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Can we ask schools to do the impossible?

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When I was a second grade teacher I set my watch’s second hand to match the clock in my classroom. 

Every day, at 30 seconds past 9:28, my students split off into six different rooms to receive their small group reading instruction. As my students left, less familiar faces arrived from other classrooms. I sat with them for 14 and a half minutes and then rang a small bell to signal the next rotation of children. I don’t know what education will look like in the fall, but I am certain that that is not it.

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Creating big, meaningful change in public K-12 education is extremely slow and difficult to accomplish. There are a lot of moving parts in this surprisingly rigid system. School districts attempt to integrate more best practices and data driven instruction into their curriculum, but they do this by squeezing more into already packed schedules. Which is exactly what led to me shifting eight-year-olds from room to room every fifteen minutes.  

With my attempts to close the achievement gap as a teacher, I always felt like I was trying to stop a bleeding wound with a Band-Aid when I needed a surgeon. I believed then as I do now that if we truly want change, we need to start from the ground up and build something new. 

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This fall, education will have to change. It is a horrible reality that in a global pandemic having hundreds of children in one building moving from teacher to teacher puts the health and safety of students, staff and families at risk. It is my hope that given this challenge schools will take this as an opportunity to mindfully build something new. To be successful, schools will have to make brave decisions and rethink what education should look like.

From what we know now about COVID-19, building smaller class sizes and keeping kids outdoors as much as possible would go a long way to curb the spread of the virus. It is easy to idealize what this could look like locally: small groups of students meeting outdoors with teachers in non-traditional settings like parks and farms. Money saved on building upkeep could be put into staff, and maybe some administrators could return to teaching to help decrease class sizes. 

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This and other ideas that would radically change education would have been completely impossible one year ago. But now when faced with the alternative of distance learning, it seems like redefining education is both impossible and our only option.

There are no easy answers. It is my fear that schools will simply not have the resources or the time they need for this type of change. Decades of underfunding has now left schools ill-equipped to deal with disaster. To get schools going again safely administrators will need to be exceptional leaders and overworked and underpaid teachers will be further pushed to their limits. Only time will tell if that is too much to ask of a system, we have not been willing to fully invest in.     

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We will get through this for better or worse, and when we do let us not forget the terrible position schools were put in. We need to commit to building a better education system in the future and give schools the foundation for them to survive in the face of disaster.