DALLAS — Many districts are actively talking about how to restart school. But in the age of social distancing, what might that look like? In school? Online? Something in the middle?
After running down the leads, I think I've got a pretty good idea.
Kent Scribner is the superintendent of Fort Worth ISD. He says, in order to keep kids six feet apart from each other, classroom capacity will be cut in half. A room that held 25 last year will hold 12-13 kids this coming year.
And even then, those kids will get limited classroom time.
“Many of us, across the nation in the larger districts, are talking about a hybrid model where students would attend two days, then online learning for three,” Scribner said.
In a hybrid model,a teacher's class is split into parts A and B. The As report to school on Monday and Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday they participate in online learning. The Bs report on Wednesday and Thursday and go online Friday, Monday and Tuesday.
For the littlest kids, Scribner sees much more face time.
“The early childhood portion — our kindergarten, first- and second-grade — it's my belief that they need to be coming to school every day. That's a difficult age to instruct online,” he said.
But even then, Scribner says, everything will be subject to change, and on short notice.
“The reality is that we're likely going to have to pivot maybe more than once. From a brick and mortar scenario to a hybrid-scenario — two days in, three days out — or perhaps even fully online. And each one of those circumstances could be the reality for at least a portion of the school year,” Scribner said.
So, what does school look and feel like?
Steve Hulsey is the president of the architecture firm Corgan that works with school districts across North Texas. He says, to find more space, elementary students may have to move to middle school buildings.
And after that, you must get creative.
“What other spaces are available, in a building, to turn into classrooms?” I asked Hulsey.
“So, the cafeteria is a large space that can be utilized for multiple classrooms.” Hulsey said. “There's also media centers and libraries that we can also set up permanent classrooms inside of that,” he added.
And how does Hulsey envision a school day will flow?
Starting in the morning, parents will check to see their children are healthy and have their personal protective equipment. All good? The student goes to school at her assigned, staggered, start time. That’s so everyone doesn't show up at once.
At school, staff will check every person's temperature and make sure kids wash their hands. If a child is sick, they head to an isolation room. Healthy? Go to class. And stay there.
New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says schools should "ensure student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same group of children stay with the same staff."
Steve calls that a cohort.
“If you have a cohort, if you have a group of students, they come in a certain door. Use a certain restroom. Do certain things in the building. Then if one happens to get sick you don't have to wipe down the whole school. You look at that cohort and where they've been,” he said.
And what about education? What can we expect? Rena Honea is the president of the teacher’s union for Dallas schools, Alliance AFT.
“Do you think teachers can be held to the same standards that kids leave with the same amount of knowledge that we expected at the beginning of last school year?” I asked.
“In the upcoming school year, I think that would be a difficult expectation. Not only to be expected but to produce. There will have to be a lot of time spent finding out where kids are,” she said. “They will have to be given time to be able to catch up,” she said.
Honea says school districts must include teachers in setting new expectations for an unusual school year.
“I think we have to look at the expectations differently. Find different ways to do that. The evaluations. And you must have the input of those being evaluated. To help the administration understand, ‘This is the reality in our schools. We are in it every single day,'" she said.
And, of course, there's the possibility of school closures and disruptions.
In anticipation, the Texas Education Agency is recommending the school year start about a month earlier and end about a month later. During the year there should be longer holiday breaks as a buffer if schools need to close.
“Sounds like the school year is going be rough,” I said.
“It will be very difficult. I truly believe it will be very difficult,” Honea said. “Education has to be flexible. The teachers, the students, must be flexible,” she added.
For our communities to be productive again, parents and kids need to get back to the daily structure that school provides. What I found is administrators are looking for ways to give us some of that structure, but we'll have to give them a lot of patience in return.