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Will kids be the cost of starting up the economy?

Reopening schools is crucial to a full economic reboot.

- Governor Andrew Cuomo

We've heard all the arguments for opening the schools. For most of the pandemic, these have centered around distrust of remote learning due to the mishaps this spring, which I hope by now everyone knows has more to do with a systemic failure to integrate e-learning and remote learning into schools years ago rather than any fault on the teachers themselves.

The other rationale for return to "the buildings," and the focus of this piece, is the need for parents to return to work.

Some people may conflate the two arguments because of the larger role that many parents played this past spring, but as states, regions, individual districts and schools struggle to fashion reasonable plans to start up in what is still a crisis, we continue to focus on the connection between returning kids to school and restarting the economy.

School as childcare

That people need to get back to work is not in question. And neither is the need for childcare for those people fortunate enough to have jobs to go back to. In fact, in a study titled Working parents are key to COVID-19 recovery, the Brookings Institute notes that "Working parents who rely on child care and school not only comprise a substantial share of the overall U.S. workforce, but also work disproportionately in fields such as education, health care, social assistance, finance, insurance, public administration, management, and professional services. In these industries, at least one in five workers depends on child care and schools."

In America in particular, school has been tied to the economy since the beginning of compulsory education, and we have had a centuries' old dependence on school-as-childcare, although many people would not recognize it as such, or have not until today. Where did this idea come from, and how can we address it in dealing with the current health, economic, and educational crises? I mention them in that order because paramount to all concerns must be the health and safety of our children.

Schools as weapons of mass instruction

Highly centralized mass production economies can’t function well without colonizing individual minds and converting them into a mass mind.

In his seminal 2010 book Weapons of Mass Instruction, John Taylor Gatto details the history of American education, dating from what has come to be known as the Prussian model, designed to "Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole."

Central to Gatto's thesis about mass instruction, or compulsory education, is the replacement of the American family with the institution of school. But Gatto does not think of the diminished importance of the family unit as a byproduct of schooling, as most might suspect; instead, he argues that the family was intentionally replaced by schools as schools were assigned a more prominent role in the economic future of the country.

Previous to this, America had been a country of independents, much admired by others for this trait.

The ideal household aimed to produce its own food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, transportation, medical care, education, child care, and social security.

This all changed in the years following the Civil War to suit the needs of a mass production economy. We needed consumers, and independent households taking care of their own needs were not ideal consumers, were they?

So we created a system of schooling that not only produced lookalike learners, but upon which the family unit formed a dependence over time as its source of learning, as its source of food, comfort, and childcare.

Much of this remains true to this day.

So, when people today say "We need to get kids back to school to restart the economy," that's quite a loaded statement. Are we talking about getting people back to work, as in all of the over 6 million people employed by the public school system in the United States? Or, are we referring to the 23 million working parents with no available caregivers, many of whom depend on their kids going to school so that they can work? Or are we casually referring to a state of mind that reflects the need for kids to be in school so we can go about business as usual?

Obviously, we need to distinguish between these different questions. We need to even admit that there are different questions to be asked.

Fear and confusion rule the decision-making process

One way to look at this is that the pandemic has presented families with the opportunity to consider their educational options. But the truth is most families and educators are acting out of fear and confusion.

Let's take New York City, where I live, as a case in point. Governor Cuomo's plan to reopen New York (State) schools for in-person instruction comes with a couple of caveats: a region’s daily coronavirus infection rate has to average below 5% for 14 days; parents and teachers must be confident that schools are safe before they can reopen. But Mayor de Blasio has set a 3% threshold for New York City, and Dr. Anthony Fauci sets the community threshold at 10%. What's an administrator to do?

New York City principals are becoming more vocal about their discomfort with bringing students back into the buildings. According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, N.Y.C. Schools Are Set to Open in a Month. Principals Fear That’s Too Soon, a group of principals in the city's district 15 have asked for a delay in reopening due to safety concerns.

One of the principals profiled in the Times piece, Alexa Sordon, has spent much of the summer revising plans and curriculum, preparing for both face-to-face instruction and remote learning. What is telling are her plans for her own family.

Ms. Sorden barely has time to think about who will watch her own children on the days when she’s at school, but they are learning from home.

What leaves me scratching my head is what the rest of the families are going to do as well. Sorden says that she estimates that 60% of families will opt for remote learning. But since her school is mostly low-income, do they have the resources to keep their kids at home?

Which leads us, in one big circle again. These concerns go far beyond education. I'd also like to point out another very real concern on the part of administrators, the financial threat being made regarding reopening, as that one Tampa school district at risk of losing $200 million in funding from the state if they fail to open by the end of the month.

It truly is damned if you do, damned if you don't, the latter from an economic perspective.

Microlearning and pods: A return home?

One solution being discussed in conjunction with pandemic schooling is microlearning. Oddly enough, it just hit me that this is exactly what my parents and our neighbors did in the big whiteout of my childhood. Those were the days when it still snowed, and it sometimes lasted weeks. And they actually closed the schools.

In my childhood version of microlearning, we created a pod by bringing together a few families and hiring one teacher, selecting a single location, and agreeing on the curriculum for each session. In those days, of course, our parents left the decisions to the teacher. But that's the simplified version.

You may have several such pods in a neighborhood or a single one depending on the local interest and scope of the effort.

There are many versions of microlearning, learning pods and even microschools. The homeschooling and unschooling communities have been doing this for years now, in many variations, and a pod can be a single family or several families working together; it can be a learning center.

Here are some examples that illustrate the variations that can occur with this model.

Cindy Gaddis, author of The Right Side of Normal, an exploration of right- and left-side learning, not only homeschooled all seven of her own children, she also runs the Creative Learning Center, which she describes as "a country-setting learning environment specifically geared toward encouraging children to be creative, be outdoors, be self-learners, and understand their own individual learning style." Cindy's program is face-to-face, and is located on 18 acres in Lexington, Kentucky so there is plenty of outdoors space for attendees to leverage outdoors learning to address pandemic concerns. The CLC hosts kids ages 8-18.

Blake Boles, founder and director of Unschooling Adventures and author of several books on self-directed learning, including recently Why are you Still Sending Your Kids to School?, is starting up an online version of microschooling called Self-Directed Learning 101. This microschool will be online and starts this fall.

David Blake is the founder of Degreed, the platform for upskilling and certification used by individuals and corporations. In July, he published an article titled "Why we're starting a microschool" in which he talked about the challenges his family has faced with traditional education and outlined the key features of the school he is founding.

  • Liberal arts-based curriculum

  • Book-based curriculum

  • Apprenticeship-based curriculum

  • Project-based curriculum

The plan is to start with students aged 10 and older and run face-to-face classes of up to 12. The design is creative, with a strong emphasis on mentorship and student-led activities. For example, the book-based part of the curriculum will use a kids version of the BookClub approach, with students interviewing authors. The idea is for this to feed into eventual mentorship relationships guided by the students' interests.

These are only a few examples of microlearning, but what they all have in common, and what all versions should share in today's version, which differs from when I was a member of a New York City pod, was that much of microlearning is meant to be learner-driven. And this is where the history lesson and the response to the pandemic transect.

Where next?

The pandemic is literally forcing us out of the buildings and making those who have never considered alternatives that perhaps another way is necessary, perhaps even possible.

There's precedent for microlearning, and, as discussed, multiple ways to implement the pod format. We have untapped resources in the form of recent college graduates and recently unemployed who can, perhaps, be leveraged as a teaching corps working with master teachers to guide pods in online and smaller face-to-face settings as appropriate to age groups and specific needs.

There's also the concept of outdoor education being floated around out there, an idea championed by New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, who recently wrote in an op ed piece in the Daily News: Of all the data points that the New York City Department of Education could be crunching as they prepare to re-open schools this fall, one number has received almost no attention: 29.5 million. That’s the combined square footage of the city’s outdoor schoolyards — space connected to our schools that can be repurposed into class and programming space to help keep our kids safe and out of doors this fall as much as possible.

Are we really saying it is more important to be able to sip a beer outside than to provide a similar outdoor option to help educate our children? Is that who we are?

Stringer's proposal has precedent, with a number of New York City schools setting up outdoor learning during the tuberculosis outbreak in the early 20th century. We know that it is safer outside than indoors, but with experts still recommending masks and social distancing outside, can we be sure of the benefits of the effort required on the part of teachers and staff?

To alleviate the concerns of working parents, our city has offered child care on days when remote learning is taking place as part of the blended learning plan. Perhaps this, combined with the above two alternatives, learning pods and outdoor learning, might be part of a reconfigured plan that can prevent kids from having to go back to full-scale "school-as-normal" in the fall.

We need to keep our kids, teachers, and school staff safe this fall. To do that, we can't have them going back to school buildings where they sit 25 or more in a classroom no matter what yardstick or PPE is used to supposedly make that safe.

As part of keeping them out of the buildings in that traditional design, use that time to reconsider what we have come to accept as acceptable.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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