A Radical Proposal for Schools, Post-COVID

We need to think beyond plexiglass and masks when it comes to reimagining education.

kids drawing with chalk in an outdoor classroom
Kids draw with chalk at an outdoor classroom in Georgia, USA.

@haleymarie via Twenty20 

Lately I have been thinking about what elementary schools will be like when September rolls around. All of my teacher friends say they'll be nothing like what we know, that there are big changes coming, such as smaller class sizes, rigorous disinfection, social distancing protocols, and more online learning. Indeed, video footage from reopened schools in Taiwan and China shows very strict conditions, with kids getting sprayed and cleaned, wearing masks, and eating lunch behind plastic dividers.

While I appreciate the necessity of some of these changes, I wish we could think outside the box and reimagine public education in a creative and adventurous way. There are many drastic changes that could be made to improve a system that was, in many ways, already unsatisfactory and unfulfilling for countless children, their families, and even some educators.

I am not a teacher, but I am a parent to three school-aged children whose education I take seriously. I have opted out of the last-minute online learning that their school has offered during the pandemic, believing I can do a better job using my personal library and other resources. I am also a former homeschooled kid, whose education was radically rethought by two forward-thinking parents (one of whom was a teacher). So I am not afraid to challenge the status quo, push boundaries, and define unusual experiences as "educational".

These are a few of my thoughts. It's hardly a comprehensive list of the many possibilities that exist, but it's a good place to start. I'd love to hear from readers, too, how you envision schools of the post-pandemic future. All I know is that I don't want my kids living in plexiglass bubbles or in their bedrooms, glued to iPads for six hours a day. Almost anything is preferable to that (and many studies on children's emotional and mental wellbeing support that view). 

We Should Use the Safest Space We Have at Our Disposal – the Great Outdoors.

Ventilation and virus transmission is far less of a concern outdoors than it is inside a school, especially when those schools constantly recirculate air and have no windows that open. So why not move the kids outside, at least for part of their education? 

Money could be spent to build outdoor classrooms, such as this lovely one at my kids' school that never gets used for anything educational (according to them). Certain areas of the school yard could be reconfigured to host lessons and towns could designate parts of their public parks as "educational corners". This is an overall benefit: studies have found outdoor lessons improve kids' ability to focus.

outdoor classroom
An outdoor classroom at the author's children's school. Katherine Martinko

Partnerships could be formed with established forest schools to share groups of students; perhaps a class gets split in half and one group does forest school in the mornings and the other goes in the afternoon to reduce time and numbers in the classroom. School boards could start training outdoor teaching staff immediately and upgrading the qualifications of interpreters from outdoor education centers who might now be able to get jobs as teaching assistants.

State and provincial governments could allocate funds toward reopening top-notch outdoor education facilities that have been shuttered in recent years. (This has been a tragic loss in the province of Ontario, Canada, where I live, with renowned destinations such as the Leslie M. Frost Natural Resources Centre being closed by the last Conservative government after 83 years of operations.) Summer camp facilities could be repurposed and upgraded as year-round educational venues, helping to recover losses from this summer's cancellations. Older kids could go for longer and more regular field trips throughout the year, staying for several days at a time, instead of waiting for a once-in-a-lifetime grad trip to the same place.

We Should Rethink the Traditional School Calendar.

The September-June school calendar that we know today was based on agricultural practices that now affect far fewer families than in the past, making it less necessary. What if a year-round school calendar were adopted, with families choosing up to three months a year to take off? Teachers could choose their vacation times, too, which would help alleviate the notorious travel bottlenecks that happen on Spring Break and summer holidays. 

Even if year-round schooling doesn't work out, a new calendar could be helpful if more lessons took place outdoors. Perhaps a two-month break could be scheduled for the most extreme months of the year, such as January-February in Canada or July-August in Florida. Then, in the shoulder months, educators could get creative with maintaining kids' comfort outdoors, i.e. sprinklers and fountains in hot zones, campfires in cold ones. (It's a chance to incorporate some of those crucial elements of risky play into everyday lessons.)

Daily Schedules Could Be Redefined.

Who says school has to go from 8:30 to 3:30 (approximately)? There are different ways of structuring a day. When I was homeschooled, I started at 7:30 and finished all formal lessons by noon. Other countries follow different schedules. I attended a Sardinian high school for eleventh grade and we started around 8 and wrapped up at 1:30. Students returned to the school in the afternoon (after lunch and siesta) for any extracurriculars. When I lived in northeastern Brazil for a year, the kids in my neighborhood went to school in two cohorts – one in the morning from 8 to 11, the other in the afternoon from 2 to 5. This enabled the teachers to reach a greater number of students, with fewer children in the classroom at a given time. Personally, I'd love it if my kids could condense their day into a shorter, more intense burst of study, then have the other half free.

What about working parents? It looks as if much of the professional world is moving online, or at the very least becoming more flexible with working from home, so I think this will be less of a problem than it would have been in the past. If families can choose their optimal school time, i.e. morning or afternoon, that gives parents flexibility to work around newly-shaped school days.

A Few Things Could Be Radically Reconsidered.

The idea of huge super-schools that have a huge catchment zone and bus thousands of kids from far away is less appealing than ever. Perhaps we could go back to having small neighborhood schools, capped at a few dozen or hundred kids (depending where). I really don't know what this would look like, but it's a suggestion.

In the interests of reducing the numbers of students in contact with each other, we could do away with all-day junior and senior kindergarten programs, which – at least here in Ontario – were introduced as a form of free daycare, to make life easier for working parents. But if those parents are now working from home, perhaps we should be asking if we really need those young classes, especially with the current public health concerns.

New Forms of Learning Can Come to the Forefront.

Trying to recreate a classroom setting online, using a video stream and Zoom-like chat, is challenging. It's not the same thing, it never will be, and resources should be poured into developing high-quality at-home curriculum that draws on a range of resources. This is a chance for kids to develop some accountability and self-directed work skills. 

We know old-fashioned models work well, such as reading assignments. Why not hand out a set of textbooks and novels, instead of an iPad, and have a hand-in date online? That way kids are using a mix of materials, both physical and digital, to do their lessons, and I'd argue that it would promote better retention. Schools could partner with libraries to distribute materials, and possibly even offer quiet study spaces if homes are too chaotic. 

Some teachers have embraced projects-based learning during the pandemic, and I think this is a great model that could work going forward. Students are given assignments that tie "required content to larger themes, authentic experiences and [their] own interests," and are expected to complete them by a certain date. As the president of the American Federation of Teachers said, "These [open-ended assignments] are tailor-made for teachers grappling with the puzzle of how to end the school year in an engaging and productive way." Others say they'll likely be "part of how educators redesign instruction this fall when students might be spending far more time learning outside of the classroom."

One writer predicted that there'll be a rise in vocational and skills-based training, now that the pandemic has revealed North America's weaknesses in the manufacturing sector. Co-op programs and volunteer opportunities could be added to schools, which also serves to get more kids out of the classroom, while keeping track of their learning and investing wisely in the country's future. Even the reintroduction of shop class and home economics would be enormously beneficial, obviously without the historic gender divisions.

Gardening is a topic that came up in several comments on a previous article I wrote about outdoor schooling. Many see it as a way for kids to maintain a sense of their school community while building valuable skills, growing important food, and boosting overall wellbeing. 

"Large unbuffered (no obstruction) rooftops and playgrounds offer large community solar project potential. During the summer, growing gardens could be carried out with benefits for all."

Consider the Benefits.

This is a chance for kids to be less structured and more free in where and how they move through the world. If they're attending school only half-days, or every other day, they're going to have more time to entertain themselves, and that's a good thing. More parents may need to relax and allow their kids to get to school alone, to be latch-key kids, to keep an eye on younger siblings until they get home from work. This isn't radical; it's a return to how things once were.

There are a lot of ideas crammed in here, some of which are more outrageous than others, but the point is, we need to be thinking about every option. Now is not the time to stand back passively and let "technology" and "online learning" become the default response to the tragic dissolution of our children's familiar classrooms. We must stand up for what we think is important, and for me that's less time online, more time exploring new experiences, and a constant trajectory toward greater independence, self-directed learning, and getting outside.