Hartford, CT — High-level strategists will often ask “How do we screw this up?” as a way of evaluating problems with a new proposal. Upon compiling responses, the next step is to develop a scheme that effectively avoids the obstacles that are recognized. I’m thinking of this process for building sustainable, strategic plans to Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, who announced on June 25th that all public schools in Connecticut will fully reopen in the fall. His plan calls for impractical norms such as requiring students to keep masks on the entire school day, follow strict social distance rules, and prohibits things like gatherings in the cafeteria. This plan is stunning in its absurdity; it is as if the governor and his team answered “How do we screw this up?” but then stopped there and just made their thinking at that point the policy they shared with the public.
The governor is understandably in a tight spot — Connecticut schools are a linch-pin in the state’s economic recovery. Parents who are surrogate teachers at home during virtual learning cannot also engage in work (or looking for work if they have already been laid off), so keeping children at home limits economic recovery. At the same time, the primary responsibility in a school is safety — physical and emotional safety is paramount in a school, for without it learning is impossible. Federal officials have repeatedly failed to lead a national response to the pandemic, so Lamont and his advisors are on their own to cobble together a pandemic response plan. However, even when weighing all these factors, the plan to fully reopen schools is short-sighted, impractical, and unsafe.
This plan will effectively turn teachers into enforcers of rules, not educators. Real learning will not be possible as teachers harang students to wear their masks all day or to remain at least six feet away from each other (just pause for a moment to think about your own experience as a student and recall the number of times you were in a classroom where it was possible to be six feet away from every other person in that room). Even if additional teachers can be hired to reduce the size of groups of students, as the plan calls for, their daily tasks in this plan won’t be teaching and students won’t be learning with their masks up and separated from others. Teachers are often the last stop, the group who will sacrifice what is good for themselves in order not to let students get short shrift. This time, their collective selflessness can’t make up for a terrible policy decision.
It is likely that a significant factor in this decision was the 12 week virtual learning experiment that occurred from March to June. By most (all?) accounts, student engagement during online learning was disappointing at best. It may be easy for the governor and others in similar positions to conclude that virtual learning can’t work, so schools need to reopened this Fall, at all costs. This conclusion though reveals a lack of understanding about online learning. When the ratio of students to teachers is significantly reduced (i.e.: 5 to 1 rather than 30+:1 typical in many public school classes) and the teachers serve as instigators or guides who support thinking rather than just sources of information, online learning is very effective and a powerful tool in supporting critical thinking skills, developing curiosity, and transferring understanding from one so-called subject to another. Trying to execute 3 months of online learning with no preparation or insufficient infrastructure isn’t sustainable. There is no way this method of school could succeed, and it should not be the thing the Governor is thinking about when he chooses to re-open schools in the Fall.
Luckily, state officials need not develop alternative models out of thin air. Organizations like Global Online Academy have created online learning options and well-designed tools that can be adapted quickly by teachers and districts. GOA, and other similar organizations, already have in place the architecture for online learning that can help students receive the engagement they desire and teachers the tools they need to connect with students through an uncertain time.
As the pandemic presents simultaneous economic, political, and emotional challenges that we have not encountered before, the pathway through these challenges cannot be based on business as usual. Governor Lamont’s plan does not demonstrate visionary leadership. Rather, it jeopardizes the health and safety of students and teachers by trying to return to a framework for education that is neither physically safe, logistically viable, nor pedagogically sound.
The Governor and his advisors would do well to postpone the start of the school year for up to several weeks to enable teachers and administrators the time to collectively study successful online learning models and develop the plans to successfully implement them. With a viable virtual learning model in place, Connecticut schools have a chance to serve students and families across the state. To continue with his plan as it was stated last week will only offer continued disruption in the short term; in the long term, it may be a textbook example in the future of how to make an unprecedented situation even more screwed up.