That is the question that jurisdictions all over the country are beginning to seriously grapple with now that COVID restrictions are, ever so slowly, being lifted.
This moment has been nothing short of historically monumental in the realm of education. Teachers right across our nation were asked to turn on a dime and shift from in-class, brick and mortar teaching to an on-line e-learning model. In most cases, this shift did not come with any extra training, or even with any sort of warning, really. Teachers were simply told that they needed to get on-line and teach their students, to maintain some sort of educational consistency for the kids, and to keep them working even though many education departments had widely announced that the work produced was going to have no impact on the students’ final mark.
And somehow, they managed, and are still managing, to do just that.
Not surprisingly, this has not been a perfect transition. However, the rumblings have been mere blips on the educational radar. No one really expected this model to replace actual in class learning. At best, it was hoped that students would be able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their daily routine during COVID. That teachers, (and parents) have managed to balance the bedlam of having to “do school” from home in the midst of whatever mayhem exists in their own domicile and still advance learning is nothing short of astonishing. Hats off to teachers everywhere.
But now that we have seen what student directed, autonomous e-learning actually looks like, I think we can safely say that one of the largest edu-myths of the past 20 years has been unquestionably busted. For quite some time now, educational entrepreneurs have been trying to sell techno-learning as something that was “as good if not better” than traditional classrooms. This has been particularly evident in the US, where every student who could be wrested away from the public system came to the online system with a Backpack Full of Cash. This led to a whole generation of online e-learning institutions, many of which failed rather spectacularly, generally making someone rich in the process.
So that begs the question of “Now what”? Much like the rest of society, public education was completely torpedoed by COVID-19, and it has been the efforts of teachers that have kept the ship afloat. They have been down below the waterline, pumping madly, sometimes working with mops and buckets to keep the rising waters at bay. Perhaps most importantly, they have bought the passengers and crew some time to figure out what to do before the SS public education crashes directly into the iceberg that is September.
It is painfully obvious now that kids have to “go” to school for the system to be successful, and in the realm of COVID, that presents us with quite a dilemma. Schools have traditionally been crammed to the rafters with as many children as they could handle. Class size has not often been determined by any educational evidence, nor even with an eye to individual child development, but has often been a product of economics. The more kids we can stuff into a single school, the cheaper it is to run the building.
Recognizing that we can not magically construct enough schools to fix that particular problem, we must find another way. Probably the most interesting suggestion on that front I have seen has come out Israel, which suggests that we should perhaps be looking at a 4-days on, 10-days off schedule. The idea there is that people would be able to work for four days, and then self isolate for the next ten. According to the limited research we have on COVID, patients are apparently not actually contagious for the first 3 to 4 days of infection. The idea is not meant to be adopted long term, but is simply meant to reduce the impact of the next wave of COVID. There would be no weekends, no holidays, simply 4 days at school and 10 days at home.
Another interesting model is already being tried in Austria. Students there are attending in split shifts, with one group attending Monday to Wednesday, and the next group attending Thursday and Friday. The groups switch days the following week, so essentially attend school for five days at a time. This allows for class sizes to be halved, at the very least, and allows for a bit more practical approach to physically distancing students.
There are certainly positives and negatives to either approach, but both really only address the tip of our metaphorical iceberg. The bits that lie underneath are always where the true danger lies. Creating the conditions in which physical distancing can happen is one thing. Ensuring physical distancing is quite another. How do we keep elementary kids from hugging? How do we keep junior high kids from kissing? How do we keep high school kids from doing what high school kids have been doing since the invention of high school?
And then, somewhere way down, is that pesky thing called “curriculum”.
At the end of the day, I think that everyone recognizes that come September, it is unlikely that schools will be back to “normal”. However, I think what we all must realize is that the changes, whatever they are and however difficult, are probably going to be a heck of a lot better than what we have right now.
Whatever direction is chosen for September, regardless of jurisdiction, I hope that plans are developed and released sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than to give everyone time to prepare. Even if a miracle COVID cure is found and the plan is never enacted, knowing what is coming in September would put people’s minds somewhat at ease. No choice is going to be easy, and none will be perfect, but in the absence of easy or perfect, let’s at least all be able to agree on “safe”.
Regardless of the direction, let’s make sure that we keep in mind those poor souls who are currently below decks, pumping and mopping and bailing in a valiant effort to keep this thing called public education afloat. If the course of action for September does not consider the impact on teachers, if they become overwhelmed, then the whole darn ship, passengers and all, will likely be lost.