It’s the question on every parent, student, and teacher’s mind: what will returning to school in the fall look like? Most likely followed by: if it’s like the “school” we had post-COVID in the spring, what are we going to do? This past spring was a baptism by fire for educators and families alike, and left many worried about the quality of remote education that their children received as well as the glaring disparities in access to education that remote learning brings.
As fall semester rapidly approaches, school districts and policy leaders across the nation are scrambling to lock down a plan that will do the most good while causing the least harm. And with the numerous stakeholders, looming uncertainty surrounding the virus, and countless other factors at play, the only thing that’s clear is that there is no clear choice.
Those states and districts that have announced their plans for reopening (or not) tend to fall into one of three groups:
Fully Reopening (some less-affected states like Idaho and parts of Illinois have announced). School districts that plan to fully reopen in the fall are following many safety precedents set by other countries that have successfully (thus far) returned to the classroom.
What it will look like:
Social distancing when possible: staggered drop-off times and locations for students, reduced class sizes and/or 6 feet spacing requirements in classrooms, hallway traffic set to one-way to reduce passing, eating in classrooms or outside if possible
Increased sanitization efforts, like frequent hand washing and disinfection of commonly touched surfaces
Added requirements for symptom monitoring such as daily temperature checks before entering the school building and additional staff to handle students or staff who have possible COVID symptoms
*It seems that all districts so far who have chosen to reopen will be offering parents the option to remain fully remote and enroll in online classes for their student if they choose.
Fully Remote (districts in states with major increases in cases such as Los Angeles and San Diego Unified) School districts that have already made the announcement that they will not be returning to the classroom in the fall cite concerns for the safety of students and school staff as well as parents and family members that could also become infected. “There’s a public health
imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish,” said Austin Beutner, the Los Angeles school district’s superintendent.
What it will look like:
All instruction will be online-only, without any in-person component
Likely similar to the structure of remote learning from spring, but this time with more advanced notice and planning/preparation time
Hybrid Model (New York and other states have announced that they will try a combination of options 1 & 2) A hybrid model would blend remote and in-person learning, using rotating schedules to group students for on-site learning several days a week, while other days would be spent at home doing online or remote work.
What it will look like:
This combo-solution seems like a “happy medium” between fully remote or fully in person: students attend some on-site instruction in small groups that rotate days throughout the week, and spend the other days doing their learning from home. The goal is to reduce the amount of exposure at school while still ensuring that some learning is happening in a conventional classroom.
However, this option erases the strongest pulling factor from both options 1 and 2: students are no longer safe from exposure at school (purpose of fully remote learning) but are still facing huge inequities with access to remote learning several days a week and burdening families with finding childcare/playing a huge role in remote learning (purpose of fully in person).
Most school districts in Colorado have announced plans to begin the school year remotely and reexamine this as they monitor COVID cases and other considerations.
Whether your district has announced their plans for the fall or not, the weight of uncertainty and constant possibility of change is felt by all.
Remote Learning: How Round Two Can Be Better
Regardless of the option that your school district has announced at the moment or plans to use, it is not a wild assumption to say that all schools will ultimately be doing remote learning at least part of the year. Now that we had the trial run in the spring, the idea of distance learning again may leave many parents feeling overwhelmed and concerned about the quality of their students’ learning. But from the first round of learning from a distance, school districts and families alike now have a better understanding of what to expect - and what must change.
The number one thing that every family can and should expect from their school is equal access to learning. If schools plan on doing any online component to their instruction or student work, they need to ensure that every student has an internet enabled device and has high speed internet access at their home or place of residence.
Furthermore, if parents are expected to be supporting their children in online learning (and for all children in elementary school - they are) schools should provide training and support on all devices and learning platforms that the teachers intend to use prior to the beginning of the school year.
Speaking of platforms - teachers and schools need to create systems for consistent communication with all parents and families. In some cases, more traditional forms like school-wide phone announcements or paper mail may be used. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are also key ways to push important information to large audiences. But teachers and parents should have weekly if not daily communication in a way that parents are comfortable with; this may look like a phone call, a text, or a messaging platform like Class Dojo or Remind. Teachers are also responsible for accommodating language barriers - many messaging apps offer easy translation. While schools should support teachers in this effort, parents should also feel empowered to advocate for themselves and their children if this expectation is not being met.
Finally, beyond all the systems and district-wide improvements that need to be made, there are some steps parents can take at home to make remote learning more sustainable for themselves and their children.
Create routines. It is important for everyone during this time to feel as secure as possible in their daily lives, and sticking to a routine is key. Regardless of whether a morning Zoom meeting or start time is required by your student’s teacher, children should wake up at the same time each morning and get ready for “school” - changing out of pajamas, eating breakfast, making their bed (so they won’t get back in!) In the classroom, I found it helpful for my younger students to write a list of simple steps we did when we began school each morning - consider posting something similar in your home so students know what to expect each day and can associate the steps with the beginning of “work time”.
Have a designated work space. Another huge takeaway from spring is that the home learning environment is essential for how productive students are able to be. There are some factors that we don’t have control over - how many people are sharing a living space, at-home learning resources, etc. But there are steps parents can take to make any space more conducive to learning:
Minimize distractions - turn off the TV, put phones or games out of sight, clear away clutter. Try to replicate the expectations of a normal classroom environment when possible - if you can’t play on your phone during class at school, you shouldn’t be able to do it at home.
Avoid working in the bed/bedroom or couch if possible - our bodies associate location with the activities we do most frequently there. If I climb into bed to do some reading, my body instinctively starts getting sleepy and I feel lazy or may even take a nap without intending to. If I plop on the couch to do my work, my body thinks I am taking a break or finishing off my day with vegging in front of the TV and struggles to focus. Sitting at the same desk or table each day to do work can encourage me to be focused and productive- this is something parents working from home can model and do with their children.
Build in breaks throughout the day. Students of any age need structured breaks and chances to move throughout the day. The younger they are, the more wiggle breaks they need. This might mean a walk around the block outside every hour and a stretch break every 15 min, as well as taking a planned break for lunch and eating/running around outside if possible. Make sure movement breaks are also zero screen time - kids need to give their eyes and minds a break too. When planned and expected, breaks will actually help students be more focused and productive during work time.
The “New Normal” for school isn’t clear yet, and may change week to week. There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all model - though in reality school has never “fit” the needs of every student and family. More than ever, students, families and educators are being asked to be adaptable and resilient in the face of uncertainty and change.
When I study a new topic with my students, we often make a chart with three questions to fill out throughout the course of study. We ask about the topic: what does it look like, what does it feel like, and what does it do. What school looks like continues to change beyond our control. What school feels like - that’s something educators and parents will work every day to improve. What does it do - that’s what school systems, educators, parents, advocacy groups and community leaders need to ensure is the same for all.