That is what we have. Four months, almost to the day, in fact. Four months. About eighteen weeks. Approximately one hundred twenty five days. That is exactly how much time we, as a society have to re envison the entity that is public education.
As Canadians breathe a COVID tempered sigh of relief that the calendar has finally turned to May, and as more discourse emerges around how we may have, indeed, flattened the curve, a great many educational minds are now turning to what that oh so familiar entity called “school” will look like in the fall. Because the start of May begins a count down, of sorts. A mere four months from now, Canadian schools will once again throw open their collective doors and welcome the graduating class of 2021.
This is the optimist in me speaking of course. I for one certainly can’t imagine, nor do I want to imagine, a world in which that opening will not be possible. And even as it seems the vast majority of Canadians do not anticipate school getting back to normal for this year, there seems to be a collective expectation, if not collective desperation, that schools will be reopening come September. Indeed, if the fierce opposition being faced by the Quebec government’s announcement that schools could be open as early as May 11th is any indication, any earlier date will simply not fly for most.
This optimism is also tempered with a great deal of trepidation. There is a very keen sense running through all public education systems that things can not simply go back to the way they were. The images of packed classrooms, crowded hallways, upwards of three classes of phys-ed running simultaneously in a gym are more than enough to make even the staunchest science denier shudder.
So, this brings us to the most important question that, we, as a society, have faced in a great many generations. How precisely, can we do school differently?
Some countries are already attempting to deal with the question. Swiss students are set to return to class on May 11th, primarily based on findings from a research study which claims children are not particularly prone to either contracting or spreading the Cornona virus. Although controversial, the study, and others like it, has also been used to justify re-opening schools in Denmark, and is why Spain has loosened restrictions on children playing outside.
Although America’s Center for Disease Control has not yet accepted these results, the United States is also considering the question of re-opening schools, with that country’s president putting a great deal of pressure on the individual states to re-open sooner rather than later. As of a few days ago, the idea was receiving a less than lukewarm reception in many jurisdictions, but had not been completely dismissed.
But even in jurisdictions where the re-opening of schools is being considered, there are a few key questions that remain unanswered. Recognizing that COVID-19 is one of the deadliest viruses faced by the human race in at least 100 years, the question of student and staff safety are first and foremost in everyone’s mind. What about children with compromised immune systems? What about the teacher with asthma? How, exactly, does one ensure social distancing in a classroom of two-dozen five year olds?
The reason this is all so difficult can be traced back to the 1990’s and the widespread adoption of a business model for schools. Buildings that were operating at maximum capacity, servicing as many “customers” as possible, while producing positive results in standardized tests scores, were considered good investments. Anything shy of that brought down, in some form or another, the dreaded “school review”. Essentially, governments attempted to cram as many kids into schools as the buildings would hold, or at least as many as the teachers, through their collective agreements, would tolerate.
If nothing else, COVID has exposed a pretty major flaw in that particular brand of edu-business thinking.
It has also caused a great deal of consideration, not just about how schools are structured, but about what is taught, and how what is taught is delivered. Large scale e-learning hasn’t exactly proven itself to be the panacea many had hoped it would be. As well, our overly obsessive focus on math seems a tad out of whack with what many parents are currently witnessing at home. I haven’t seen a single Facebook post about how children are excitedly wiling away the time buried in their calculus texts. There has, however, been almost a renaissance in the arts, as families look to music, art and play to take the edge off of isolation anxiety. Honest to goodness, how we can come out of this with anything other than a major increase in our appreciation for classes like family studies is beyond me.
My biggest fear in all of this however, does not come from the changes we may face. It is not that we may be looking at some sort of a split shift system in schools, where half the school population comes on Monday, and half on Tuesday. It is not that facemasks and gloves may be come be standard issue for students and teachers alike. And it is not that we may find ourselves in the heartbreaking position of teaching young children that they must not hug each other.
My biggest fear is that we will do nothing at all.
Never has a generation of educators had such an opportunity, no, the responsibility, to re envision what public education should be; what it can be. We need to put every educator, every resource, every mind, every ounce of energy we can muster into figuring out what school will look like in September, and we must do it now, so we can all adjust. No change to the system will be easy, but by the same token, embarking upon no change at all seems exceptionally foolish.
Because what we must remember is that although it has been almost one hundred years since the world has seen a pandemic like this one, there is no guarantee it will be one hundred years until we see the next.
Four months. Eighteen weeks. One hundred twenty five days.