In these uncertain times, one thing is for sure: school this fall is going to look quite different from what we are used to. Teachers and administrators may have to reimagine our whole concept of what school is. Luckily, we have the whole summer to get ready. Rather than just tweak a few lesson plans, as we might normally do, in the summer of 2020 we need to train ourselves to do our jobs in ways that are new and might even seem strange. That means doing some research, taking professional development courses online, and revising our whole curriculum to adapt it to these new modalities.
It would help if we knew what the hell we’re actually going to do.
Some school districts across the country have already announced that, for the first semester at least, their classes will be fully remote. Other regions—including my home state of New York—are waiting on their announcement, so they can make a decision based on the latest data. Governor Cuomo has asked all 700 school districts in New York to submit not one plan for the fall, but three: a plan for fully remote learning, a plan to reopen their facilities in accordance with CDC guidelines, and a “hybrid” plan that includes both modalities. The school districts’ plans must be turned in by July 31st, and a decision will be reached soon thereafter.
While I understand the reasoning behind it—how can you make a decision without the latest data?—this leaves teachers unable to really prepare for whatever is happening in the fall.
This past spring, we quickly learned the basics of remote teaching. We posted assignments on Google Classroom and held class meetings on Zoom. However, we didn’t really have time to rethink the curriculum, and build all-new lesson plans that would exploit the advantages (and anticipate the disadvantages) of the new format. If we’re going to resume online learning in the fall, this time we have a chance to get it right. How do you quiz a student who has access to the whole Internet and can effortlessly Google the answer? How do you stop a kid from being distracted by a video game or a cell phone when you’re not there to take the device out of the kid’s hand?
There are answers, to these questions and more—online resources, interactive tools and innovative teaching techniques, that can make remote education an authentic and engaging learning experience. I could spend the whole summer taking workshops and becoming a bona fide expert. That’s what I should be doing—if that’s even what is happening.
Meanwhile, there’s a big push nationwide to reopen the buildings in September, which (per CDC guidelines) would mean a host of new safety protocols. Socially distanced classrooms, with as few as half a dozen kids, spread out across the room. (In some ways, there’s even less “togetherness” this way than on the computer: Zoom, at least, has breakout rooms that would allow the students to work in groups or pairs.)
If this is how we’re going to do it, we’ll make it work—but, again, it will require training. You’d need at least a week of in-service days just to learn the new protocols. What do we do if a student forgets their mask, or breaks a strap, or wears the mask incorrectly, or refuses to wear one? What if a kid has a nosebleed? Or needs help tying his shoe? Who steps in? How can we do fire drills—or the “shelter-in” drills that are now a normal part of life—if we can’t cluster the kids together in tight groups? You can’t really socially distance while you’re huddling in the corner, pretending to flee from an active shooter.
Let’s take the best case scenario, where these questions are answerable. There are protocols for everything, and we just have to learn them—but when? The success of these safety procedures depends on us being ready on Day One. The training should begin now. Like, today. But we can’t do it today because we don’t know what we’re doing.
Still others are suggesting that, to the extent that it’s possible and practical, we should hold classes outdoors. The virus is much more communicable within an enclosed space, so if you need to be with a group of people, outside is the best place to be. And if we’re really reimagining the concept of school, why not? Being outside means contending with a world (literally) of distractions, but it also means freedom from the sometimes drab and stifling atmosphere of the classroom. What could be a better setting for science class than the natural world you are actually studying? What better inspiration for young creative writers than the sights and sounds and smells of the school’s natural environment?
If all that sounds a little too hippie-dippy for your taste, think of it this way: you can’t fit all the students in the building at once, not with social distancing. So if you’re going to accommodate the whole school population, you need to get creative. You may need to use every square inch of your school’s campus—even the ballfield or the play yard.
In principle, I’m all for it. But, again, along with the inspired concept comes the need for more preparation, more training. Faster than I can type my description of outdoor classes, my head fills with questions about how it would work, and what to do when X, Y, and Z happens (and you just know X, Y, and Z are going to happen). When do these questions get answered? When do we go over the plan? Just days before the plan is launched?
With all of these possibilities, what really seems inevitable is that it won’t be just one of these things. Some facilities will open, and some won’t—but the facilities that are open won’t be able to accommodate all students, all day, every day. Maybe some students will be in the building on Mondays and Tuesdays, some on Thursdays and Fridays, and on Wednesdays we disinfect. Students who are especially vulnerable (due to immunodeficiency, heart conditions, kidney disease, asthma, etc., etc.)—or who live with a family member who is—won’t be able to come in at all.
So every class will be taught half in-person, and half online, but also fully online for those who need to stay home? And, meanwhile, the teachers who belong to vulnerable populations (or live with a family member who does) will be doing it all remotely, while other teachers are working at the facility? The mind boggles at how complex and multifaceted the plan will have to be.
For now, we wait. We wait for state and local authorities, and the schools, to make wise decisions that keep everyone safe while keeping everyone’s kid educated. And we prepare for every possible scenario, despite knowing that, with September right around the corner, there is no way we can really be prepared.