What if this pandemic is not a disaster for students but an opportunity to learn more in a better (and healthier) way?
by Roger Pinholster and Kimberly Damron
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed our lives in unanticipated ways. We have had to learn to value workers who are often taken for granted, change the way we relate to others, and rely on technology to function and maintain connection in our lives more than ever.
As part of this change, we have also had to quickly adapt to a new way of educating our children and develop a new appreciation for teachers and the vital role they play in learning. This fall the country will almost certainly open up and expect students to return to school. At the same time, parents, schools, and communities can anticipate:
New Ways to Teach, Learn, and Schedule Schools
We need to see this not as a disaster for students, but as an opportunity for students to learn more in a better way. This will be a chance to change our approach to teaching and learning as well as how school is scheduled. Schools are already planning BUT -- WHAT IF...
Students with disabilities requiring more structure might come to brick and mortar schools four days a week and stay home on Fridays to learn online since their class sizes leave room for distancing now, especially if we have some empty regular classrooms.
Imagine the attention each student could get, the individual feedback on problems/labs, the chance to safely ask questions, the higher order discussions you could have, and the amazing learning that could happen.
Teachers might be assigned a slightly larger number of students and class sizes but close to the same, maybe 10 percent more to save teacher units for a different team member. Except, instead of 22-28 students seated in the class at one time, the teachers could work with 11 to 14 students live and in person (instruction wouldn't change until you got below 15 according to research).
Imagine the attention each student could get, the individual feedback on problems/labs, the chance to safely ask questions, the higher-order discussions you could have, and the amazing learning that could happen.
A Co-Teaching Model
The academic teachers’ total class sizes might be a little larger because some current teachers would need to evolve into a different way of teaching and learning because they are at risk. Maybe 10-15 percent of current classroom teachers and staff might be too vulnerable to teach students live in the classroom until there is a vaccine in a couple of years. Possibilities could be that they are over 60 years living, are youthful but have underlying health issues, have already worked as teachers in the virtual arena, etc.
These teachers, non-classroom teachers, and volunteer retired teachers would become co-teachers. They would share students with the teachers that are providing direct instruction in the classroom.
Schools might need to exchange teachers for a year to match needed certifications. They could be trained this summer to teach and manage the virtual and online learning tools for their assigned grades and or subjects. An advantage would be that some will have already been doing this work for a semester and will have familiarity with it. They might work from home four days per week and come to school on Friday for a half day to coordinate at a safe distance with their teams and partner teachers--no faculty meetings allowed (smile).
If more frequent coordination is needed, meetings could be done virtually from home (as is being done now for so many teams). On-line teachers might also teach from school in special areas of safety that can be established at the actual school locations.
Combined Classroom and Distance Learning
Three days a week students would be at home or at very small community centers involved in distance learning. School technology folks would be needed to support the co-teachers and their teams to manage this learning and keep students on track.
One co-teacher might manage 100 elementary students or 160 secondary students and then coordinate with four classroom teachers in a grade or secondary subject. On the Friday assessment day, they would determine student progress and adjust the student’s individual curriculum with the classroom teacher. Together they would produce a two-week progress report for students, parents, other teachers of the student, and administrators. Students could even be involved in this process virtually as appropriate.
A Trauma-Informed Approach to Discipline
This might be a great time to transition to trauma informed interventions. With 12-14 in a class and no cafeteria lunches, it may be possible to have fewer Assistant Principals and Deans actually at school…and even school resource officers. Let those specially trained staff be focused on building resilience in target communities they share and problem solving with kids and families.
School counselors would not want to pull students during the two in-school days so they might team with social workers, psychologists and contracted mental health folks to play an integral part of this trauma-informed team and provide interventions for students and parents out in the community.
These workers would need extra protection--flu shots, virus testing--in order to keep safe and could use telehealth services where appropriate and able. Hot lines and call centers could also be used as needed.
Using Space, Time, and Staff More Efficiently
Cafeterias and auditoriums might hold 40-75 or so students for their distance/virtual learning days who can’t initially find computers, have just moved here, or have daycare issues. Current paraprofessionals might support these students. Students could go to the media center or the school-based labs we have set up now in schools.
Schools might not need as many bus drivers with fewer routes, and fewer school cafeteria workers would be needed as well. As is being done during the pandemic, school systems might employ those qualified workers to support lunch for disadvantaged students at home and in the small community centers.
The community feeding program and the regular driving and feeding assignments could be a team effort, rotated among the staff team. Grub hub for kids! Students could also take breakfast items home in their backpacks the days they come to school.
On Fridays staff could assess, plan together, and clean. No students at school, but they are available on-line to participate in the assessments as appropriate. Staff might deep clean and disinfect without students there.
Students would all be home on Friday. They could take online assessments, do project assessments at home, write essays/stories/articles requiring higher levels of thinking, watch a video together and analyze in a chatroom, do labs--real and virtual.
On Fridays, teachers and co-teachers could work till midday at school with no students and have long weekends. They might work the same hours per week as in past years because the other four days would be extended about 50 minutes.
Personal, Flexible Schedules--and More Sleep!
In all, you would be able to use the same staff and resources. It could be a scheduling nightmare, as the saying goes, for secondary schools. Teachers might teach six periods and have one period plan for the four days per week. This would mean academic-subject-area teachers would teach more sections, which would be needed in order to free up more co-teachers.
A possible solution might be for students to have study halls in media centers and labs in order to make the schedule work so teachers could have a planning period each day. Total planning time might increase slightly with the Friday assessment day. These issues could be addressed by each school to develop the best way to support the teachers in this process.
The community feeding program and the regular driving and feeding assignments could be a team effort, rotated among the staff team. Grub hub for kids!
For students these changes would be a blessing in some ways. They could get adequate sleep a few more days a week. Secondary students would only be committed to a certain school time schedule of 18 hours per week for the two days they are at school versus the 40 hours per week they have to commit to now, which includes bus rides, lunch shifts, pass time, etc.
Most of the online/virtual learning could be done on their schedule except for certain lessons. For secondary students this would leave them a way to build a more relaxed and flexible personal schedule that would allow them to safely:
Childcare and Other Challenges
Lots of roadblocks and challenges will be associated with this approach. Like...what to do with the extra furniture...maybe send some home?
Seriously, safe daycare will be one of the main issues to be solved. Parents are currently providing supervision and coaching now because they are sheltered with their kids. When they go back to work who will supervise and coach? Secondary students may drop out to take care of their siblings.
Students may experience stress-related mental health problems that go unnoticed. Childcare has to be a priority before this approach can be considered.
Staffed community centers and places of worship in at-risk neighborhoods will become vitally important to support kids and families where there are limited resources and support. A solution will need to be developed through a collaborative effort between schools, families and each unique community and not left up to the parents to struggle alone in finding child care.
Students can get adequate sleep a few more days a week. Secondary students will only be committed to a certain school time schedule of 18 hours per week for the two days they are at school versus the 40 hours per week they have to commit to now, which includes bus rides, lunch shifts, pass time, etc.
Another consideration might be to develop a year-round school schedule that does not leave a huge gap over the summer for families, requiring readjustments once routines have been established. This would also allow for a less pressured school year and for numerous week-long breaks and recovery for kids, parents, and teachers.
Additionally, with fewer pressures to complete work before the summer break, more flexibility can be incorporated in adjusting the schedule to unexpected occurrences such as natural disasters, epidemics, etc.
Bridging the Digital Divide
The community has to work together to bridge the digital divide. Finding computers and providing internet access to perhaps a third of their students who have none will take not only the school system but other government entities, businesses, foundations, and other community organizations to fund and deploy what is needed.
Overall health, well-being and mental health for everyone will be prioritized with a more relaxed schedule.
School systems should have a resource in their Title I funds that come each year from the Federal Government. Typically, a large percentage of these funds are used to hire extra teachers to reduce class size for disadvantaged students.
With the new class size at 14 these funds can be redirected to provide students with laptops and Wi-Fi. For example, the Leon County Florida School District has implemented the “Smart Bus Initiative,” which strives to “bridge the digital divide” by providing Wi-Fi to neighborhoods that may not have easy access to connectivity.
Putting Health and Safety First
Everyone--students, teachers, staff, volunteers, etc.--would need their temperature taken and informal checks/interviews before class starts. All school personnel/volunteers should have COVID-19 testing once per month and all students once a semester. Appropriate social distancing measures should be in place, and everyone will need to have PPE, but that can be stylish (smile).
Overall health, well-being and mental health for everyone will be prioritized with a more relaxed schedule.
Implementing this approach to teaching and learning will be a challenge for sure, but it might also be a better way to teach and learn within the constraints schools and communities will face in the fall and future. We may only have to adjust for a year or until a viable vaccine is in place, but developing a sustainable way of teaching and learning through whatever we may face together is worth exploring.
Wanted: More Creative Solutions
Change is difficult. Even so, it has become clear that we are capable of adapting when necessary. Crises produce opportunities and we have been given a golden opportunity to evolve in the way we approach learning.
Please send us your creative solutions for the fall. We will compile and distribute them on various platforms and organizations to keep the discussion going.
Roger Pinholster has worked in schools for 40 years as a teacher, counselor, principal, district administrator, and consultant. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Kimberly Damron has worked as a Licensed Mental Health Therapist for 13 years focusing her practice on children and family issues and is a child/family/community advocate and parent of a 16-year-old son. (Kimd143@msn.com).