“A working parent’s nightmare.” That’s how one parent angrily described their school district’s plan to reopen schools in Pennsylvania. In Connecticut, a school superintendent said she was “horrified” at reopening school and putting kids’ and teachers’ health at risk. A superintendent in Tennessee lamented the difficulty in a district where a survey found differing opinions among thousands of educators and families. More than 100 pages of guidance for North Carolina schools has been dubbed “comically impractical.” All the while, two-thirds of parents surveyed in a recent poll said they want schools to remain closed until the health risks have subsided, even if it means students fall behind academically.
What if we didn’t have to settle on one reopening plan? What if we empowered schools, educators, and families to create mutual arrangements that work for everyone involved?
While the future is uncertain, there is no doubt that individual viewpoints and experiences with the pandemic will produce divergent opinions on what the future of education should look like. Instead of focusing on a one-size-fits-all plan that satisfies some, angers others, and confuses the rest, now is the time to focus on cultivating pluralism, dynamism, and bottom-up solutions in education.
Here are seven ways to reopen schools so each family’s needs are served.
#1. Create small learning communities and give educators more autonomy. Individual family needs can best be met by a variety of learning communities that meet them. And, obviously, such small schools mitigate viral spread and help with tracing and containment efforts if an outbreak were to occur. Perhaps even more important for children, small schools have been shown to foster trusting, caring, and attentive relationships among students and educators.
This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Schools-within-schools can be created inside existing facilities. The “when and where” of the school day can be reimagined to allow young adults to pursue their interests via project-based learning, internships, part-time jobs, apprenticeships, and other enriching opportunities that prepare students for life after school. New schools can be authorized through existing charter school laws. In each case, educators should be given more autonomy in leading.
#2. Partner with community organizations such as libraries, museums, Boys & Girls Clubs, 4H, and other organizations to ensure there are enriching learning opportunities for kids, which will also free up the space to enable smaller schools and class sizes to exist.
#3. Unbundle education funding to allow families to direct their education funds to a variety of schools, providers, and services. Almost all funding formulas envision a world in which a child is in one school for a specified number of hours, days, weeks, and months. That no longer makes sense.
#4. Provide credit for learning, wherever it occurs through policies – like this newly enacted one in West Virginia – that allow students to earn course credit for learning opportunities that take place at community organizations, after-school clubs, and similar locations.
#5. Open enrollment policies allow families to attend public schools other than their zoned school. District and attendance boundaries should not prevent students from opportunities to learn.
#6. Distance learning districts are wholly new Local Education Associations that serve students across the state regardless of geographic residence. This effort is an innovative way to fund students for virtual learning and break down the geographic boundaries that prevent families from choosing online options.
#7. Regulatory relief to allow for innovations. Educators should be empowered to teach and not bottlenecked by inaction from state and federal governments, or bound by rules and regulations that were designed for a world we no longer live in, including: arbitrary seat time requirements that dictate how many hours a student needs to be in a classroom; policies that prevent school-level financial authority; and rules governing how meals can be provided to in-need students.
Disagreements over the future of American education have been around as long as public schools, and range from freedom of speech, curricular disagreements, sex education, and many more. It doesn’t need to be winner-take-all. This crisis is an unsought opportunity to create a bottom-up system that truly fits the needs of individual families.
Adam Peshek is a fellow at the Charles Koch Institute where he focuses on for K-12 education policy.