When public schools closed in March because of the pandemic, a different U.S. President would have said to the education community, “Children, their parents, teachers, and the economy will need schools to open in the fall, so please tell me how the Federal Government can help.” Unfortunately, conflict is Donald Trump’s modus operandi, and so, after ignoring the issue for months, he has recently politicized the issue. Basically, it’s “Open or else!”
Back in March, a competent U.S. Secretary of Education would have focused on the challenges ahead. Instead, Betsy DeVos concentrated on vouchers and private religious schools, intent on funneling Covid-19 relief funds in their direction.
Trump, his Education Secretary, Vice President Mike Pence, and others in the Administration are now trying to strong arm public schools into opening their doors completely. No ‘hybrid’ staggered schedules, and no remote learning! Their bluster, their attacks on teachers and their unions, and their threats to cut federal funding are complicating the difficult problem of providing education for nearly 51 million children.
Supporters of public education would be wise to avoid a war of words with President Trump. Instead, educators must focus on providing safe and challenging learning opportunities–in schools or in other physical spaces. This desirable and essential goal can be achieved by forming alliances with other public agencies, businesses, non-profits, and politicians. In other words, it will take a village to open schools.
Two priorities cannot be compromised or negotiated: 1) Keep everyone safe, with frequent testing, social distancing, and adequate PPE; and 2) Create genuine learning opportunities, rather than simply replicating semesters, work sheets, 50-minute periods, and everything else that schools routinely do. Quite literally, everything else should be on the table, subject to change.
Serious ‘out of the box’ thinking begins with re-examining how schools traditionally use both time and space.
Start with space. No public school was designed for social distancing, and very few public schools have enough extra room–like the gym–to create safe spaces, even with the reduced ‘3 foot spacing’ recommended by the nation’s pediatricians. That’s why many school districts (including New York City) have announced plans for a ‘hybrid’ approach in which all students are at home at least part of the time, while other districts (including Los Angeles and San Diego) have announced that all instruction will be remote for the first half of the school year.
But there’s an important alternative: find new spaces and convert them for instruction. Spaces that are empty at least part of the day are everywhere: Houses of worship, meeting rooms at the local Y or Boys & Girls Club, theaters, and–because of the recession–vacant storefronts and offices. It will take some political leadership, but the 3rd Grade could meet at the Y, the 5th Grade at the Methodist Church, the 9th Grade at what used to be a shoe store, and so on.
Jamaal Bowman, a New York City Democrat who is virtually certain to be elected to Congress in the fall, likes this idea. He told Politico that he “would use alternative learning spaces to maximize the amount of face-to-face learning children have with a teacher and would demand substantial investments from our federal government so our school district can hire more teachers. I would also encourage cities to repurpose unused spaces like theaters, office spaces, and design spaces to classrooms.”
Superintendents I have communicated with raised the issue of liability in any new spaces, clearly a problem but not an insoluble one; it should be addressed in federal legislation now being discussed in Congress.
By dramatically expanding the spaces available for instruction, social distancing becomes possible and schools are now safe places to be. What’s more, everyone goes to school at the same time: no split days with noon starts, and so forth.
Now consider time.
Right now schools divide the year into semesters and (except in the early grades) the day into subject periods. Because these traditional (and convenient) concepts are not based on how children learn, educators should be prepared to abandon them.
For example, those 9th Graders who are meeting daily at the old shoe store can spend a month doing a deep dive into American history, one of their required courses. Because no one could tolerate an entire day–let alone a month–of reading chapters, lectures, discussion, and regurgitation, teachers and students must imagine new ways to study our nation’s past.
Project-based learning should become the pedagogy of choice. Teams of students might explore their city’s history or dig into the back stories of the men who signed The Declaration of Independence, for example. They could interview (via Zoom) local veterans of recent wars and use those memories to help write the story of the conflict. What monuments can be found in the city or town, and what is their history? Or pick a prominent building in the town or city and dig into its history: who built it, and why? Hundreds of interesting questions and projects, none of them cookie-cutter.
Other sections of the ninth grade might convene at a different store front or a house of worship for their own deep dive. Ideally at some point all the ninth graders will go back to their high school, where they would dig deeply into another subject but also have the chance to see each other.
Monthly deep dives into history, biology, English literature, and other subjects are a pathway to genuine expertise and understanding; what’s more, this approach has the strong support of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Immersion will also be the death knell of skimming the surface of subjects, surely an educational outcome we can get behind.
This Spring’s 3-month shutdown shone a harsh light on glaring inequities. Nationwide, about 14% of homes with school-age children do not have internet access, and in some school systems as many as 40 percent of students reportedly did not have computers or internet access. But rather than hand-wringing, this is another opportunity for thinking differently. Why not do as Third World countries do? Forget computers and rely instead on low-cost cell phones, which will provide internet access and can be set up without long distance calling privileges. What’s more, the money school districts are not spending on standardized ‘bubble’ tests (which have been cancelled) could help pay for the phones, and many long-distance providers have already expressed their willingness to be part of the solution.
Communities also have valuable resources they can tap into: Well-educated retirees, younger adults who have lost their jobs, and college students whose campuses have closed. After thorough vetting, some can be hired as teacher aides, and perhaps arrangements can be made so the college students receive credit toward their degree.
These are bold moves, but school districts that have already experienced the inadequacies of ‘remote learning’ might now be receptive to new ideas and approaches.
And what about teachers? Are they willing and able to retool themselves as professionals? After all, month-long blocks and project-based learning will be as new to most teachers as they are to students? That’s a fair question, and perhaps some will not be able to meet the test, at least initially. But many teachers will prosper in situations that demand the very best of them. Moreover, most students will learn to enjoy having more control over their own learning.
When public schools closed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Federal Government responded with funding to hire school nurses. Because only 60% of today’s schools have full-time nurses and 25% have no nurse at all, Congress should do that. But it should also provide emergency funding to rent supplemental space, pay for Covid-19 testing and PPE, buy liability insurance, and pay teacher aides.
Democrats like Senator Tim Kaine (D, VA) are pushing for passage of the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act. “This legislation provides $430 billion to assist child care facilities, K-12 school districts and institutions of higher education with reopening costs,” Senator Kaine told Politico. However, because Secretary DeVos diverted millions of dollars in CARES funds that were intended for public schools to private institutions, Congress must be very specific in its language to prevent her from raiding these funds.
Mark Cuban, the billionaire tech entrepreneur who owns an NBA team, says the money must also go into communities. He told Politico, “The greatest issue is for working parents: How do they keep their jobs and care for their kids at home? One way to attempt to address this is by having trusted groups of families that can support multiple kids at one home. A better solution would be to offer Caretaker Basic Income that pays a parent $2,000 to $2,500 per month, depending on their cost of living, to stay at home during the period kids are required to take at-home and online classes.”
As to whether schools should open in late August or early September, some political leaders are speaking up. Beto O’Rourke, the former presidential contender who has three school-age children, sets three conditions for opening: “I’d set in-person education to start as soon as community transmission is under control, we have highly accessible universal Covid testing and the most vigorous contact tracing program possible.
While reopening most public schools is both possible and desirable, it won’t happen unless we think outside the box. The state reopening plans I am familiar with focus on three options: full open, partial open, and remote learning, with no discussion of looking for new spaces or how schools use time. I don’t think that’s sufficient. Reopening schools–once it’s safe– will require imaginative, courageous state and local leadership.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take the support of the village to open its public schools.