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Holub: We need to think outside the walls about school during CV-19 pandemic

I’m completely terrified. Full of anxiety. Paralyzed, even.

About what, Annie? You might be asking. The coronavirus? Unmarked vehicles being sent into major cities and abducting protesters? Palo verde beetles?

Sure, yes, all of those things, but actually, mostly….

SCHOOL.

See, I’m a teacher. I’ve been teaching English for 17 years now. I’ve taught every grade from 6th grade to the college level. For the last 7 years, I’ve been teaching at City High School, a charter school in Downtown Tucson. And I’m a parent. My son will be entering 2nd grade in the fall in TUSD, and my daughter should be completing her last year at her wonderful preschool.

But even as coronavirus infection rates seem to be stabilizing and, hopefully, declining in Arizona, the idea of any human going back into a classroom even on the delayed day of August 17 sounds terrifying. Paralyzing. It fills me with anxiety.

And I know many teachers, school staff, and parents share my view. We just cannot see it working out in any way that makes sense. Restarting school as usual but with fewer kids and masks is a used band-aid that has lost its stickiness trying to stop the hemorrhaging of a wound that needs serious medical attention. Stitches at least. Maybe even surgery, or amputation.

We don’t need socially-distanced desk arrangements or fancy face shields or staggered schedules or fewer people in the room. What we need is to totally rethink what school could be and look like. We need surgery or amputation. We need to think completely differently about school.

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We can’t just expect the old models to continue to work with slight modifications. The coronavirus doesn’t care that this is how we’ve done school for the last hundred years or so. Actually the coronavirus does care and it thinks (if it could care and think) that the way we do school is AWESOME.

Study after study shows that the coronavirus primarily spreads through respiratory droplets that are transmitted person-to-person. Recent studies have also indicated that the virus can spread through aerosols that are recirculated through the air in contained, indoor spaces, through air conditioning systems. Being in a closed indoor space with air recirculating is the virus’s idea of a really amazing opportunity. Mask wearing can dramatically prevent the spread, yes, but asking children, especially younger children, to consistently wear masks indoors for an entire school day is an absolutely unrealistic expectation. High schoolers might comply during class, but in the halls, I guarantee you, they’ll be pulling their masks down to whisper in each other’s ears, yell at each other, and/or make out. Mostly make out. You remember high school, right?

And have you been in a Tucson school building recently? They’re not the most, shall we say, properly maintained spaces. They’re not the newest buildings on the block. My school is well-maintained, but we have aging air conditioning units and no windows that we can open in individual classrooms. Not to mention that this is Tucson, Ariz., where most schools traditionally start at the beginning of August when it is still absurdly hot outside. Kids can’t be inside, and being outside has its challenges.

But those challenges may be opportunities.

Here’s what I’m proposing. We totally rethink school. We think not just outside “the box,” but outside the confines of the walls. Who said school has to be inside, in a classroom? Proponents of play-based, place-based, and project-based learning have been arguing this for years. Get kids outside, into the community; get them active, doing things, up and on their feet. Desks? A chalkboard? Walls? These are things of the previous century!

What if instead of a traditional class meeting where the students sit down and talk and spew respiratory droplets all over each other, high schoolers or middle schoolers read some supplemental material about or research a local organization or movement at home, then meet up at those organizations and do service projects outside for a bit, socially-distanced, with their masks on, for a short amount of time? Then they go home, rip off their masks, and just write about it, or make a video about it, or draw a comic about it.

What if instead of sitting around a table in a classroom, small groups of elementary schoolers or preschoolers were provided with a completely outdoor open play space with misters and fans and shade structures and eegee’s and water features where they can play outside for just an hour or two and experiment and socialize while their respiratory droplets are captured in their masks or blown away by the fans and misters, and teachers supervise as needed, from afar? Then the kids go home and read and play Minecraft or Legend of Zelda or whatever. There’s a lot of reading in video games, actually.

What if high schoolers or middle schoolers and their teacher met at a centrally located, easily accessible park and formed a circle, far enough apart and masked, for a half an hour in the morning or evening, when it’s somewhat cooler, to discuss that day’s reading and research? With a sack lunch provided by the school?

What if elementary schoolers met up in small groups somewhere like the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve or Sweetwater Wetlands, spent an hour or so there outside, spaced apart and masked, learning about their desert home? And then went home and did an art project or wrote about their experience?

What if instead of a pod of wealthy families paying for a tutor to teach their kids, this was provided by the K-12 system for all kids and families?

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The school building becomes more of a hub for the outside activity, rather than the actual place where the activity happens. The building becomes more symbolic rather than the only possible space.

There are logistical challenges, yes. Transportation is an issue. During a pandemic, we are not loading large groups of children on a Blue Bird yellow bus and rolling on out to the desert, obviously. We are not all hopping on SunLink together. And time is a factor. What about parents who need to have their kid somewhere between the hours of 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. because of their work schedule? What then?

Some schools, City High School included, are actually opening our buildings on August 17 just to students who need a place to go. Students will be provided with a socially distanced spot where they can work on their classes, which will remain virtual until the virus is more under control in Arizona. Classes are not tied to the actual physical space of the building, but the space is there as a work area should students need it. Tucson Unified School District is providing a similar service for parents who elect to have an in-person option for their child.

Obviously it’s not perfect. No paradigm shift ever is in its infancy. But the more we start to think “What if…?,” the more we might come up with ideas that are not just better for the health and safety of our children and school staff, but maybe even better in the long run.

Because ultimately, we can’t just go back into the classroom with masks and face shields and crazy hats and fewer desks with crazy plexiglass boxes around them. The status quo needs an overhaul. We have to completely rethink what “school” means, and what it could be.

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