At One Schoolhouse lately we’ve been busy refining our ideas of best practices for online and hybrid learning. Virtual schools have existed for many years, but not until March of 2020 were there virtual districts; not until then did distance learning for early childhood and lower elementary become an actual thing; not until then did online performing arts, physical education, and laboratory science classes have to exist at scale. Everyone is new at this. We have the advantage of more experience in some areas than traditional schools—whether public or private—but we’re feeling our way along, too.
Schools have been putting a stupefying amount of effort into plans for opening for the coming school year. The listservs are frothing with threads relating to classroom cameras, microphones, telepresence devices, plexiglass shields, temperature sensors, and other technological interventions to make on-campus or concurrent learning safe and equitably accessible for students and staff. I have to admire the countless hours and creative thinking that have gone into these elaborate plans and stratagems to foil the COVID-19 virus.
It’s hard to ignore the political and cultural backdrop against which all this has been taking place. Everyone, everywhere wants the world to be “normal” again, with cheery yellow buses on the streets, homework a nightly routine, and teams and bands all practicing and playing—enacting the rituals of school as we have known it. And we have officials at all levels exhorting us to put this kind of “Richard Scarry’s Big Book of American School” in action, or else.
It really is scary. The public health picture is grim and growing grimmer; states that tried to rush back to “normal” now top the daily new-case charts. Teachers are saying that they don’t want to get sick and die—or to sicken others—from having gone to work. Parents are thinking the same about exposing their children and thus themselves to situations that will inevitably involve sickness.
More and more, the elaborate plans are looking more like designs to please the eyes of those who just want this all to go away so things can look “okay” again (if everything really ever was as great as people think). But might the time and energy being invested making things “look like school” be better spent figuring out how to adopt and fine-tune effective approaches to another round of online learning?
In making plans to gather people in a school building or tent we are flying as blind as we were when we sent the kindergartners home in March; how many prospective “return dates” came and went as April stretched into May and June? We don’t know how to do this, and doing it anything less than perfectly will cost human lives.
Cynics use the term “security theater” to describe the screening processes in place at airports, and part of what we’re seeing from schools now appears more than a little contrived. But the TSA actually takes weapons away; a COVID-carrying child or teacher doesn’t even know they’re armed.
Increasingly it looks as though schools will need to start 2020–21 in distance mode. Teachers must prepare and schools have systems in place to make “virtual school” look and feel as much like face-to-face as possible—without putting lives at risk. It’s time to dial down the delusional “best optics” and focus instead on best practices.
In our interactions with thousands of school leaders and teachers this spring and summer, we at One Schoolhouse have learned a lot about what works when “school” moves online at scale. Every school did, even if these lessons were sometimes learned the hard way and in converse—as in, Okay, THAT didn’t work, so we won’t do it again. We need more focused analysis on the experiences of the spring, not more magical thinking about the coming year.
Instead of promulgating imaginings of a fall that will all be fine, fine, fine, we need to learn from what worked in Spring 2020’s “worst-case scenario” and explore tools and ideas for doing things even better. Politicians and exhausted families may be visualizing campuses with kiddos cheerfully social distancing (with perhaps a few stragglers at home) as happy teachers hold forth in snug little classrooms, but as educators we must accept and admit that an all-online opening scenario may not be just the safest option but could be, if we work at it, a truly great option educationally.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)