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A Moment

History has had many critical moments. For example, the invention of the Gutenberg Press was a critical moment. No longer was knowledge only available to a privileged few but it could be spread among the masses. In more recent history, other moments have given rise to significant changes in how we do things especially, in education.

The end of World War 2 was a ‘moment’. 1945 led to a greater emphasis on post-secondary education and the introduction of the GI Bill in the USA. Society needed an educated populace, but they also needed somewhere for all the returning GIs to go. This led to the development of the educated middle class. A baby boom also followed the war creating the Boomers’ generation and amazing growth in the economy.

The launching of the Sputnik by the Russians in 1957 was a ‘moment’. It led to a re-thinking of how we delivered education in North America and a re-emphasis on the importance of mathematics and science.

The invention of the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 was a ‘moment’. It has revolutionized the education world. No longer do you have to go into the depths of a library filled with print material to research a project. Students can learn on-line, share on-line, and create products on-line. The teacher truly can be the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.

I believe we are at another critical ‘moment’ in history now. The Covid 19 pandemic has created this moment. We have shut down our economy and country and have rapidly changed the way society behaves. Among some of the changes, gone is travel, even to the neighbouring country, gone are the large social gatherings including religious gatherings, gone are sporting events and gone is mandatory daily school attendance.

It is anything but business as usual. My daughter, who is the vice president of a global forest industry, works with many teams, all of whom are working from home. A survey of each of the various team members has indicated that they are more productive, and more efficient in this new way of working. The pandemic is leading the company to re-examine all work practices because they are seeing new and better ways to work. This is a positive effect of this deadly virus.

Doctors have changed their practice of having patients come to their office in favour of a first consultation through a video call. This reduces the possibility of coronavirus spread in a waiting room. Many have shifted their retail shopping to online orders and delivery services are working long hours to keep up. Socializing during a cocktail hour is happening over various electronic platforms like ZOOM. Neighbours are now having “sip and shout” visits to maintain social contact while maintaining social distancing. The virus has become the catalyst for change!

So, what have we learned in education and what are we doing about it in this historical ‘moment’? In the last school year we learned that:

1) Kids do not have to be in a school building five days a week to learn. School does not have to be “a place”.

2) Kids do not have to spend a specified amount of time on a specific subject to learn the content. Learning is not time dependent.

3) Online learning can be effective for many students although delivery was inconsistent among teachers.

4) A combination of online learning and onsite, in person instruction serves some students well:

5) With technology availability, school libraries are not essential.

6) Schools are a key support to the economy by enabling parents, particularly parents of young children, to go to a work place.

7) Some children’s mental well being suffers when they are not in school.

8) For many parents, home schooling their children caused severe stress.

9) Districts need to create a pandemic safe environment in schools for student and staff safety.

In our traditional, still industrial model, we required students to be in a specific place for a specified amount of time. Because of the pandemic both conditions were removed and yet the government and their educational partners ensured students were successful at the end of the traditional school year. Even the concept of the school “year” is based upon the old agricultural model when the young people were needed in the fields in the summer. If students have been successful in this pandemic, why do we continue to base the system so heavily on ‘time’ and ‘place’? Let us consider some thoughts for the new school year.

At this ‘moment’ we need to look at a short-term plan that can be implemented for safety. Parents, staff, and children are anxious. They want to know what the plan is for the Fall and in most cases the first concern is safety. We know young children appear to be less susceptible to this virus and that they have not been the super spreaders. But we also know that to make schools safe for the children and the staff the same basic practices are essential. We must plan for social distancing in the building (“few faces in enclosed spaces “as Dr. Henry would say), excellent hand hygiene, and wearing masks. Classroom space is the key issue with social distancing. Districts’ solution in May was to have young children attend only two days per week and to split the classes in two. The pandemic is expected to be here until 2022 so how do we get younger students into class full time?

Consider placing students in the following manner:

1) Elementary schools become primary schools for students in K-3 only. These classes are divided in half and most of the current staff remains at this school teaching these students. This should enable the required social distancing while leaving some space available for special needs situations. With the reduction of grades, vice principals would return to full time teaching and principals would teach part-time.

2) Intermediate students would be housed in the high school into which that elementary feeds. Again, to satisfy social distancing, classes would be divided in half as the larger school has the space to do this. The staff for grades 4 and 5 classes would be a combination of the remaining available elementary teachers and current grade 8 teachers who are usually more generalist teachers as is demonstrated by the middle school model in numerous districts. For the grade 6 and 7 classes, the grade 9 and 10 specialist teachers could move from class to class teaching their specialty such as science, math, or English among others. Students would remain in place to reduce the contact. Staff who currently carry no teaching responsibilities such as librarians, counsellors and some vice principals would return to their first love of teaching to supplement the staff ranks. Unique adaptations would have to be made for immersion programs, such as French or Mandarin, because not enough qualified staff are available. Team teaching, assigning an immersion teacher and a regular teacher to two classes, is one solution that would ensure some immersion was available to all enrollees.

3) Secondary students would continue to work online with the grade 10-12 specialist teachers responsible for the online delivery. Class sizes are less critical and could range as high as 50 in number. This has been done in BC before by many of the present online providers. There should be a common delivery platform adopted by the province and training provided to the teachers who use the platform. Students should also be permitted to demonstrate proficiency through such platforms as the Khan Institute.

4) These senior students would be expected to work online four days a week. To allow an opportunity for some personal contact with their teachers, some of these students could arrange to meet with their teachers in the building on a designated day in the week. To do this, the school would have to be open on weekends and half the senior staff would work Tuesday to Saturday while the other half would work Sunday to Thursday. Saturday and Sunday are their respective designated in-house days while the other four are their online teaching days.

5) International student enrolment is projected to drop by at least 60% meaning a loss of around 12,000 of the approximately 20,000 K-12 students in the province. This will reduce class sizes as well as the need for certain ELL services, meaning more space and staff are available but budgets will be tight.

6) Some subjects will not be offered in-house during this pandemic. Physical Education would become the responsibility of the parent and community. For physical fitness students can follow online programs supervised by a parent or community member. For sports, any teams would be community offered as is currently the case for many team sports. Similarly, the arts could occur through community performance involvement or independent, individual online participation. Activities such as choral or drama are not deemed safe at the present time in the school or community. If space is tight in some schools, classroom space would be increased by freeing up spaces such as the library, gymnasium, and theater.

7) Budgets will be tight, but the changes suggested above should prompt a thorough review of administrative functions which should also release personnel to directly serve the classrooms. Fewer international students should result in staff and travel reductions. Online learning for secondary students should reduce the need for secondary administrators. Board offices should also be able to reduce positions particularly since only half the teaching population will be on site. Resources need to be focused directly on the classroom. This includes ensuring that the requisite PPE’s are available to staff. Students need to have adequate access to washing stations and sanitizer and when in a building everyone must wear a mask. With fiscal prudence, and administrative austerity Districts should be able to manage this model within the budget.

Clearly, a one size fits all model cannot be applied to every district. Rural districts and urban districts are different in both nature and size. However, this design could be tweaked to meet the nuances of each district. The model enables all elementary students to attend schools full time in a safe environment. It maintains an online program for secondary students with teachers available to some students by appointment one day per week. It does mean secondary students would need to work much more on their own just as those workers who are now working from home do. Hence, it is good student preparation for the kind of work model they may depend upon in the future.

Above all, families of elementary students can return to a more “normal” functioning reducing many of the pressures that were felt at the end of the last school year. But it is also time to redouble efforts to move the school system forward by examining every aspect of its operation with a view to creating a safer, more relevant, modernized system. The pandemic has created an historical ‘moment’ that has forced us to seek a new normal. We need to view this as a positive and seize this opportunity to reach for the stars by building a better education system for our children’s future.

Copyright: Doug Player, July 16, 2020.

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