Richmond: 6 Things Schools Should Be Doing Now to Ease the Chaos and Stress When Students Go Back to Class in the Fall

Classroom in Berlin, Germany (Getty Images)

As stressful and chaotic as public schooling was this spring, it is likely to be more so this summer, as schools decide how to organize schedules and classes in a pandemic and parents try to find a school that meets their needs.

Already, the nation is hearing of schools that are planning to greatly reduce class sizes through a variety of strategies, such as alternating days of in-person instruction or asking some families to sign up for year-long virtual classes. Whatever strategy a school decides, there will be families who cannot make it work with their job or who feel the school’s health and safety precautions are inadequate. There will be more than a few emotional phone calls as parents ask for further accommodations and schools decide where to draw the line.

Here are six steps that schools can begin to follow now in hopes of minimizing conflicts when the new school year begins.

1 Survey your families now about their needs and expectations.

Do you have some families who want 100 percent online instruction? How many have job requirements that prevent them from being at home with their children? Or have someone at home with at-risk health conditions? Getting good estimates of the numbers of students in different situations can help you design a strategy for reopening in the fall.

2 Survey your teachers and staff now about their preferences, expectations and constraints.

It is important to know which employees have medical conditions that may prevent them from physically returning to work, which ones may have a personal preference (but not a medical need) for working virtually and which ones prefer to be back on site. Schools with older teachers and staff may find very different survey responses than schools with younger teachers and staff.

3 Work with school facility professionals and local health authorities now to determine how your building can be safe this fall.

Learn how many students each classroom can accommodate. Evaluate options for staggering start times. Decide how and how often you will need to clean and disinfect. Check to see if you can upgrade your ventilation system. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a thorough list of considerations, and the Brooklyn Laboratory School has produced helpful resources. You will want to work closely with the local officials and professionals who know your community’s needs best.

4 At least two months before the start of the new school year, develop a strategy that best meets the needs of students, families and employees within your school’s space and budgetary limitations.

If your building can safely accommodate all students and employees during a regular schedule with spacing, cleaning and ventilation modifications, you will be blessed. After all, most families will prefer a return to some semblance of a normal, on-site school year. If not, you will need options. You might choose to have a morning cohort and an afternoon cohort, or every-other-day cohorts, or alternating weeks of in-person instruction. You might have an on-site cohort and one that is 100 percent virtual. You cannot completely satisfy everybody, but you can do your best to design options that work well, or reasonably well, for most people.

5 Inform your families of their options and ask them to select one no less than six weeks before the start of the school year.

People need to be able to make plans, and that includes school leaders, families, teachers and staff. With six weeks’ advance notice, school leaders can put in place (with great effort and no time left to spare) the detailed logistics needed for the reopening of school; families can make their own plans; and teachers and staff can learn what will be expected of them.

6 Revise your instructional approach to maximize continuity regardless of instructional delivery method.

Ask your teachers to envision an ideal lesson in a 100 percent online setting, in a 100 percent on-site setting and in a mixed setting. Look for what is common across those formats and ask your teachers to begin planning instruction so it can be done successfully regardless of context. However the school year starts, changes may occur, and flexibility will be key.

The complexities facing our school communities this summer and fall can feel overwhelming, and a six-step list of suggestions is not meant to minimize them. Rather, it is intended to provide some helpful suggestions and to make one other point: Decisions about how to organize the delivery of instruction this fall are inextricably linked to the needs of the families who send their children to each school, the needs of the teachers and staff who work there and the physical characteristics of each building. What works well in one school may not work at another down the street. Some buildings may have already been overcrowded, while others may have enough room for students to spread out. We need to empower each school to make decisions that will work best.

We also need to be ready for the fact that there will be school-less families this August. Some simply cannot or will not re-enroll their children under the arrangements their school is offering. It is not hard to imagine scenarios in which parents need on-site instruction for their children every day because of their job, but their school does not offer that option. Will that family be able or allowed to find another school in August? What about a family that wants or needs 100 percent online classes, but their school does not offer them? Will that family be able and allowed to find another school come August?

The stakes are high — for children’s education, for parents’ employment and for everybody’s health. The sooner we learn what our families, teachers and staff need, and the sooner each school can decide what options to offer, the better we will be able to manage the stress of returning to school this fall.

Greg Richmond is a strategic adviser at the Boise, Idaho-based nonprofit Bluum, founder of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and former chair of the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

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