Safely Resuming In-Person Schooling Requires Creativity and Flexibility

Guest Post from Noe Medina, Education Policy Research

Photo by Kate Trifo from Pexels

There has been considerable attention paid recently to the re-opening of schools in the fall. These discussions have emphasized the learning losses that students have experienced due to school closures in the spring, particularly among students who were already struggling. They cited concerns from pediatricians about delays in social development that have already occurred among younger children and could continue to grow. They talked about the impact on the economy and family finances for parents who could not get back to work without someplace safe to send their children.

All of this makes sense and provides very compelling reasons for action. What doesn’t make sense are the actions being proposed for the fall. Too much of the discussion has focused on the school buildings themselves and the mechanics of the re-opening rather than on the real purpose of these actions — to safely foster high-quality, in-person learning for all our children for as long as possible. The result has been a profound lack of creativity and a fairly narrow set of solutions, particularly in light of the resurgence of the coronavirus in so many states and communities across the country.

The problem starts with the language that is being used. Instead of talking about re-opening schools, we should be focusing on safely resuming in-person schooling in the fall and beyond. Too many people have concluded that now is not the time to restructuring schooling. Because of the pandemic, they claim that we must focus on the basics of re-opening school. That is exactly wrong. Now is time to be as creative and flexible as possible and to explore ALL options.

In thinking about safely resuming in-person schooling, communities should begin by asking the following questions:

· How can we involve other spaces in the community in addition to school buildings (such as public libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, daycares, and museums) to provide in-person schooling to more our students more of the time each week?

· How can we enlist others in our community (including youth workers, social service providers, daycare staff, government agency employees, community volunteers, and parents) to work with teachers and other school staff to foster more in-person schooling?

· How can we use distance learning methods to support greater in-person schooling for our students rather than just isolated, at-home learning?

· How can we use this situation to foster better and more equitable schooling opportunities for all students rather than seeing the existing inequities widen, particularly for students of color?

To safely resume in-person schooling for all students in the fall and to sustain that schooling throughout the school year, we must strengthen and expand the connections and authentic cooperation between schools, community agencies, businesses, and families so that this becomes a community-wide imperative rather than just the responsibility of teachers and school districts. Federal and state governments must provide sufficient funding and practical guidance to communities to ensure that this cooperation is successful.

Early examples of these cooperative efforts have already begun to emerge. In response to the pandemic and the closing of schools, several Maine nonprofit organizations formed Community Learning for Maine in a grassroots effort to respond to these challenges. The group has grown in the last few months to include almost one hundred Maine-based organizations including nonprofits, businesses, public agencies, and higher education institutions. Drawing on the collective knowledge and creativity of these organizations, the group has provided online resources, support, and networking opportunities for students, families, and teachers during these difficult times. This has laid the groundwork for further collaboration around how to support communities and schools as they develop plans for the fall. Efforts such as Community Learning for Maine can provide both inspiration and concrete lessons for others in our region and around the country.

This WILL be hard work. It will require resources and time from many people in our communities. More important, it will require all of us, including educators, to approach schooling differently. We must accept that one size does NOT fit all. Instead, the needs of different students and the changing conditions in each community will demand flexible responses. Communities must embrace creativity as a necessity rather than a luxury. We must recognize that EVERYONE in our communities has a stake in the successful resumption of in-person schooling for students in the fall and beyond.

Noe Medina lives in Massachusetts and has dedicated his career to promoting high-quality educational services for all students, particularly those that have been traditionally underserved by the public school system.

Safely Resuming In-Person Schooling Requires Creativity and Flexibility was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Guest Post: “Staying Proximate” to Advance Racial Equity

This guest post was written by Matt Leighninger, Vice President of Public Engagement at Nellie Mae grantee Public Agenda.

While incidents of bias and discrimination can occur anywhere, it’s especially troubling when they happen in our schools. To help educators, students, and other community members address these issues, Public Agenda has created “Addressing Incidents of Bias in Schools: A Guide for Preventing and Reacting to Discrimination Affecting Students.” This resource, which was developed with the support of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, provides a framework for discussion and action, along with advice on how to use the guide in classrooms, staff meetings, after-school programs, and school-wide events.

The type of dialogue that this Guide helps facilitate involves bringing together a large, diverse group of people, and having smaller discussion sessions within the group, as we saw happen in a high school in Portland, Maine. There, students and faculty used the Guide to organize a community dialogue event following a racially-motivated incident outside of the school.

How does this type of event and conversation help us make progress toward racial equity? Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative calls this “getting proximate and staying proximate.” By this he means that people of different backgrounds need to talk with each other, work together, and get an up-close look at the everyday challenges each of them face, in order to minimize the misunderstandings and maximize the many benefits that cultural diversity can bring.

Getting proximate

“Getting proximate and staying proximate” may be helpful for understanding the recent history of public engagement on issues of race and difference. During the 1990s, we “got proximate.” Following trials involving Rodney King and then O.J. Simpson, in an effort to help overcome community divisions and prevent public debates from being dominated by extreme voices, a wave of local public engagement efforts swept the nation, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of diverse citizens in forums, trainings, workshops and small-group dialogues.

These conversations, which included teachers, police officers, social workers, city planners, and more, led to changes large and small, from adjustments in police hiring policies to new economic development plans, from new extracurricular activities to the construction of public schools, and from police-sponsored basketball leagues to new police substations. But we didn’t build in ways for large, diverse numbers of people to “stay proximate,” and this limited the long-term impact of the work, as demonstrated by the re-emergence of highly visible forms of racism in the last five years.

How to stay proximate

While getting proximate on issues of race had many positive outcomes, it had only limited impacts on systems, or more accurately on the ways in which people interact with public institutions. The tactics of small-group dialogue, comparing lived experience, proactive network-based recruitment, and collaborative action were not incorporated into the way that official public meetings are structured, or even the way that crime watch groups and neighborhood associations operate. In most places, they are not part of the standard operating procedures for police departments or school systems.

In the absence of these more systemic changes, the benefits of public engagement on race may have been meaningful but temporary. Certainly the fraying of police-community relations, evidence of racial profiling by officers, and the persistence of race-based achievement gaps in student test scores do not demonstrate great progress in our efforts to build more cohesive and equitable communities.

We are are entering the next stage in our long-running attempt to realize the full potential of the most diverse nation on earth. Building on our prior work to get proximate, there are several ways we might try to stay proximate:

  • Identify, create, or support regular opportunities for people to come together to make decisions, solve problems, and build community. There are inspiring examples large and small, like On the Table in Chicago, Meet and Eat in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and the dialogues held by the Portsmouth (NH) City Council.
  • Embrace and adapt new practices that reinvigorate existing engagement opportunities, like the student-led parent-teacher conference, high-impact volunteering, and participatory budgeting.
  • Take a serious, systemic view of local engagement: map the current systems for engagement in a place, figure out what is working and what isn’t, and come up with cross-sector plans. We should use a racial equity lens in these analyses, to understand whether and how the participation is inclusive and the outcomes are just and equitable.
  • Offer programming content — meeting agendas, short videos, discussion questions, readings — for people meeting in all these settings to help them raise and address issues of cultural difference.

These are all strategies for helping people stay proximate, but some of them do not explicitly address racial equity, at least at first. That’s all right: by creating safe spaces for people to talk about their experiences and who they are, various kinds of cultural differences will emerge. In these settings, when people are comfortable being open about the differences between them — gender or class, for example — they are better able to surface and address all kinds of differences. So for example, people in small towns where there is very little racial diversity can productively address racial equity, especially if they start out with the differences that are more central in their daily lives.

People are showing their willingness to get proximate and make progress. We should capitalize on that goodwill by establishing sustained opportunities for them to stay proximate.