Moving Forward: Thoughts on a New School Year

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[Note: the thoughts and ideas in this blog post are my own and are not intended — in any way — to be representative of my employer.]

As an educator, the past few months have been challenging, but certainly manageable. The adjustment to distance learning has not been easy — I miss being around the kids and (among other things) I worry about equitable access to technology and adequate support. There is little doubt that the school closures (much like the virus) have had a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable in our society. We went into the closure with an emphasis on empathy and have worked to ensure that students are not penalized for the current circumstances. However, as the coronavirus pandemic moves from an acute to a chronic crisis, it has become evident that our approach to education is going to require significant changes to keep people safe while meeting the learning needs of students.

Over the past few days, there has been a lot of information and discussion floating around the internet (some of it inaccurate) about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for re-opening schools. For information that is “straight from the horse’s mouth,” please reference these resources:

Considerations for Schools

Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Decision Tree – pdf)

Interim Guidance for Schools and Daycamps (from CDC Activities and Initiatives Supporting the COVID-19 Response and the President’s Plan for Opening Up America Again, May 2020 – pdf)

A few things to keep in mind about the CDC materials. First, they are presented as guidelines, not directives. Second, as you read through them you will notice a great deal of “soft” language — when feasible, if possible, etc. As with any activity right now, there is an inherent level of risk associated with a return to school. The CDC makes that evident here:

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From Considerations for Schools (CDC) – updated May 19, 2020

The reason these guidelines have caused such a great deal of anxiety among educators is that most of us recognize that given current resources, meeting the requirements for opening safely would, at the very least, be extremely challenging. So much so, that even Gerry Brooks (who can normally find humor in anything), posted this video expressing frustration with the CDC. To some extent I believe this is misdirected — the CDC is simply providing guidance/suggestions from a health perspective — but Mr. Brooks does accurately suggest that the expectation of many parents, educators, and community members will be that when schools open, they will be following these guidelines.

As we begin to examine the possibilities for the 2020-21 school year, here are a few things I believe are critical for all stakeholders to keep in mind.

  1. Opening schools at this time — given current circumstances — involves inherent risk (see above). The amount of risk could (and almost certainly will) change, for better or worse, between now and the beginning of the new school year. Everyone needs to understand this.
  2. Will schools follow (or will they have the resources to follow) the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? If the answer to that question is “no” or “some” all stakeholders need be made aware of exactly what safety measures will be utilized. Certainly, there are many suggestions in the CDC documentation that we currently have the ability to implement. Others will be extremely challenging. Everyone must be clear about the risks and potential safety measures in order to make informed decisions.
  3. Student, staff, and community safety must be the primary concern in the decision-making process. This includes physical health, as well as mental health. I anticipate for many (kids and adults) there will be a high level of anxiety about returning to the classroom. There are certainly other factors that influence school reopening (including the economy, providing a place for kids to be while parents are working, etc.), but safety must come first.
  4. We cannot discount, or forget the adults who are responsible for teaching and day-to-day school operations. Some will have underlying health conditions, be in a high-risk age category, or be caring for others who are at-risk. While students are certainly the first priority in schools, we also have an obligation to keep our teachers and staff members safe and healthy.
  5. If schools utilize a “modified” schedule that includes online/distance learning we must ensure that all students have equitable access to quality educational services. This is not as easy as giving every student a laptop and wifi access (although that would be a necessary start). Students — especially those with learning gaps and special needs — will require additional support tailored to their specific needs. I have a few ideas on how this could be accomplished (i.e. a robust tutoring program), but I will save that for another post.
  6. Teachers need time to plan and prepare. Larry Ferlazzo recently posted a few thoughts on the potential mental/physical toll that teaching face-to-face in addition to assuming responsibility for online learning might have on educators. This is something that must be considered.  Due to financial constraints and other factors, we have never been very good at allowing adequate collaboration and planning time for teachers, but this will need to change. It is unreasonable to ask teachers to do their “normal” job and teach online without additional planning time (and perhaps compensation). To do so, would endanger morale and negatively impact the quality of instruction. Again, I have a few suggestions (shorter school days, four day weeks, etc.) that I will expand upon in another post.
  7. Returning to school cannot be the sole responsibility of educators. If we “politicize” the return to school (we have already traveled a considerable distance down that road), we are all in trouble. We will need the support of state and local leaders, local businesses, non-profits, parents, and our community. Districts and schools cannot do this on their own. This is truly going to take a village.  I have a few thoughts about utilizing community partners/resources…yes, for another post.

This is my “short” list — I have to stop somewhere. Obviously, there are some very difficult decisions to be made in the near future. This is not an “either, or” situation, we do not have to sacrifice safety for student learning, or vice versa. However, it should be evident to all that making this work will require a great deal of planning, additional investments of time and resources, and a community willing to put differences aside and work together for the best interest of our children.

Please comment, or connect with me on TwitterI would love to be a part of optimistic and creative discussions about how school leaders can identify and tackle the challenges of a new and dramatically different school year.

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