When The School Bell Rings - We Must Be Ready For All

Been certainly enough speculation from concerned parties about what is going to happen in Ontario Schools this fall. Since I have more than a little skin in the game, I wanted to share my thoughts on the matter. 

Knowing first hand as an educator and parent the vital role teachers play in the development of young minds I was very satisfied to hear that Sick Kids recommended that school return back to the classroom (with enhanced cleaning and safety measures of course) this fall. 

I thought this would be met with relief, and it was for some. But for many it seemed to only bring anxiety. I can understand this feeling of unease coming from some parents, but I thought educators would embrace being relevant and essential again. Teachers know the dark side of abuse and neglect that occurs in homes of the vulnerable. For these students, school is their safe space. We also know that e-learning does not work for many students with special needs and those facing tech inequity. So barring a change in trajectory of Covid cases in the province - we must get back in the classroom. 

That is not to say there aren't risks to doing this. There were before, every flu season, but understandably this is much worse. There are a few who don't go out anywhere themselves and so they are not going to let their kids go outside their bubble. Their plan is to wait this out until an effective vaccine is discovered, produced and distributed. To this plan, I wish us good luck.. I hope we get a vaccine, but too many kids will suffer for what could be an infinite amount of time waiting. The plan was to flatten the curve, to make sure our hospitals would not be overwhelmed, not eliminate the risk entirely. So schools must open back up for the greater good. The challenge now is do so safely - for everyone. 

Now for what this will look like there has been far too much reaction to very little substance. I believe there is a reason for this. Again, as long as we continue to keep a lid on things I believe we are headed toward a more conventional approach in the fall. No official wants to go on record saying that right now and kick the hornet's net. Better to let the reducing of restrictions continue to ease anxiety during the summer slumber before announcing back to school plans. This better be the plan, because if it is some alternate day model as some have floated, then parents and teachers need a lot more heads up for day care needs than a few weeks. Also alternate days, for elementary students would be an unworkable mess for too many working parents. It would cause many to leave the work force and hinder any economic recovery needed for these families and society as a whole. Surely, we can come up with something better than that. 

If the constraints of social distancing are continued to be followed then the work day for teachers will have to be extended. To the few 3:30 colleagues who would oppose this - too bad. Coaches and club leaders have been doing it for years. You should try it. There will be no extra-curricular activities during all this, so there is plenty of time that can be added in the afternoon. A staggered start for two separate cohorts would divide current classes. The actual in class time can be reduced proportionally for students in later grades as more activities can provided on-line for older students. For secondary classes this would mean reducing class time from 75 minutes to 45. I would teach half the class for 45 minutes and then the other. The time would be staggered to reduce students in the hall during change overs. This would add over an hour to the school day. Extensive cleaning would need to be completed after school and over night. Now unions may push back at this, but a short term agreement should be made in order to show that teachers and educational workers are flexible and committed to doing their part during these extraordinary times. When the crisis is over a return to the regular collective agreement should be followed. 

Now if social distancing rules are relaxed it would still not be school as usual. Cameras should be in place with sole focus on teachers for live streaming of in class instruction. This option needs to be available to provide a rich, educational experience for students or families who are immunocompromised or are against returning at this time. Class streaming would provide synchronous learning and students would also be able to select from stand alone provincial on-line courses if that was preferred. Schools will also need to provide work stations (strict social distancing in place if needed) for students choosing to learn this way that require tech support not available at home. School portables would be perfect for this as these vulnerable students would not need to come into the general school building. 

These ideas are not exhaustive and my experience confines my thinking to a secondary school model mindset. I do believe, however, they provide the flexibility required to get many of students back in class safely, while addressing the needs of those waiting for a vaccine. Plans should keep in mind the different needs that exist between the elementary and secondary systems.  A one-size fits all model for K to 12 learning is not appropriate as the suffering caused by not being in class is more keenly felt by those in the early grades.    

Feel free to share your thoughts, I certainly don't have all the answers and recognize I may have blind spot or two. We teachers love to critique, but its time to put away the red pen. This pandemic has given us enough problems, what we need now are more workable solutions.
Gregory Cawsey