Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Reopening K-12 Schools

As K-12 districts around the country weigh how they will reopen this Fall, they are still licking their wounds from a pretty tough Spring. 

What are some of the factors that schools are weighing (whether they admit them or not)?

Families: On one hand, K-6 schools play a vital child care role, and the importance of this role increases as socioeconomic status decreases. It's inconvenient when someone who can work from home has kids underfoot, but what about parents for whom their job can only be done on site? On the other hand, kids are vectors that can bring the virus from school to home. Navigating this lose-lose situation is not easy. 

Faculty and staff: Bringing students back puts the faculty and staff (and all their families) at risk, and some more than others. How can a school system deal with staff who have significant risk factors?

Students with special needs: This is a really broad category. This isn't just (or even mostly) about students who have physical challenges. What about those with IEPs and 504s that articulate accommodations they need? What about special education? 

Students without privilege: Some students have home lives that aren't compatible with distance learning. Internet access, child care, loud siblings, space, and a plethora of other issues make virtual learning virtually impossible for many students. Plus, there is a big difference between a student who has two college-educated parents working from home all day and a student whose parents have less education and/or comfort with technology. As our local district shifted to distance learning, I'm guessing that some students (like my daughter) shifted to about 60% efficiency. But less privileged kids undoubtedly dropped to 5% or less. Having gone through a third of a school year with this sort of separation will exacerbate opportunity gaps. Any blended or virtual instruction that continues into the next school year will compound (and I mean that in the strictest mathematical sense) the issue.

Students with knowledge/skill gaps created this year: As noted above, some students will have massive knowledge/skill gaps as a result of this year's challenges, but virtually all students will have some deficiencies. How will teachers address those? This mostly has to be figured out department-by-department, but school districts can provide some guidance.

Logistics: It's easy to say that schools should implement distancing, but how can they pull it off? Splitting an elementary school into two half-size cohorts isn't too difficult in theory (though it won't be easy to actually do), and I think you could pull it off in middle school. High school is really tough. One of the big high school problems is that you reshuffle the students after every period. You can solve it for 1st period, but what about 2nd? Someone much smarter than I will come up with some good solutions to this, but at first blush, the logistics seem challenging. Also, all this splitting and shifting creates all sorts of challenges for families (see above). Other logistical challenges include transportation, lunch, hallways, and classroom arrangement. 

Extracurriculars: What about sports and musical groups and yearbook and clubs? Without marching band, life is hollow and devoid of joy.

Virtual/Blended Learning: Many school districts will roll out some form of blended learning for some of their students. Also, districts probably worry that a spike in cases will push them back to pure virtual learning. 

Budgets: Most school systems will be asked to do more with less. Almost every issue above has costs, and many school districts will see their revenues decline. As a result, I suspect that many programs will be discontinued so districts can focus on opening safely. 

So... what should schools do? 
1: Blended Learning: The importance of this is two-fold: Blending can help reduce class sizes (which improves safety), and can help prepare for going to more virtual strategies. That said, blended learning needs to be used strategically. To make blended learning work, districts must:
  • Develop virtual/blended learning strategies that are flexible and effective. Among other things, this means finding the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous strategies for each situation.
  • Consider separate blended learning strategies for different grade bands and populations. For instance, special ed, ELL, K-2 students, and HS students taking an honors math class all have very different needs and capabilities.
  • Identify and buy high-quality virtual/blended curricula.
  • Make sure the IT infrastructure for virtual/blended instruction is solid and secure.
  • Give teachers training and time so they can learn how to make it work. 
2: Flexibility: How will you deal with a surge in cases in a particular school? What about a particular department within a school? Now is the time to do contingency planning.

3: Test-Trace-Isolate: No school or jurisdiction should open without a solid test-trace-isolate strategy. This May 15 article by Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver at The Washington Post: We could stop the pandemic by July 4 if the government took these steps lays out solid strategies.

Should be interesting to see how this plays out.

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