A Superintendent's Thoughts on Reopening Schools in the Fall
(This is the first post in a multipart series, but future responses to this question won't appear until the first week of June.)
Today's question is:
What will our schools like look in the fall (or What should they look like)?
As we wind down this school year, many of our thoughts are obviously going to what the next one might look like.
I've written about my thoughts at A teacher predicts what his classroom (and others) will look like in the fall.
Today, a district superintendent shares his thoughts.
A path toward reopening?
Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author, and speaker who serves as the superintendent for Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois.
The CDC released the below infographic this week on the protocols that need to be in place to reopen schools.
When I saw the graphic, I immediately sent it to my team and other peers. The first two responses I received were priceless:
"I will see you in 2029" and "This will be impossible by fall."
Now, I am not going to pretend that I have all the answers. Heck, I do not even have a quarter of the information necessary to answer the question of HOW we reopen schools by the fall. But I have all the information anybody else in my position does. And, to be honest, I have quite literally spent the better part of the past six weeks trying to figure out how we reopen schools safely. And through my thoughts, I see one path to reopening schools—which is not the one I hear being discussed most frequently.
These are the potential solutions that I see/hear/read about on a daily basis:
1) Just go back to school like we left it.
2) Begin the year in total remote/distance learning.
3) Delay the start of the school year.
4) Accelerate the start of the school year in order to accommodate for shutdowns later in the year.
5) Open following CDC/IDPH guideline:
a. Commonly resulting in plans to stagger schedules in order to social distance.
6) Create a hybrid model.
In a few sentences, I will tell you why I see most of the solutions presented as nonstarters. The CURRENT popular solution (presented as Item 5 above) will get more .... "air-time," and my proposed solution (Item 6) will, of course, get the least. ...
JUST GO BACK LIKE WE LEFT IT
In order to do this, we would have to choose to ignore CDC and Department of Public Health guidelines. I doubt that many public institutions would choose to do this out of both good sense and liability concerns. School will not be "normal" in the fall.
REMOTE / DISTANCE LEARNING
While this certainly seems like the safest option, it also does not seem to be the option that will be selected. This is not me taking a stance. My gut tells me to hunker down in my home for the next 12 months, but that is not a viable option. Society needs schools to operate, and that core functionality will force our hand into accepting a certain degree of risk and resuming school in some fashion. Moreover, the actual effectiveness or lack thereof of remote learning—which is also inherent with equity issues—will serve to help eliminate this as an all-inclusive option unless absolutely necessary due to the curve not remaining flat.
DELAY THE START OF THE YEAR
This gets into the essence of flatten the curve vs. find the cure (vaccine or effective treatment). If we wait to find a cure to go back to school, we may make a catastrophic error in judgment if a vaccine is not widely distributed in the near future. Additionally, if we wait to open schools until every school meets every guideline set forth by the CDC or DPHs, it will cause extreme delays as well.
ACCELERATE THE START
This has been thrown out as an option trying to be proactive in the "wait" for a second wave to close schools again. The thinking is that if we are able to start schools and get some days in, then we can absorb schools being closed for an extended period of time when the second wave hits without having to resort to remote learning processes. The issue is that this is a monumental shift for several communities (not to mention bargaining units), and it assumes schools would be ready to reopen given whatever guidelines have been provided at that time.
OPEN FOLLOWING CDC and DPH GUIDELINES (Staggered Days - THE TRENDY OPTION)
If we do school the way the infographic above suggests, it would be a monumental shift from what school looked like when we left. And to be clear, I am in NO WAY advocating against this. But, in order to do so, particularly with social distancing, school would be radically transformed. The solution that is being most bandied about on the interwebs is some form of staggered schedules.
To explain, this would mean half days to shrink class sizes or half of all students reporting on one day and the other half on the next. Per my personal experience, this idea has enough traction that I received FOUR sample staggered schedules on Friday alone from other superintendents considering how this would look.
There are two major things to consider to make this work that I feel people are overlooking, or I am not smart enough to see how they are addressing them. If we stagger schedules, one of these two things have to be true:
1) Teachers would have to teach all day and then serve the other portion of their students with digital support throughout the evening hours.
2) We only cover half the curriculum throughout the year.
I do not see Option 1 as fair to our staff or that it would be acceptable to our bargaining units. I also do not see Option 2 as highly acceptable, either. This is on top of the changes of serving kids lunches in the classrooms, shutting down playgrounds, and the myriad of other changes that profoundly (and negatively) impact the school experience.
Said differently, in this option, I think we increase cost and decrease effectiveness of education—on top of potentially overburdening staff.
CREATE A HYBRID OPTION
This is the only solution that I think works, and I have not heard much about it. I am sure you all will tell me why I am insane, but I see this as the only rational path forward.
We open schools with as many CDC and DPH recommendations as possible, including social distancing as possible, while maintaining the ability to serve all of our students at once. This said, it will not "check the box" of every recommendation, and local institutions will choose which ones to adhere to and which ones to not. I think schools need to be ABSURDLY transparent and share this with their faculty, staff, and community.
Then, I think people opt in or opt out. Essentially, parents and kids would have to agree to returning to school with a noted increased risk. The same goes for the teachers. In this methodology, you would provide a 'quasi-normal' school experience for some and a "remote" experience for others.
If the risk is too much for you as a teacher, you would become a remote learning teacher. If the risk is too much for you as a parent/student, your student would be a remote learning student. The opt-in nature allows for a more structured distance learning approach to school as well as potentially increasing the effectiveness of the remote learning process. Additionally, this "remote" experience would allow for sharing of services between districts to ensure the best possible service to students/parents who choose this option.
Is this option foolproof? ABSOLUTELY NOT. There are major equity issues as parents who would like to have the remote option feel it necessary to send kids back to school because of their necessity to get back to work, etc. That said, I sincerely believe that for the MAJORITY of districts in this country, this option best serves the MAJORITY of students.
This is the most difficult thought process of my administrative career. There are no perfect options; personally, I am scared to death of returning to school because there is a complete lack of the ability to control the situation. This is not simple. That said, my job is to help push dialogue forward and to lead. And I think the option presented would best serve the greatest number of students in our state/country as we move forward.
I would love to hear your critiques and thoughts as to how I need to think through this more.
Thanks to PJ for his contribution!
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