What Should Schools Do in the Fall?

What should schools do in the fall? Three years ago, I decided to run for office, the smallest of local offices, library board. I almost ran for school board instead, and, not knowing much about either, mostly picked library board because an elected official I talked to told me that the school board meetings sometimes ran past midnight, and I’d have a lot more parents yelling at me.

This is not the best way to make that kind of decision, in retrospect, but as I told Kevin last night, if I’d run for school board and been elected, I would have spent the last few months drowning in trying to solve the fall school problem. And I’m not sure I’d be any closer to a solution than I am right now, but even if it’s not my job, I can’t help thinking about it.

School-during-pandemic is a huge problem in America, and I honestly don’t even know what to advocate for at this point, despite having read a fair bit about it. It’s a problem we shouldn’t have to face, as we can see in all those countries, from Sri Lanka to Switzerland, who have pushed back Covid-19 sufficiently that they can re-open schools with relative safety.

But “shouldn’t” is much use to think about now. Most American states (and certainly the national level) didn’t give strong direction on appropriate disease-spread-reduction behavior, and now here we are — my own state of IL is in stage 4 of reopening, but I suspect we will need to fall back to stage 3 in not too long, since we’re surrounded by states in worse shape, and there’s a lot of interstate traffic. We could easily slip back to stage 2, honestly, upsetting as that is to think about, and of course, even if IL manages to hold the line, much of the rest of the country is on fire.

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I wonder if it’s different in a war — specifically, if there’s less denial of the severity of what’s going on. This has been such a quiet disaster. I imagine it depends on the war, and whether it’s being fought at home or abroad, and how long it’s been going on. The Spanish flu was so long ago, and polio, and most of us in America haven’t had to contend with malaria or ebola or SARS, and so the word ‘pandemic’ just doesn’t hold the same reality to us as it does to many others.

Back in February, when I was I was first reading the accounts from the Italian doctors, the broken-hearted misery of their inability to care for their patients without sufficient ventilators and trained ICU staff (and to clarify, when we say ‘beds,’ we don’t mean actual beds — we mean the tech and the staff who know both how to operate the tech and how to treat the patient, not training that can be done overnight, unfortunately), I started worrying that Covid-19 would come here. But I didn’t really believe it.

And even in March, when I flew back from a Bay Area conference, I felt a little ridiculous e-mailing my students and telling them I’d be teaching remotely the next week, because I’d flown through two big busy airports, and I had a cough, and I didn’t want to risk bringing something into the classroom. I felt like I might get in trouble for doing that, even though I was pretty sure it was the right thing to do. Pretty sure.

It was maybe April before “pandemic” started to feel real. And that was when I started thinking of this as a ‘lost year’ academically. That happens in wartime, you know. Buildings are blown up, people are displaced, the power goes out, older students are drafted, and everyone’s education is interrupted, in one way or another.

***

I’m reading the mom discussion threads, and the note of panic is clear. What’s also clear is that there are two very distinct issues: education and childcare.

Many other countries aren’t facing these issues the way we are, because America has such a weak social safety net by comparison. In some countries, the government is providing pandemic funding so that if you need to be unemployed for three months, or six months, or longer, you still get at least 80% of your salary, for example.

That eases the childcare issue considerably, because if you can afford a nanny share with maybe a college kid studying remotely this fall, who supervises your kid through a half day of e-learning and just keeps an eye on them for the other half-day, so two parents can keep working at their jobs, it’s manageable. Hard, as you’d expect during a disaster, but the sort of hard that you can manage, the way you’d manage suddenly needing a new roof.

But that’s not where we are. In Oak Park, where I live, 20% of families are food-insecure. 1 in 5 of my kids’ classmates. And I’m sure a much larger percentage of our families are living at the edge of their means already — they scrimped and saved to afford a condo, perhaps, and now a parent is laid off and maybe unemployment is ending (because the government chooses to end it), and we don’t have a national mortgage freeze or a rent freeze (and we should, and why don’t we?).

A worldwide disaster is painful. A mismanaged one is far more so. And in America, it’s clear that the lower you are on the economic ladder, the harder this is going to hit you. (Of course, people of color, especially Black people, will be on average hit even harder, and disabled people, and the elderly, and all marginalized populations.)

We haven’t set up our government to take care of the most marginalized first, even though simple logic tells us that if, say, 25% of our workforce falls off a cliff, it’s a disaster for all of us. When the grocery store worker can’t come to work, or the meatpacker, or the Amazon shelver, how will we feed our families?

***

As a professor, an educator, I hear a lot of concern about the lost learning — the months of terrible haphazard hacks in the spring, and a fear of that in the fall. Honestly, there’ll be some of that, with remote learning. Some teachers will have trouble adapting, including teachers who are excellent at face-to-face. And some teachers weren’t great to begin with — not to knock teachers, since I am one, but over the years, I’ve had my share of bad teachers, and I know you have too.

In education, we’re all doing a new thing. I’m enough of a positive thinker that my default is always going to be to think about how we can use remote learning to advantage: for example, I had one college student spring semester who told me that he’d been about to drop out of school, because his social anxiety was so crippling that he couldn’t bear to be in the classroom — he finished the semester remotely, with a solid B. But at the same time, I know that for some, maybe most, students, remote learning is much more difficult than face-to-face, and not all their teachers will be able to figure out how to best support them through that.

That said, I’m honestly not most worried about the lost educational time. I’m really not. Kids lose time in school for all sorts of reasons — maybe they get mono, or have to move across the country unexpectedly, or they’re having trouble with regular school, so they transition to a different kind of environment. Right now, kids across America are all having their education disrupted somewhat, and you know, they can survive that.

I’m more worried right now about what we can’t survive, on the health and the economic front.

***

Maybe it won’t be a lost year. Maybe it won’t be quite as bad as I feared, back in April; a lot of teachers are adapting fast, myself included, and I do think remote learning in the fall will look quite a bit better than it did in the spring.

But American elementary education is in for a long haul, it looks like, a slow grind of being caught between the twin millstones of:

• parents’ need for affordable childcare and

• unwillingness of government to do what’s necessary to stop the spread AND economically support families through this time.

I don’t have answers for you. All the options I can see have downsides, and I’m not here to advocate for wholly remote learning, or a half-week split, or a half-day split, or a full return.

Okay, that last seems extremely unwise, given current conditions, I’ll just say. I think the death toll would skyrocket, as kids carried the disease to teachers and nurses and therapists and older siblings and parents and grandparents and childcare folks. In America, we are tragically not at a point where full return to standard in-person learning is feasible.

But I do think we need to look at the money piece of this seriously. America has treated schools as de facto childcare, but they aren’t actually the same thing. If the lack of childcare is the driving force leading parents to send kids to classrooms that aren’t reasonably safe yet, then THAT is the problem we need to solve with money, and safe childcare for half the week really should be much more affordable than fully-qualified teachers for that time.

***

What would it look like if we had the teachers teaching for half the time, in a dedicated fashion, using the other half of their paid time to continue the hard, adaptive work of converting their courses and lesson plans to this new format?

And then in addition, to solve the childcare portion, we had small pods led by aides who met the rest of the time, leading kids in some e-learning from their teachers, but also social activities, art, music, outdoor exploration? We don’t have a name for that (not nannies, not TAs, not babysitters)– what should we call it? Pod leaders?

More importantly, what would that cost? I’m talking about adding a large workforce to the community, people we should be interviewing and hiring now, if we want them up and running in the fall. 50 classrooms in a school, say, each with 25 students, so you’d want 1 adult per 5 students in a pod, that’s 250 pod leaders, say $10K each for the fall semester (working 3 days / week for 3 months) that’s $250,000 for the school in additional cost. It’s a large number, but not an impossible number.

Can the money come out of school reserves, dropping the fund balance dramatically for a year? (What is a reserve for, if not for helping to cope with a disaster?) Some schools yes, many no, so then we turn to government and major corporations and nonprofit foundations to shoulder the additional cost.

I’m not on the school board, and these aren’t my decisions. And of course, even if I were on the board, I’d be working with school admin staff, and working under state-level directives, so it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘do this.’ But this is the problem, as I see it, and these are the questions I’m asking right now.

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