Reopening School: What it Might Look Like


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I don’t need to give you much background here: As you all know, schools have been closed worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the same way that cities are at various stages of reopening businesses, schools are doing the same thing, or at least thinking about how it might work. 

We all know that unless someone develops a vaccine soon, school just can’t be run the same as it was before. There’s reinfection to consider, second and third waves of cases that could cause new shutdowns, and on a more distant horizon, the stark possibility that new viruses could take us down just like this one did.

I figure right now, educators everywhere are trying to decide the best course of action, or at least wondering what their district leadership is considering. Since I have access to a lot of educators all over the place, I believe the best way I can help with that process is to ask you all what you’re doing, then curate those ideas so they can reach more people. So about a week ago I tweeted out a request for ideas. I got some from there, some from my own searching, and some from the legwork that Larry Ferlazzo already did on this topic.

Reading through all the proposals was overwhelming, especially when I clicked through to look at the densely-packed documents that detailed all the different distancing and disinfecting protocols that had to be considered. I would give each one about thirty seconds, and then I just wanted to run away. The words just swam together after a while.  I’m guessing you may have experienced something similar at some point. I guess I just wanted to validate that for you: Yes, it’s overwhelming. 

So in the spirit of contributing something of value here, rather than adding to the overwhelm, I’m going to do three things.

The first part will be practical. I’ll very quickly run through seven different ideas people are considering for reopening schools. I was kind of excited about one idea in particular, because it’s something a little different and it might actually work. 

The second part will also be practical, but more random. In this section I’ll share other thoughts and ideas I’ve seen floating around that connect to school reopenings but aren’t necessarily tied to specific plans.

The third part will be more of a pep talk. I’m not sure how much good it will do, but I want to talk a little bit about what I would be doing right now if I were a classroom teacher bracing myself for the upcoming school year. My hope is to offer something that will help you get through this.

Alrighty then. Deep breath.

Part 1: Ideas for Reopening

Before I start on all of these options, I just have to acknowledge something: All of these ideas completely suck compared to pre-pandemic life. They are depressing and repressive and in a lot of schools, not even realistic. In a post published this past week, 3rd grade teacher Paul Murphy floated the idea that reopening schools under the proposed constraints may not be worth it at all:

“Why should we assume that placing young people in an environment of masked peers whom they aren’t allowed to approach will result in an improved mental state? And if adults are going to be serious about restrictions they’ll have to enforce them. It’s my deep suspicion that punishments for hugging friends, admonishments for encroaching on six-foot personal bubbles, vigilant surveillance of hand-washing and line spacing, daily temperature checks that send a recurrent message that everyone else is to be feared, and possible repeated school closures when someone inevitably catches the virus will not produce an atmosphere conducive to improved mental health.”

I agree with him to a large extent. But I also think it makes sense to try something, to try some kind of arrangement that gets more teachers in rooms with more students at least some part of the week, because among all the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic, one has certainly been that videoconferencing just isn’t the same as face-to-face.

With that said, here are some ideas that look like they might sort of kind of work. This is not an exhaustive list: I saw some ideas that would only work in schools that have very low numbers—where all students return full-time but everyone just spreads out. This doesn’t seem like a realistic option for most schools. I’m also not going to get into all the handwashing, disinfecting, and testing protocols, nor will this post address transportation; we’ll just focus on how schools might arrange the instructional component. Also, some schools are looking at hybrid models that combine some of these solutions or set up a plan where they toggle in between them depending on how infection stats are looking in their region at any given time.

Solution 1: Alternating Days or Half Days

Schools would run A/B schedules, where some students come on A days and others on B days. Those not at school would be doing remote learning at home. Another variation of this is doing half days, like kindergarten used to be in a lot of places, where half the student population goes to school in the morning and half goes in the afternoon.

Solution 2: Cohorts

Students are put into small groups that stay together all day, thereby mixing students with each other as little as possible. For changing classes or subject areas, the teachers are the ones who would move throughout the building.

Solution 3: Selective Return of Grade Levels, Students, or Teachers

In this arrangement, a limited number of students and teachers would return to in-person schooling, while others would continue doing school remotely. 

  • Some schools are looking at in-person instruction for kindergarten and grade 1 (to keep students on track for early literacy and math skills), vulnerable students who need more help, students without home technology, and seniors who need to be kept on track for graduation. 
  • This idea may also be applied to certain teachers and staff members—those over 55 or at higher risk for infection may continue to teach from home while a substitute holds down the fort in the physical classroom.

Solution 4: One Course at a Time

This idea kind of blew my mind: Students stay in the same class, with the same teacher, taking a single course for a few weeks, then rotate to another course for a few weeks. So instead of changing classes once an hour, they’d change once every two weeks or so. This was shared by science teacher Sam Long on Twitter, and I think it has real potential.

Some people pushed back on this idea because they hated the thought of students sitting in the same class for so long, but if a teacher is mixing things up, delivering instruction in an engaging way, providing good breaks, and not requiring long periods of sitting, it could work.

The only thing that could still stand in the way of this working would be social distancing requirements—you couldn’t have classes at full capacity. But maybe this combined with an A/B or half day schedule could be something to try. 

Solution 5: One-Room Schoolhouse

In this arrangement, students would stay in one room all day, studying multiple subjects with the same teacher. This could work in some elementary schools, where teachers are already somewhat used to teaching more than one subject and only rotate for a few subjects, but again, social distancing protocols would still have to be kept, so you couldn’t operate at full capacity. To make this work instructionally, teachers might need to shift to more of a Project Based Learning approach, where students are engaged in long-term projects that incorporate learning from multiple subject areas. Kids could still interact with Ts from other rooms—maybe through the phone, videoconferencing, or just by standing far apart out in the hall?—but those teachers would need more planning time to be available for those kinds of conferences. 

Instruction could also be delivered in this kind of scenario via video mini-lessons. A few years ago I interviewed teachers at the Apollo School, where students spent a block of three hours each day in a combined English, history, and art class. Each teacher offered daily mini-lessons on relevant topics, and students attended these voluntarily based on their needs and projects.

If schools were to try the “one-room schoolhouse option,” it may be possible to do something similar, where a group of teachers “shares” a larger group of students, but each teacher actually stays with part of the group in their classroom and students can “attend” video-broadcast mini-lessons being given by teachers in other rooms. If all students in this arrangement were working on cross-curricular projects, this could ultimately be an improvement over the kind of traditional instruction they had before.

Solution 6: Individual Learning Plans

At first, I thought this was just not realistic: The idea of creating separate plans for each student, depending on the individual situation, learning needs, available technology, and home resources seemed an almost impossible task. But I’m starting to rethink that, because it might be accomplished with maybe five or six basic plans.

So for example, you have some students who are on plan 1, which is full-time home instruction with no technology. Those students would need to be on some sort of paper delivery system and the school might need to set up weekly face-to-face meetings between the family and an assigned teacher. Other students might be on plan 2, which is full-time home instruction with reliable technology. Plan 3 might be coming to school some days. For each subject area and grade level things might need to be further individualized, but I’m realizing that while every student has different needs, there may be groups of students whose needs are similar, so these individual plans may be something that can be batched.

Still a lot of work, obviously, but maybe not as much as I initially thought. 

Solution 7: Keep Distance Learning

Amid all the discussion of how to reopen, I think keeping things the way they are—with 100% distance learning—is an option. Many schools have already done a trial run and there may be some lessons that can be applied the next time around. Obviously, getting all students connected is a must, or at the very least finding good, workable ways to stay in touch without the internet, but if that’s possible, it may be the most realistic approach at least for the start of the school year. Again, like all of these other options, it’s not great, but at least it’s a known quantity, unlike the other arrangements that could potentially result in everyone bouncing back to distance learning anyway.

Part 2: Other Considerations

These are some other ideas that have been mentioned in conversations about reopening that are worth considering, regardless of what plan you end up with:

  • Remediation vs. acceleration: When planning instruction for the upcoming year, the temptation may be to focus on remediation, to go back to wherever students left off before quarantine and teach from that point forward, rather than starting the new school year where you might normally start. This seems logical, but something I read the other day caused me to rethink that—an article about the lessons learned after New Orleans schools closed post-Hurricane Katrina. According to this report, schools that focused mostly on skill recovery rather than teaching grade-level content found that students were less engaged and scored poorly on tests, whereas schools got better results when they took a “spiraling” approach, where the regular content is taught on its normal schedule, and gaps in student skill and knowledge are filled in and scaffolded as needed. I don’t know much about the particulars of this approach, but the organization TNTP has put together a Learning Acceleration Guide that can help you learn more. I think it’s worth a look.
  • Getting input from all stakeholders: Schools will have the best chance of landing on a workable solution if you involve representatives from all stakeholder groups in your school community. That means while you’re still in the exploratory phase, ask teachers, support staff, paraprofessionals, students, and parents for their input, then ask again when you’re narrowing your options. Do this in a way that gives them time to think through the proposed ideas and space to share their thoughts honestly. And make sure there’s representation from diverse backgrounds in terms of socioeconomics, ethnicity, race, and language.
  • Making equity and culturally responsive teaching an integral part of the plan: Any plan for reopening or re-starting school must take into account how all students’ needs will be met. A lot has been written about the ways this pandemic has shone a light on existing inequities, like this piece from Dena Simmons, and working on a reopening plan is an opportunity to address those more thoroughly than they’ve been addressed before. This collection offers some good resources on culturally responsive teaching in remote situations. 
  • Looping: Elementary schools may want to consider teacher looping to build on existing relationships. This is where a teacher stays with the same students over two or more grade levels, rather than students moving to a different teacher every year. 
  • Substitute availability: Substitute teachers are being held up as key players in some proposed scenarios, but in many districts, a large number of subs may be over age 55 and could therefore be more at risk for infection.
  • Childcare for teachers’ kids: Many, many teachers are also parents, so if their own children can’t go back to school full-time, that poses a significant problem for the teachers as well.

Part 3: Facing the Unknown

Probably the only thing that’s certain right now is that no one knows for sure what the next school year is going to look like. And this may very well be putting you in a state of paralysis, waiting for someone to tell you what the plan is so you can get moving with your own preparation. 

Here’s what I would do in your shoes: 

Prepare for a full year of 100 percent distance learning.

No matter what the specific plan looks like for next year, there’s a good chance that at least some of your instruction is going to be delivered remotely. Even if your school manages to get kids into the building, social distancing will likely require students to get their materials and do much of their work on devices.

With that in mind, you’re going to be better off if you have shifted a good part of your instruction into an online format. Once it’s there, you can still use it in a face-to-face setting; you’ll just have more opportunities to interact with students in real time.

Here are some things that can help you with the process:

  • Now that you have a little more time, learn how to design instruction for online environments from those who have fine-tuned the process. Simply Googling “how to create an online course” will get you lots of results, and although many of these were created by people who are creating courses for profit, you can still learn quite a bit about learner engagement from them.  Two other sources to check out are this article from ASCD and this one from Inside Higher Ed.
  • Seek out teachers who have some pieces of the remote learning puzzle figured out and learn from them. Maybe they’ve gotten more engagement from students than most.  Maybe they’re not quite as exhausted as most of your colleagues. Maybe they’ve had one or two “pretty good lessons” throughout this time. See what they can teach you. 
  • Consider curricular options that are already available online. Khan Academy is definitely worth a look, and taking advantage of this as a resource doesn’t mean you won’t be relationship-building and supporting students; it just means the curriculum has been taken care of and put into a format that’s already optimized for online learning.

Create Contingency Plans

When organizing your lessons for the upcoming year, build in contingency plans for different scenarios. So maybe you set up all your lessons for remote learning, but mark places where, if things work out to allow face-to-face teaching or even a situation where social distancing is no longer required, you could do something different, like a lab or group activity.

Give Yourself Space to Grieve

Throughout this process, it may be helpful to occasionally stop and just let yourself grieve all the incredible experiences teachers and students won’t get to have right now and for the foreseeable future. Although dwelling on this for long periods of time won’t be terribly useful, it also doesn’t help to pretend any of this is normal. Acknowledging the loss will allow you, your colleagues, and your students to feel validated, and this could free you up to move on and do what you can under the current constraints. 

Push Back on Unreasonable Expectations

Speaking of acting like any of this is normal, I get the sense that there may be some in leadership who are plowing ahead as if instruction is going to continue at the exact same level of quality as before. Although high-quality instruction is obviously the goal, sending a message that denies current challenges can crush teachers’ spirits. If you happen to be working in a district where expectations are far beyond reality, push back. Find others who you can join forces with, compose a letter or a document that offers more reasonable alternatives, and present it to your administration. It can and has worked. For more thoughts on this, read my post “We’re a Family” and Other School Norms that Can Cause Teacher Burnout

One More Thing

I want to add this last thought: When you really look at this situation we’re in, what makes all of this so hard to do is that we want to be together. If we were okay staying 6 feet apart for the rest of our lives, this wouldn’t be such a challenge. But good teaching is an intimate experience and most teachers are at their best when they can stand close to examine student work, give hugs and high fives, have private conversations. Good teachers know how important relationship-building is to the process—not only the teacher-student relationship, but relationships between our students. Our students want to bump shoulders, bend their heads together in whispered secrets, hug each other, mess around on the playground or at the bus stop, dance and laugh together. 

We still want and desperately need this connection. This physical connection. I think it’s important to stop and recognize that, because it’s good news.

Over the last ten years or so, as smartphones took over and we got more and more addicted to screens, we’ve all collectively shaken our heads at how disconnected we had become. But this pandemic has demonstrated that we weren’t actually disconnected. Yes, the devices made things different, but the whole time we were still finding ways to be close, to touch each other, to share physical space. It turns out we really do need that, and I think this is wonderful news.

In 2013, Coca-Cola produced a Super Bowl commercial I never forgot. It was a montage of footage captured by security cameras all over the world, quick clips of people hugging, kissing, doing kind things for each other, celebrating together. In every clip, people are physically close together in ways that are starting to look shocking to me within our current context.

 
 

The reason that commercial was so popular then, and why it resonates with me even more deeply now is because this is is who we are, the “normal” we long to get back to. It’s that longing that’s making all of this so difficult. I believe we’ll get back there someday, and I think we’ll be much less likely to ever take it for granted again.

Until then, we do the best we can, giving lots of grace to each other and to ourselves.

 
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