A few weeks ago, I read this Medium post by Dr. Shayla R. Griffin, which I posted my initial reflections on, and which has had an enormous impact on my thinking over the intervening weeks. My takeaway:
- There is a population that wants schools to open: parents working from home need space; kids need to socialize; we need to be putting eyes on all kids to prevent abuse, etc.
- There is a population that needs schools to open (not mutually exclusive): low-income folks need their kids to receive services & we need to monitor the kids; working-class, front-line workers need their kids to be in a safe place; the kids need safe space & trusted adult relationships
- The need-based population is generally at greater risk of worse outcomes if infection rates increase: worse health outcomes for people of color; working-class jobs often provide more-limited healthcare access; etc.
Many teachers also want to open, but many have to consider:
- their personal health risk
- what to do with their own children
- Is it safe…? Is it?
A lot of districts are touting their “focus on equity” last spring, pointing mostly to meal deliveries & the distribution of chromebooks and wifi hotspots to homes that needed access. In other words, when the crisis forced the immediate shutdown of schools, we focused on physical needs first & guaranteeing access to online instruction. Thinking about reopening schools & what equity looks like, I think we can keep those priorities central—physical safety (with some risk & a lot of precautions) and authentic learning—but get there a completely different way.
MEETING THE NEED
Many parents & caregivers say, “School has to reopen. I need it to! It has to!!” Some of this is based on the understanding in the public sphere that younger folks are at lessened risk of infection or significant illness from COVID-19. However, we all acknowledge that reopening would put adult teachers at risk, and most realize it would also risk infecting adult members of the students’ households. It is also generally acknowledged that the infection risk for kids is not zero, and that it would be an unthinkable tragedy if a child lost their life or faced lifelong disability based on attending school. So, when I ask why it’s so important to take these risks, there are generally 3 answers:
- Kids need to learn & they got nothing out of the spring remote learning.
- Online learning can be done well, but needs to be done differently, granted.
- I’m not sure how valid this assessment is. How much do the parents normally know of what their kids learned in any given semester? Did they reach this conclusion by just asking the kids? Because kids always say they didn’t learn anything and, “We’ve literally never seen this before!” We all know it!
- Kids need to socialize.
- Is this the prime focus? Because sitting in rows with masks on, not moving around, not working in groups, does not close this gap.
- If the objective of in-person learning is social-emotional growth, then we should be talking about how to safely organize collaborative groups, physical activity & play, team-building activities, etc.
- If we want to focus on social growth, then let’s stop pretending it’s about academics & safely delivering instruction, because all the precautions to make that safe inhibit socialization.
- I need to know my kids are safe while I’m working.
- If this is the goal, then we’re basically childcare. Take that or leave it, but it is what it is. Unfortunately, the “hybrid” models don’t meet this need anyway. We’re only “covering” your kid 2-3 days a week. Also, trying to bring everyone back creates large germ pools—even in hybrid model—so we’re not guaranteeing safety.
- A study in South Korea showed that kids aged 10-19 react the same way as the next age group, meaning they are at risk of death, organ injury, and intellectual disability, and are at risk of bringing infection out of the school. Is this what safety looks like?
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
- Bring K-4 in school every day, with precautions & hygiene protocols. Teachers who need to opt out can offer robust remote learning online (with some synchronous instruction, age-appropriately) to support kids who opt out and those who are sick or ordered to quarantine. See Addendum below for more thoughts on this.
- Offer authentic learning opportunities through fully online instruction for grades 5-12 (or 4-12). Every kid will access all primary instruction through online pedagogy. This includes:
- some prelearning (videos/readings on Classroom, “read the chapter”, etc.);
- scheduled (“synchronous”) videoconference instruction (to reinforce key concepts and offer support, answer questions, etc.); and
- consolidation of learning (practicing the skill, completing a project/task, etc.) on Classroom
- “Homework” will be focused on prelearning (as in the flipped classroom model) and post-instruction practice/application (traditional assessments & homework, but without the filler… more on this later).
- Offer physical safety for those who need it. If a parent has to go to work, they can send the student to school to access their online learning within our building, basically in a study hall. This was efficiently discussed in a New York Times opinion piece by Dr. Shardha Jogee last week. Since everyone will be learning the same material online, anyone who can keep their kids at home should, keeping cohort sizes small and reducing the health risks for those who must attend.
- Offer equitable supports. Kids who need extra support will be scheduled to come into school (now, with lesser risk due to limited population attending in-person).
- Kids on IEPs can have in-person support (or may opt for online support), as can students with limited-English proficiency, those on 504s, or those identified by teachers as needing intervention (flexibly assigned throughout the year).
- Special needs programs will be operational in the buildings, with remote options for families.
- Kids will have access to specialists (speech, OT/PT, guidance) in the building or through telehealth.
- Lunch would be served, and afternoon school could be an option.
- We can think about the role school nurses could play in supporting public health in this model.
CAN WE TALK ABOUT STAFF FOR A MINUTE?
- Robust online learning would support teachers who are older than 50 or otherwise at risk continuing to work while limiting their exposure.
- Professional development right now would be focused on how to effectively design & deliver online learning, as well as providing “research & development” funds to write & revise curriculum for online learning.
- Teachers can come into the buildings throughout the year to work using school equipment or work from home. Professional development, collaborative planning, lesson prep, etc. could be done in person or online as appropriate
- Would need to be worked out & hours accounted for to ensure fairness.
- Would need to game out strategies to protect the health of staff, using effective strategies of other front-line industries.
- Paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, college students who would be majoring in Education but are stuck at home, and other qualified adults in the community could be used to cover the “study halls” and help support students (CORI-checked and symptom-tracked, of course). This would be like a modern-day WPA because our community is hurting, although it would need grant-funding or state/federal aid.
- Custodians would sanitize the entire building daily and throughout the day. No outside rentals, so outside groups aren’t bringing germs in each evening, and schools could be thoroughly cleaned overnight. Also could close earlier, allowing us to bring current custodial staff in earlier in the day to help with sanitation during the open hours, lunch cleanup, etc.
- Staff (including those vetted community adults) may choose to offer extracurricular groups to boost students’ socialization opportunities. Contact sports are going to be canceled or severely limited, but a teacher could organize Track & Field or a Running Club after school with an enrollment cap. Teachers could offer small group social clubs after school or, for greater safety, could offer online clubs/activities to (a.) provide socialization, (b.) close gaps in kids’ opportunities to explore new interests, (c.) create community & sense of belonging.
- About that whole “cutting the fluff” thing… Engaging kids in their learning is the challenge every teacher wants to tackle, and it is even more difficult in a remote learning model, let alone with the emotional and economic disruptions of a global pandemic looming over many families. Instruction should be made as efficient as possible. A guide for thinking that way came out of Harvard & MIT earlier this month, and was written about by Naomi Martin in the Boston Globe.
- Also challenging in a remote model is trusting assessment data to accurately reflect students’ work. (They could be at home Googling test answers, copying from their friends, or paying their siblings to complete their work for them!) Both of these challenges can be confronted with a conscious effort to design assessment tasks that are motivating and compelling to kids, and that encourage individualized responses. Projects can be assigned that are open-ended and allow students to bring their own interests to bear, and it would also be advisable to assign tasks that students can collaborate on. This would foster socialization—one of the stated goals for our schools above—while respecting the fact that many kids will be working together on assignments. It’s actually a good strategy for kids to work together when they’re missing out on the typical discussion-atmosphere of the classroom, so teachers would do well to design assessments that lean into this reality and establish structures & expectations for individual performance within that. Professional development will be needed to support this design work, which will result in a more richly-engaging instructional environment going forward.
- Districts will need to reconfigure their entire transportation plan, considering: (a) most kids will be staying home, (b) the safest method will be walking or driving your own children if possible, and (c) recent guidance for social distancing on buses severely limit the maximum occupancy. At the same time, it is extremely unlikely that schools will hold regular athletics programs. Therefore, now is a great opportunity to adopt the guidelines of pediatric research and change start times: elementary starts first and high school starts last. This will improve student participation in scheduled online classes, not to mention improving relations in many teens’ homes!
This is what I’m thinking equitable schooling looks like in the coming school year. Until the pandemic is under control, we need to prioritize health & safety, and efforts to educate students need to be made while respecting the real & acute danger of coronavirus. As a society, we need a functioning economy, and we rely on schools to provide services (such as childcare) that support that effort, but we also need them to provide a wide range of social services: providing food; monitoring & reporting issues of abuse & neglect; public health education; etc. If we value those things, we need to take reasonable measures to ensure that schools remain as safe as possible for those who need access to the services and supports they provide.
Media reports of the South Korea study indicate very low infection rates for kids under 10, which prompted bringing kids back through grade 4. This certainly addresses the economic need for childcare for the youngest kids, however it relies heavily on the findings from one (imperfect) study. I listened to the “This Week In Virology” podcast, episode 647, in which the panelists dug more deeply into this study and they raised concerns about the interpretation & validity of the data for the youngest cohort in the study.
- The infection rates were lower, but not zero. Infection rate for this youngest cohort was just above 5%, which is 3½ times lower than the next age group up (18.6%), and just under half the rate of older groups’ infection rates (averaging around 12%).
- Data for the youngest kids were not typical. Schools were shut down at the time of contact tracing, potentially skewing young kids’ interactions much lower than usual. The sample size for the youngest cohort was also very small (3 of 57 contacts were infected by household spread) so the data are not terribly reliable. The original CDC report on the study referenced a study that found the proportion of infected children in the population leapt from 2% to 13% when schools in Shenzhen, China reopened—a 6½ times increase! At that rate, 1-2 students would be infected in every classroom in the building, assuming class sizes around 10-12.
That’s concerning, to say the least, and calls back into question the safety-risk assessment for the youngest kids. I would want to hear from elementary teachers & administrators about the costs & benefits:
- Infection rates will be higher if we open grades K-4 or K-3, which means there will be more community spread, although kids themselves are less likely to become ill and display symptoms.
- Would online instruction be an effective format for primary grades if they followed a model like secondary ed. above? Screen time, technology skills, and independence in learning would have much different implications with the youngest grades.
- Thinking of students’ social & emotional needs, consensus is clear that online models are a poor substitute for in-person social options, so what would be needed to raise a healthy & functioning generation through this time?
This is not my wheelhouse! Elementary and early childhood educators, what is necessary, safe, and reasonable for kids?