Schools had to make a hard pivot to online learning back in March, when we were all dealing with the trauma of having our lives completely upended. It worked well for some students, was disastrous for others, and was probably okay, but not ideal, for most. Virtual learning is still not ideal. Most students are better served in the classroom. However, these are less than ideal times.
The general approach to this virus in the United States seems to be repeatedly trying to impose our “normal” lives on this extremely abnormal situation. This has not worked out well, by any data driven standard or measurement. It is time to flip the script, and instead of focusing our attention solely on the educational component of school, we must find creative and meaningful ways to engage with human-centered solutions.
The recent proposals from both Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana District 116 have not met the standards of the guidance given to the community by Julie Pryde, Administrator of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department (CUPHD):
“Outdoor socially distanced activities (with the option for wearing masks) is the safest possible way to engage right now.”
When we asked her explicitly about what the best possible situation is, this was her final word. And that is where planning should begin.
We believe the best way to proceed as a community comes from the direction of CUPHD, and because those standards are not being currently met inside of the proposals from the school districts, we feel compelled to present an alternative plan for how this coming semester should be executed.
This is not something we publish without consideration for all parties involved. We do so with the knowledge that we are neither education professionals, nor teachers. We acknowledge that there are no truly perfect solutions to these sets of problems right now, with COVID-19 cases rising dramatically nationwide.
We do not consider the low case numbers in Champaign County at present to be the benchmark of our goals. We must defeat this virus — and bring the number of cases down to almost zero, as they have elsewhere — in order for us to return to some sense of normalcy. We can only do that by following the data and science and recommendations of our health professionals.
So, we asked CUPHD, along with members of the school boards, and the Champaign Federation of Teachers, for feedback on what they’d like to see for schools re-opening. We compiled that, and added to that what we believe will be the safest option for everyone involved.
To that end, we propose a 100% virtual learning plan for the fall that includes a shorter semester, where the school campuses will host a mostly outdoor environment in good weather, adjusting to radically distanced indoor environments in inclement weather, for any student that needs supervision, guidance, and/or internet access.
- All educational programming and teaching is to be done virtually through online classroom engagement.
- All parents who are able (and willing) are encouraged to keep their children at home, learning online, through a district-wide virtual academy, tailored to each school, grade, and teacher’s curricula.
- Teachers should be given access to professional training resources to help guide them through the semester, starting immediately.
- All teachers and students who need access to a tablet or computer should be provided one.
- All students who need access to WiFi, students whose parents cannot care for them during school hours, students who qualify for free or reduced school breakfast and lunch, students who have Individualized Education Program (IEPS), etc., will be assigned to a Unit 4 or Unit 116 building in closest proximity to the student’s home, regardless of grade level.
- Fall semester should begin on Tuesday, September 8th in order to give CUPHD, the districts, and teachers’ unions more time to plan and design what fall 2020 can look like.
- The semester will end Friday, November 20th, the weekend before Thanksgiving.
- The first week of class should be solely focused on as much person-to-person engagement via virtual video-based discussion: parents to teachers, teachers to students, student to student, etc.
- School hours would be determined in good faith negotiation between districts and unions, but a slightly longer learning day, paired with post-school care, as they do with Kids Plus in Champaign, should still be offered, for students attending virtual learning on a school campus.
- Educational curricula and syllabi should be introduced the first week, and begin the second week of school.
- Have an outdoor meet-and-greet with teachers at their home school buildings prior to the start of the year where teachers and students can connect in person, and teachers can give any needed supplies to students.
- All schools will first assign outdoor space to each student, distanced as much as possible. Here, students will spend their day learning via tablet; adult supervision should be present at all times.
- The onset of dangerous or inclement weather will shift that same online learning process indoors, socially distanced with masks inside of the gymnasium, classrooms, libraries, as directed in partnership with CUPHD.
This will require sacrifice and courage. This is not something anyone is fully prepared to manage. We recognize how much will be asked of everyone, to keep us all safer, and to have to think multi-dimensionally to execute these parameters.
This will not go perfectly. Implementing this won’t be easy, but is anything easy right now?
However, this is possible. There are smart and talented people in this community. We are a community that has always prided itself on collaboration. Also, we should give our kids more credit. They understand the online space better than we ever will. They adapt in ways adults are no longer able.
Moreover, we fundamentally believe that we should envelope our students with love and attention at this particular moment in time. We need to give them the space to share their experiences, and to feel scared, or confused, or enlightened. And then we need to listen to them. Again and again. If we allow our teachers to extend their pedigree as educators into the role of mentors and partners, we will have already succeeded.
Let’s educate our kids the best we can this semester, and let’s buy some more time, while keeping them and the adults that serve them as safe as possible. It’s the best path forward right now.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.