School Re-Opening Thoughts

COVID-19 School Closure/ Re-Opening Ideas June 28, 2020

It is possible to provide child care for families on the traditional school schedule and to provide staff and students with a learning environment that is reasonably safe and in which teachers can provide effective instruction. We can have both and the School Re-Opening Task Force is capable of working together to make that a reality.

We have heard loud and clear that many families want the school to supervise their children as schools have for the last century and a half. Solicited and unsolicited feedback has made it clear that the childcare function of the public school may be the thing that families want most. That is absolutely reasonable, especially in the case of families where the parents must work outside the home to provide for their children.  Most people’s long term plans when deciding to start a family include the expectation that a free public education will be provided to their children between the ages of 6 and 18 and that that service will include child care for about 6 or 7 hours on weekdays.  

Our recent forced experiment in removing that service has proven detrimental to working families’ ability to function and has had a negative impact on their economic circumstances as well as on some students’ ability to be successful in school. The school, therefore has some responsibility to supervise children during the traditional school day.

On the other hand, teachers and other school employees are (and should be) very concerned with being asked to teach students all day long while wearing masks, checking temperatures and enforcing hand-washing all while keeping their class away from other classes and keeping their own students several feet from one another.  Such a task appears difficult if not altogether impossible.  Teachers did not sign up for that kind of work and it is not fair to demand that they do it or imply that their valid concerns for their own personal safety are evidence of a lack of commitment to their work. The teachers I know (and I know a lot of teachers) want to work; their hesitation comes from a well-founded belief that their efficacy will be greatly impacted by new COVID-19 restrictions, to say nothing of their own personal safety and the safety of those they serve. 

As our local Task Force addresses school re-opening, we have to work together and find creative solutions that will let families function and that will let teachers do their jobs without sacrificing their health or losing their minds. There is no need to view these two important and reasonable values as being in competition, let alone mutually exclusive.  

But we cannot assume that the school day must look like it did in the pre-COVID era. That is actually a good thing because the traditional school day was never that great to begin with. Most people know that most students do not need six hours a day, 5 days a week to learn essential material.  On-line and independent study schools have demonstrated repeatedly that a robust curriculum can be compressed into a much shorter day or delivered remotely if necessary. For a century and a half we have trained teachers to extend learning activities in an effort to keep kids occupied regardless of whether or not the students have mastered the core material.  Some of the most engaging (and fun) activities at school have nothing to do with mastering content and vary wildly from classroom to classroom. Teacher- driven projects, plays, field trips, spontaneous nature walks, movies, assemblies and sports competitions are not required but add some joy to the school experience- for teacher and student alike.

Conversely, the stuff that makes kids dislike school varies greatly from teacher to teacher, busy work, work books and work sheets, compliance activities, lectures, copying notes, repeating already-learned material and waiting for things to happen are often provided simply because students must not leave before 3:00. 

So our task force can consider some bold alternatives. Can we think about providing a shorter day for families who do not need or want a full day? Can we provide an on-line or hybrid option? Can core learning be handled in less time and can students be supervised while doing fun non-academic activities for a part of the day supervised by someone other than a professional teacher? Can we finally stop giving spelling tests? Can we make a teacher’s work day shorter in terms of student interaction and add preparation, collaboration and remote learning time which might let them breathe?  With so many capable minds at the table, I am certain we’ll come up with something reasonable. 

This disease has made our lives harder.  There is no model to follow and there are no experts to consult about the best way to re-open a public school during a pandemic where some people don’t show symptoms and other’s end up on respirators fighting for their lives. But we have an opportunity to make things as good as we can, to evaluate what was good about the traditional school and what we could live without.  We should not waste this moment trying to re-create the old system with all of its old problems. 

Most importantly, we have to work together. Teachers should find no fault with parents who want and need to have their kids cared for during the work day so they can provide for them and keep the community running. And parents should understand that teachers might be worried about how they can do their jobs and keep themselves safe under unprecedented and bizarre conditions that compromise their ability to teach and threaten their health. The Task Force is up to the challenge but we must not start looking askance at each other and begin to think that someone else’s reasonable concern means that we won’t have our needs met. Part of what makes this school district great is our willingness to listen and to see value in others’ positions and to take on shared responsibility for the benefit of the entire community. We don’t have a road map for this one; we’ll have to draw it ourselves.  But we do have respect and affection for each other not to mention a long history of pulling together to get things done. That is not a bad place to begin. 

   John Carroll, Superintendent