. This doesn’t mean there is total agreement on what schools should do in the fall. But the dialogue is real and respectful.

Remaining Hopeful for the Fall

Like others, we’re anxious about the coming months. But we’re also hopeful — and thankful for the voices of those who offer the wisest views and the greatest chance for (1) recovery from this pandemic and (2) for schools to operate well under the current challenges. It’s too much to ask for some semblance of normality this fall, but it’s not too much to ask for the highest quality teaching and learning that fit the circumstances.

Among other things, we appreciated reading “A Better Fall Is Possible,” by Sarah Cohodes, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. If nothing else, to contemplate the idea of a better fall for students and educators is a joyful activity in the midst of so much doomsaying and maliciousness.

Cohodes, in this Atlantic article, encourages caution, of course. She encourages us all to think carefully about why we’re pushing to reopen society (and schools) in a pandemic that is getting worse. In essence, she argues for focusing not on reopening the economy first, but on caring for the children first.

We love the idea of putting children and schools first, of course. We also love Cohodes' suggestion that the federal government create an AmeriCorps-like program that would enlist more adults to help out this school year with the education of children. The current system under current conditions is just too overwhelming for the teachers we have. How great it would be to reduce the student-teacher ratio so that all students have adults — in the form of tutors and counselors — paying close attention to them every day? With millions losing their jobs because of the pandemic, this is could be a great opportunity to support adults and children this year.

Cohodes wants in-person classes for elementary school children, while accepting distance learning for middle and upper schools — but also with a reorganized approach to learning in these higher grades. The key is to keep the student-teacher ratio low, keep all students engaged, and keep contacts to a minimum. She also calls for the regional flexibility to keep schools open in states with low infection rates and to close schools down in areas with high infection rates.

What Independent Schools Are Doing

The independent school educators we’ve connected with encourage some variation on the concept of in-person or hybrid learning that involves approaches that balance health risks and deep learning. To open school buildings this fall, however, requires a change in how we run in-person schools. In a pandemic, it makes most sense to focus on keeping students in small cohorts and reducing their interaction with adults and other students. It’s almost as if we need to create some variation on the one-room schoolhouse. To this end, schools are planning to shift to block schedules, with fewer classes to minimize the mixing of students and the transitions between classes.

Schools are creating rules for hygiene practices, the spacing of seats, using physical barriers, wearing masks, and dealing with food service and mealtime. They are working out scenarios for music (outdoor, social-distancing rehearsals, creating well-edited videos, etc.) and debating whether or not to offer any sort of extended care programs. They are creating plans for what to do when someone is sick or tests positive. They are developing new parking-lot and drop-off policies, new hallway and bathroom rules. They are creating systems to support community members whose health is highly at risk from the virus. They are working out new practices for helping students with special needs. Some schools are training administrators in contact tracing as a way to minimize infections. Many schools are rewriting their parent and student handbooks (the COVID-19 Rules). The National Association of Independent Schools offers an overview on these essential changes for 2020-2021.

Schools are also rethinking how they approach communications with parents and the broader community — focusing on timing, clarity, consistency, and trust. The overall goal is to remind parents about why their schools exist in the first place and why school missions remain essential in both normal times and times of great crisis. For some schools, this has even meant rethinking the use of the terms “distance learning” or “virtual learning” — both of which can sound uninviting and disconnected from the intent of close teacher and student engagement. One school we know is using the term “Continuous Learning Plan” to describe the entire spectrum of learning from in-person to a hybrid system to an online variation. It’s a good move to describe all variations as part of a larger, dedicated plan that connects directly to the school’s mission. Another school keeps the terms “in-person learning” (school open) and “distance learning” (school closed), but has added “concurrent learning” to describe students who are quarantined and following the in-person learning from home. This is a good idea, too. For one, it reflects the reality that some students will inevitably need to learn for home. It also makes clear to families that the “concurrent learning” is primarily a supplemental service for the core in-person program.

Meanwhile, teachers are getting training in distance teaching and learning while schools upgrade their technology infrastructure to help them offer high quality distance learning (and concurrent learning), as needed.

Strongly Staying the Course

For some of us, a quiet mantra runs through our minds: “I can’t wait until 2021.” But we have to get there together. In one online education forum, an administrator recently asked, “Have you ever worked so hard in your life?” For all in education, the answer is, No. What we appreciate is that no one is shying away from the work. It’s what we need to do if we want to do right by our children this fall.

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