The Great Debate of 2020
Reopening schools . . . the ongoing educational debate that students, parents, teachers, and policymakers are going through has heated discussions in all groups. Although we are experiencing an unprecedented health pandemic, educating our youth cannot be put on the back burner. We cannot wait until the pandemic ends to begin educating students again. While everyone has differing views on this situation, we must take a look at our options and figure out how we can best meet the needs of the students. Yes, the students!!
So . . . what are our options?
One option is for students to learn at school. There are many successful districts around America that have opened schools to some degree of normalacy. Organizations and educators are sharing their experiences that helped them with a variety of learning opportunities. Reflecting upon personal experiences, trying new learning venues, and listening to how others overcame challenges, will support all of us as we move back into the classroom.
Speaking from personal experience, in Alaska, the majority of districts are closed to in-person learning; however, my district, the only district, opened in August with three options for students and families. Yes, one option is 5 days a week, full time learning day. Understanding that each student’s situation may look a little different, due to personal health and safety concerns, parents had the opportunity to enroll their child in “at home”, “in person”, or “traditional homeschool” learning options. I am hopeful that other educators and policymakers across our nation will be able to use some of the information presented here to guide students back into a safe learning environment that fits students’ and families’ varied needs. *The following information is based upon personal experiences regarding my district/school’s offerings and mitigation procedures.
Let’s take a closer look at
these three options.
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Option 1: In-Person Learning
Prior to school beginning in August, it was determined at the district level that all students in grades 3-12 and all staff would be required to wear masks during the day. The remaining mitigation procedures were left up to the individual schools; however, social distancing and sanitizing were key elements to consider implementing.
Masks: All staff and students in grades 3-12 are required to wear a face covering. If there is a student health concern wearing a mask, a doctor’s note is required to be on file with the school nurse. This allows an opportunity for students who want to attend school have an option to do so with any health concern. Additionally, in the classroom, these students work in an area to allow appropriate social distancing without face coverings.
Social Distancing: To be 100% honest, this is a challenge, especially in the elementary schools where I work. From what I hear, I’m not sure the middle and high schools have anymore success, as the classroom are only so big. In a nonpandemic year, squeezing 25-35 kiddos in a classroom is a challenge. At the beginning of the year, the district was hopeful that some families would choose one of the other two options to reduce the number of students in the classroom. At the beginning of the school year, this reduction was more likely. However, as the weeks roll by, more and more families are opting to put their student back in the classroom. In August, class sizes were around 15 students, but that number increased over the next several weeks to 18, 20 and more. At this writing, more and more students are returning to in-person learing. This increasing class size makes it more challenging to social distance within the room’s four walls.
Sanitizing: Hand sanitizing stations are set up around the school. Students sanitize their hands before entering and upon exiting the building, before and after snack and lunch, before and after specials, and throughout the day as needed. Each classroom has hand sanitizer and stations are set up at the school entrances including other community stations throughout the building. While the district paid for one hand sanitizer bottle per classroom, when teachers wanted an additional bottle or two, the teacher purchased the items without reimbursement. Teachers are also required to refill sanitizer bottles and clean all classroom surfaces several times throughout the day.
Curriculum: Online learning procedures are a focus at school. While students also participate in other paper/pencil lessons, it is important for students to understand online learning expectations, where to get help, how to access and use ZOOM, how to turn in assignments, etc., so in the event there is a classroom or school closure, learning can continue at home. THIS was a lesson learned from March 2020, when schools were closed without warning, and students did not have online curriculum access or an opportunity to engage in any online learning platforms. It was evident that students needed to be well versed in online learning.
Pivot to Remote: Although students are expected to engage in learning at school, everyone must be ready to pivot to remote or at home learning at a moments notice. Therefore, teachers prepare a two-week remote learning packet that is sent home twice a month for students to complete in the event a classroom or school closure occurs and students do not have their chromebooks at home for learning.
Other Mitigation Procedures: Beyond the prior mitigation procedure examples, schools could determine additional measures to implement. Some of these safety measures include plexiglass dividers set up in classrooms to separate students when sitting at a table. If you can imagine a see-through cubicle, you have an idea of what this looks like. Other safety protocols include one grade level at recess at any time. Some schools allow grade levels to mix, and other schools have each class play as a community. Breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner are brought to the classroom for the teacher to pass out in order to provide more mitigation procedures. Some students come to school via parent drop off/pick up; however, students that ride the bus have assigned seats by family and then families are spaced throughout the bus. Like the classroom, all busses are sanitized after each route to/from school. Additionally, seating charts are kept current and turned in to the office and school nurse in the event contact tracing procedures are necessary. Extra support or interventions are provided for students throughout the day. Some schools implement a 1:1 tutor session and other schools allow small groups from the same classroom or grade level. Another variable is the amount of time for the lessons. Some schools hold fast to 15 minutes; whereas, other schools work with a 30 minute timeframe.
Option 2: At-Home Learning
Another option for students is “at home learning”, also known as “remote learning” and “virtual learning”. This option provides students an opportunity to participate in district supported online curriculum with online ZOOM lessons or in person tutor sessions with their teacher via ZOOM or at school. Parents are responsible for overseeing their student’s work completion; however, the “teaching” aspect is provided by an online teacher. While many students (~30% of the student population) in the district participated in this option at the beginning of the school year, students are able to return to in-person learning at any time. Likewise, students who are in-person could also go to at-home learning anytime. While the goal is to provide parents a learning option for their student, the back and forth from in-person to at-home and vice versa, did make consistency a challenge throughout the year.
Another challenge most teachers encountered is teaching students in person while simultaneously teaching students at home. While some teachers are able to handle this “dual classroom”, it is a challenge for other teachers. Some schools are able to hire or shift a teaching position to incorporate a “virtual teacher” to work with “at home learners”, other schools do not have this luxury. Regardless of the strategy to overcome the challenge, it is evident that more educator professional development is needed to properly implement an “online learning environment” successfully.
Option 3: Traditional Home School Learning
The third option for students is a “traditional homeschool learning” experience. This learning option is different than the “at-home” option because the parent has sole responsibity for providing curriculum and instruction. Although there are different formats for homeschooling, some districts provide a “homeschooling school” where a teacher is available to assist the parent in faciliataing instruction, answering questions, and provding academic learning support as needed. Parents often find this extra support helpful as they naviagate as the “person in charge” of providing the educational experiences for their student.
There are a variety of homeschool learning models avaiable for parents. Checking with your local community, church, and district will be a great resource to get started with some Q and A. I’m certain you can also find some blogs that focus on sharing homeschooling experiences, too.
Regardless of the “option” chosen for your student, it is important to try and stick with the choice throughout the year. Once of the hardest parts of learning is consistent switching of the learning environment whether at school or at home. Students need consistency, so they can develop routines, expectations, and a sense of safety.
The overall goal for my district is to get students back into learning with options to meet family needs.
Overall, the experience has been a success. Although there have been disruptions when students miss school due to quarantine and/or close contact, there are procedures in place to allow students to continue learning. Sometimes entire classrooms are closed for 2-3 days while contact tracing takes place and other times entire schools are closed for about the same timeframe. However, it is the overall goal of the district and staff to provide learning opportunities for students in a safe learning environment that meet the needs of individual students and families.
I think, so far, the district has been successful in achieving its’ goal. Did the district know in advance how to navigate this pandemic? No. Every day is a new day with new situations. Learning this school year during a global pandemic is challenging, afterall, we are learning in a “live event”. However, one goal that keeps all educators moving forward is our desire to educate these students, to provide learning experiences the best we can in a world of uncertainity. The work educators, students, and families encountered during the March 2020 Crisis Education experience was horrible. However, we can build upon the successes of that experience, the current experiences, and make new learning experiences meaningful and empowering for students!
We all know and understand that the learning experiences from March 2020 was a crisis situation. Many schools, teachers, and students were unprepared for pivoting to remote learning. Since then, educators have learned a lot and are now better prepared for remote learning. Students have learned how to utilize online educational platforms to interact, learn, and share their learning with others. Districts have implemented online learning resources and opened options to meet the varied needs of students and families. Now we can ask ourselves . . .
Can learning experiences be delivered successfully online? Yes!
Can learning experiences be delivered safely at school? Yes!
Can learning experiences be delivered successfully at home? Yes!
Can learning experiences be delivered in collaboration with families? Yes!
Moving forward, education professionals and policymakers need to consider the prior learning experiences that have occurred in 2020-2021 and consider what components should continue to be implemented in 2021-2022 school year. What worked? What didn’t? What could be tweaked to work? These are cetainly conversations that can be held at all levels by all stakeholders in order to meet the increasing, personalized needs of students and families.
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Final Thoughts About the 2020 Debate
As you know, there is A LOT of ongoing debate about education these days! I think the most important thing to consider is providing options that are best for students, parents, and families. Offering options of “in-person” learning with specific mitigation procedures to keep everyone safe, “at-home” learning for students and families that require some support to meet their educational and personal needs, and “traditional homeschooling” for those families that would like more control of their student’s education is a great place to start. Regardless of the option that is chosen, the most important goal we can aim for is to provide meaningful learning experiences for all students.