Pandemic requires school systems to create at least 5 modes of schooling

Devin Vodicka

My first concern when school was upended last spring was equity. As education moved online, it didn’t take an expert to recognize the dramatically divergent ways learners might experience fully remote learning. Schools were scrambling to address an array of challenges. My colleagues and educators across the country did the best they could. 

Now, as we enter a back-to-school season unlike any other, equity is top-of-mind again. I share the concern that many are expressing: that as schools struggle to navigate the pandemic, more privileged parents will have the resources to take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, others will be left to get the best they can from whatever mix of at-home and in-person learning their school system is able to piece together.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what appears to be happening. And while I understand the risk, what I am having a much harder time understanding is our collective response. While a handful of schools and districts are thinking outside the box, it appears most are trapped between the two ends of the spectrum in terms of what school could look like this year: fully remote or fully traditional. While many schools and districts also created plans for a structured hybrid model, the majority of space in the middle is being left open and thus, apparently, ceded to those with the power and resources to figure it out themselves. 

This does not have to be the case. We educators have the ability to implement solutions as innovative and effective as any. Plus we have the experience and wisdom to know what children need, and how to support them academically and emotionally. We are better positioned than anyone else to rigorously explore more nuanced and creative approaches. To do so, and do so quickly, we need at least three key things. 

First, we need a clear understanding of the spectrum of possibilities, and their pros and cons. While I originally was seeing three modes of schooling for this year (virtual, hybrid, and in-person), I now believe that there are at least five that schools must create and offer in order to provide a range of options to meet the unique needs of learners while waves of the pandemic rise and fall.  Fully-remote, pods, microschools, hybrid models, and traditional in-person are all legitimate and feasible options that can be viewed on a continuum of health risk, academic, and social emotional characteristics. The graphic below is my attempt to do so. 

In attempting to lay out our options more simply, my hope is that we can create some common understanding about the different options in front of us. We can more honestly assess the pros and cons of various models, instead of viewing one as ideal and the others as inferior. As a result, we can have more productive discussions about the approach that fits best for each school and community. 

It should be made clear that schools and systems will likely offer multiple modes of schooling concurrently.  During times of greatest health risks, I imagine that most students will be fully remote and that smaller percentages of students – those with the greatest needs – will be prioritized to participate in pods (5-7 students and 1-2 teachers).  These pods will likely be staffed with some combination of certificated teachers and community partners who specialize in childcare.  As conditions improve, some students will migrate into microschools (150 or fewer students and 5-7 teachers) that begin to actualize some of the benefits of a broader social community while also minimizing the risks that would arise through exposure to larger groups of students and staff.  For those participating in the pods and microschools, they will receive the benefits of in-person supervision full-time while some of their peers will remain in full-virtual.  When hybrid options become feasible, those who had been full-virtual will now have a mix of in-person and virtual and those who had been in pods or microschools will have a mix of large group in-person while the pods and microschools will remain intact during the times that they would be not be in the larger campus setting.  

Second, we need to recognize that logistics are complicated in any approach. As a former superintendent, I can make heads spin with stories of the logistical complexities of school bus routes, start times, and scheduling. Traditional in-person may feel like the easiest option, but that is because it is the logistics we know. In a pandemic context, even the traditional approach takes on significant new logistical twists. We have to believe that we can tackle any logistical challenge to deliver the approach we ultimately feel is best for learners, families, and educators. 

Finally, we need to ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish in the first place. Our charge is not to expose students to a particular model of schooling. It is to prepare them for the future they will inhabit and lead. In other places and in other posts I have written about the need to move beyond the era of Achievement and Accountability to the era of Agency in education

Agency is a state of acting, or exerting power. When wealthy families take action to set up a learning pod or microschool, they are exerting their agency. Agency is one of the most important characteristics we can develop in our learners. One of the most important ways to do this, is to model it for them ourselves, to demonstrate what agency looks like in action, in the midst of uncertainty and change. If we accept the options that feel easiest, and cede more nuanced, innovative solutions to others, we are doing the exact opposite. 

Many reading this post might wonder if it’s already too late. Most schools have settled on one of the extreme options in the above graphic. They plan to start the year fully virtual, or fully in-person. Some are pursuing a hybrid approach. Far fewer have explored pods, bubbles or microschools. I would argue the exact opposite. If there is one important positive lesson we can take from the experience of the past six months it is that change is possible, quickly. I also believe that just as we’ve learned that we need to expand from three to five modes of schooling, we need to be open to ongoing adjustments as we collectively navigate through these uncharted waters. 

The consequences of not taking this step back are significant. Public systems stuck between extreme options, each with significant health-related, academic, or social emotional downsides while more innovative and nuanced options are available to only the most privileged families is not what anyone seems to want, but without urgent action it may be exactly what comes to be. We have the collective creative leadership to adapt our models to meet the needs of all students within this dynamic landscape. We must act now.

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