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The Education Crisis and Solutions


Zeitgeist

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After three months of distance learning that saw low student participation and put parents in the impossible position of teaching their kids while trying to work from home, the Province of Ontario is now proposing three options for September: return of all students to daily school with careful health hygiene, 100% distance learning, or a hybrid that divides all students into two cohorts that attend on alternate days/weeks.  While it looks like 100% distance learning is off the table unless there's a big surge of Covid-19 cases or a local outbreak, the hybrid model seems to be the one being promoted by the Province.  I believe this would be disastrous for both education and the economy.

There's no way to get workplaces up and running on a full-time basis if parents cannot do their work without having to take care of their children at the same time.  A part-time return to school would put working parents, including educators, in a very compromising position, having to either watch their children for half of the work week while trying to do their jobs or scramble to find daycare at the same time as thousands of other parents.  Such a plan would not be safer than full-time school for students, as many of these children would be in daycares with students from multiple schools, presenting a greater health risk than having students attend one facility with the same children all week.

The poorest families with the most precarious employment would be hardest hit by a part-time school schedule, having to pay for daycare or make the choice of risking losing their jobs in order to take care of their kids.  We know that a learning model that is exclusively distance-learning from home is bad for student engagement, socialization, and education outcomes.  We also know that having everyone return to school in a safe way than includes the necessary social distancing is a challenge without reducing class sizes and ensuring there is additional classroom space in schools.  However, this can be done without substantial new hiring or budgetary increases.

We need to accept a few conditions in order to make daily return to school possible.  I propose, for staffing reasons, that non-classroom teachers (librarians, planning time teachers, French as a second language teachers, and a proportion of special education teaching staff) become regular classroom teachers throughout the remainder of the pandemic, so that class sizes can be reduced.  While this may reduce the number of special education teachers available to provide segregated classes for special needs students, we were moving to a more inclusive special education model and classroom teachers will be better positioned to support special needs students with smaller class sizes. 

In order to have this kind of schedule, certain curriculum will have to be provided online, such as FSL.  However, it would protect on-site learning for the core curricula of literacy, numeracy, science, and even geography and history (Social Studies).  Phys. Ed would be taught within the classroom or outside where possible.  This schedule requires that teachers take their planning time at home, as teachers would not be getting their own planning time coverage from non-classroom planning time teachers during the school day.  The planning time and FSL teachers would teach regular classes.

This schedule would shorten the school day, not only because of the planning time teachers would be taking at home, but also because this shorter school day eliminates the need for an afternoon recess, and for safety reasons, the lunch hour should be shortened, probably to 30 or 40 minutes.  Unstructured periods like recess provide too much opportunity for breaking social distancing guidelines.  Reducing recess time doesn’t impact instructional time.  Shorter recesses could be taken in the regular classroom.  Teachers could take their classes outside as long as classes don’t combine.

Another sticking point for having all students in elementary schools at the same time is lack of space for social distancing, especially if class sizes are capped at an arbitrary number of, say, 15.  If non-classroom teachers’ rooms are freed up (libraries, gyms, conference rooms, etc.), there will be additional spaces available for classes.  There should not be an arbitrary class size cap, but rather a formula of students to square footage, so that social distancing is maintained no matter the class size.  For example, a class of 28 students could easily be accommodated in a library or gym.  Most elementary schools would be able to safely social distance all of their students if all of their available school spaces were used and non-classroom teachers took regular classes.  In exceptional circumstances, some classes would have to be relocated to other schools, board-owned facilities, or leased facilities (adult-learning centres, high schools, banquet halls or sports facilities that cannot open until the final phase of reopening, etc.).

School boards are able to implement such measures if they are given some basic criteria to follow, and they can do this without increasing budgets, as long as there is flexibility in allocations.  If parents were shown such a plan and assured that social distancing and the necessary cleaning and safety measures will be taken, most students would return to school on a full-time basis, albeit with a shorter school day. 

It's also advisable for staffing purposes to get a short-term commitment from parents as to whether or not they intend to send their children to school, for a time frame of say 2-3 months at a time.  That way schools will have a firm basis upon which to divide students and staff classes.  It’s only fair to ask this commitment from parents for budgeting purposes.

Such a plan would be sustainable if the pandemic continued for many months or even years.  It could be flexible and adjusted for periods of distance learning if there are surges or local outbreaks of Covid-19.  It's important to have a clear process for return to school that maximizes safety while returning as many students to school on a daily basis as possible, so that students are not robbed of opportunities and families are not put under unnecessary additional stress, financial or otherwise.

Thoughts?

Edited by Zeitgeist
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