Planning for the Reopening of Schools in the Fall – The Unknown Unknowns.

What will school look like in the fall?

That is the million dollar question. Just as districts were taking a breath from getting distance learning programs up and running to start looking at possibly delaying school starts to allow time to prepare for what opening school might look like during a pandemic, the Governor announced the possibility of schools resuming in July. Needless to say, that was a surprise to everyone.

Whenever it happens, reopening schools during a pandemic presents unprecedented challenges with complex variables that are changing day to day. The answer at this point to what it will look like is – it all depends. It’s going to depend on several factors outside of individual school district’s control, many of which districts simply do not have enough information yet to even define, let alone plan against. What we do know is that when we return in the fall, school will not look like it did when we left it in March. Some assumptions districts can make that will drive how different school campuses could look include:

  • Social distancing will be required
  • Physical spaces will need to be disinfected frequently
  • Health monitoring will be required
  • Possible rolling campus closures to mitigate potential virus spikes throughout next school year
  • School meals will continue to be provided to the community
  • The need for child care as a statewide priority to support reopening the economy
  • School budgets will be negatively impacted moving forward

What we do know is that when we return in the fall, school will not look like it did when we left it in March.

In looking at the unknowns and the options, one safe assumption at this point is that distance learning will be with us for the duration. Given that assumption, what do we know? We know how to do distance learning in a blended format. There are several good models for blended learning; however, they tend to rely on students having made the transition from learning to read, to reading to learn. Blended learning also works best when students have been prepared to be self directed learners, which is a learned skill set all in itself.

Distance learning will be with us for the duration.

In looking at how best to implement blended learning to meet the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, we can’t simply think of taking what we have done in person and transferring it to an online space. There are many, many examples from the past decade of that approach not working. Distance learning, by definition, will look different from face-to-face learning. The temptation to fit the square peg of in-person school into the round hole of online learning will be great. I am hopeful that our statewide leaders realize the folly of this thinking and have tasked themselves with thinking outside the box. More appropriately, they should be getting rid of the box and building a new structure to both meet the moment and for the future with core principals of health, safety and student centered learning.

Access and Devices have to be a given if we are to talk about how to effectively continue to educate students during this crisis.

I haven’t addressed Access or Devices up to this point. The California Department of Education (CDE) and the Governor have spent the majority of their talking points about education during this crisis focused on the problem of Access. Access and Devices have to be a given if we are to talk about how to effectively continue to educate ALL students during this crisis. What I have heard less of from the CDE and the state is about providing professional development for teachers and administrators on how to effectively transition decades of face-to-face pedagogy to a blended learning model. But for now, I will put both major challenges aside except to reiterate, students and teachers need Devices and Access first and then everyone needs training if we expect distance learning to be effective.

Once Access, Devices and Training are addressed, how successful and effective school districts are at transitioning to blended learning will primarily depend on how much structural and regulatory flexibility the state and federal governments provide to meet this moment. Some of the structural hurdles to transitioning the entire school system to blended learning over summer include:

  • Attendance (seat time requirements tied to school funding)
  • Class size (driven by social distancing vs. state law and individual district contracts)
  • Instructional minutes (how much time are students required to be under instructional supervision and what does that mean in a blended environment)
  • Number of required student contact days – the “180 day school year” (impacts among other things, the school calendar and the availability of days for professional development)
  • Curriculum requirements (drives the question about continuing to provide a well rounded curriculum or shifting to a focus on core subjects, essential skills and closing existing gaps)

These structural hurdles are not new to blended learning. They have been with us since the early days of trying to bolt online instruction onto a 150 year old education system. They are now however, much more critical to recognize and address as we move forward with continuing to effectively educate 6 million students during this crisis.

Despite the moves to reopen the economy, these are still early days of the crisis. The virus isn’t gone. We are still operating in crisis management mode and will be for the foreseeable future. That means addressing new challenges on a daily basis. After ensuring emergency remote learning is happening through the end of the current school year, the next immediate challenge for schools is that districts only have a few more weeks left in the operational year to start making substantial plans for fall. By now, schools would have already planned out their schedules, staffing and supply orders for next year. Unfortunately, for reasons I am attempting to articulate here, districts are essentially in a holding pattern pending guidelines from the CDE and public health officials and state budget projections.

“There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

Districts can go through the motions of planning, and some currently are, but the best planning in the world would be pure conjecture right now given the magnitude of what we don’t know. There are many known unknowns:

  • The parameters for social distancing, student and staff safety, PPE and disinfecting (impacts schedules, classroom space, staffing, procedures, protocols, training and professional development)
  • The severity of the budget cuts to come (impacts staffing and the ability to support safety and social distancing)
  • State and federal requirements relief (see all above)
  • Child care requirements (impacts space requirements and the ability to flex schedules to meet social distancing requirements)

In looking at what bay area districts do know about expected school budget cuts and current social distancing requirements for childcare programs, extrapolating those requirements to school classrooms in the fall, I can realistically only see one option at the moment:

Districts will have to start school mostly online. The exception will be self contained special education classes, which may return to schools with social distancing in place and probably consolidated on specific campuses for safety and efficiency. To meet the needs of working families, child care programs might utilize school facilities. Districts will continue to provide meals to the community. Budget cuts will impact district’s ability to provide professional development and support for transitioning to blended learning.

Basically, districts will do what they have always done. They will do their best to fit the square peg in the round hole. One advantage to this scenario is that districts can start planing for it now, because it looks similar to what they are currently doing in this time of Emergency Remote Teaching.

The more optimistic and hopeful scenario would be a major reimagining of school around a set of guiding principals. Within the next few weeks, districts would be freed from the constraints of current federal and state requirements that reinforce the 150 year version of what school has been and given local flexibility to meet the needs of the moment in their communities. Heresy, I know, but in this scenario, “school” would be tailored by local educators to individual student learning outcomes, something for which blended learning is particularly well suited. The traditional structural constraints on learning of time and space would no longer serve to impede the ability to meet the needs of individual students. Student learning would drive the structure. We would see targeted instruction based on student need vs. instruction directed at entire grade levels. We would see rich feedback loops and self directed reflection on learning. We would see authentic learning and engagement based on student interest and community connections. In short, all of the things that educators have been talking about doing for years to improve student outcomes would be on the table in meaningful ways.

“Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” – Rahm Emanuel

We’re at a moment in history where we can choose to meet it with hope and optimism for a better future or, we can continue to long for the past and try to make the old ways work under unprecedented circumstances. I hope that collectively, in this moment, we choose a better future for our new normal, both for our society and for our schools.

So, what am I missing? What are the Unknown Unknowns out there? Comments welcome.

And once again, I’ve neglected to address what primary education looks like in a global pandemic, shelter-in-place world. Maybe in the next installment of blogging while #StayingAtHome. In the meantime, stay safe.