Numerous school districts across the country have indicated they are planning for partial re-openings this fall. Most plan on dividing students into groups and having only some attend in person any given day.
This nonsensical proposal is neither fair to teachers nor good for students and will only further complicate an already untenable situation. Humans of all ages need routine. Children, however, thrive on it. At a time America’s kids have had their worlds turned upside down by something no one anticipated, and have already lost a ton of educational ground, it’s absurd to subject them to additional change and disruption likely to lead to them slipping even further behind in their studies.
Moreover, under such plans, teachers — who, given their age range, are at greater risk from the virus than their students are — will be required to deliver instruction in multiple formats while still being exposed to all of their students, just not at the same time. What, pray tell, is the point?
America’s children need to get back to learning, and our schools need to get back to teaching. The question is, how?
A good start would be to step back and devise a truly crisis-oriented approach that keeps children at the center. I am a former teacher. In addition, my husband and I homeschooled our children for almost 20 years, and during that time there were more than a few stretches when chaos seemed to reign.
During those times — whether the birth of a new baby, job change, move, illness, or a death in the family — life necessarily took priority over schooling. Even so, dealing with such events allowed us, as a family, to focus on what truly matters. Those times taught how to navigate life’s more difficult periods.
Similarly, it’s possible to turn the current situation into an opportunity for both schools and parents to reconsider the best way to serve the educational needs of students and children. As they embark on this task, they should consider the experience of homeschoolers, who are pros at learning amid chaos.
1. Toss the Plan
First, it’s sometimes necessary to toss out everything you think you know. Right now, schools need to give up some control, swallow their pride, and strongly encourage parents who can keep their kids home to do so. This should be a hard breakup, with no strings attached. To maintain any sort of connection or responsibility would defeat the purpose, which should be to lessen the demands on the education system.
Since districts typically get taxpayer funding based on how many students they see, I know this goes against the intuitions of every school bureaucrat. It also goes against the mindset, propagated by education departments and unions, that only those who have been formally trained in educational theory know how to teach.
Homeschoolers know better. Teachers should welcome any move to lessen the number of students they need to serve. Doing so will enable them to better assist those who truly need it because they have no other options.
2. If You Can, Ditch the Paperwork
Second, eliminate the red tape. Throw out the scope-and-sequence lists and lesson plans, cancel the planning and visioning meetings, and get rid of annual performance reviews or anything else that feeds the bureaucratic monster and takes time away from actual instruction.
Brick-and-mortar teachers will have their hands full enough this year trying to figure out how to keep their stressed-out, distracted pupils adequately distanced, masked, and engaged. Districts and parents need to take the rest of it off teachers’s plates and trust them to know what to do.
3. Enter Emergency Mode
Third, it’s time to practice some situational triage — a technique homeschoolers know well. When your home is your classroom, there’s simply no avoiding it. When the dog is throwing up, the baby is screaming, or the toilet is overflowing, the grammar lesson stops.
The same principle should apply to schools receiving students back to campus this fall. The priority should be to create an environment conducive to learning by gently reintroducing students to the school routine while watching for any signs of mental or emotional distress due to the shutdown.
4. Get Back to Basics
Fourth, it’s time to simplify. Our current educational system is highly infatuated with novelty, continually looking for the next revolutionary teaching strategy. But if there were ever a time to get back to the basics, that time is now.
Truly, given how much regression has occurred in the last six months, the basics will need heightened attention for a while. Teachers will do well to focus on the good old “Three Rs” of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic for the foreseeable future. If students have those three skills well in hand, they have what they need to master any other subject.
As a homeschool parent, when a more structured approach was impossible I still kept my children reading, both on their own and in our family read-aloud time; writing, even if it only consisted of copy work and journaling; and doing math lessons, even if those lessons were reviewing skills they already had.
5. Put People Before the Process
Fifth, put children first. I can’t emphasize this enough. It was one of the main reasons we decided to homeschool. The factory-based model of public schooling focuses on moving the greatest number of students through the system in the “most efficient” way. But it leans heavily on the demands of the unionized staff.
A non-factory approach, exemplified by homeschooling, has greater freedom to address the unique needs and situations of individuals. It allows the option to slow down when necessary, speed up when possible, set aside the lesson when warranted, and care for people that need it.
While I’m not holding out a lot of hope for this, if our public schools can set aside bureaucratic imperatives in the interest of serving children, they can emerge from this ordeal having undergone some genuine learning of their own.
Schools need to reopen this fall, and they need to reopen fully, particularly for those families who don’t have the resources to manage the demands of online learning and staggered attendance schedules. Parents who can do so should remove their children from the system, lightening the burden on the system so it can focus more energy and attention on those who truly need it while maintaining as many precautions as are realistic for preventing the spread of the virus. There is no shortage of options for parents who are willing to look for them.
Meanwhile, schools need to give intense, full-time attention to children whose educational needs have been neglected far too long. Unfortunately, what we are seeing right now instead is a half-hearted, piecemeal approach that is doomed to fail. America’s children deserve better.