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Prioritize in-person elementary education this year

  • Author: Kelly Lessens
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 15, 2020
  • Published July 15, 2020

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How to equitably educate all Anchorage students in the coming school year is a discussion that should involve our entire community, evidence-based decision-making and radically creative ideas.

Although evidence suggests that young children are not tremendous vectors for spreading COVID-19, we do know that adults and even teenagers are more vulnerable, and that adults teach, feed, drive and support our students. We also know that the pandemic has affected populations across the U.S. in very disproportionate ways. If we apply large data sets to Anchorage, which serves an extraordinarily diverse population, it is not unfeasible that a full reopening of the Anchorage School District could disproportionately affect the families of students and educators who live in multigenerational housing, small spaces, and/or have preexisting conditions. But we also know that the spring shutdown placed the largest burdens on working parents, single parents, and especially moms who faced the largest burden of attempting to work and educate their children. So how do we move forward?

One novel solution would be for ASD to prioritize in-person elementary education in person as much as possible. The most radical element of this plan is that teaching our youngest learners in socially distanced classrooms would co-opt all other ASD classroom spaces. This would involve massive changes to how education is delivered across Anchorage, but would provide equitable access to education, continuity and coverage for families, and support many of the district’s long-term objectives. It should be done with deference to changing levels of risk in Anchorage, with full access to weekly COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment for all ASD employees interacting with children, and with an openness both to families opting for online education this year and to the educators who don’t feel that they can safely do so in person.

To spread out our youngest learners, middle and high school students would have to move to online learning, which can be supported with devices and hot spots, but could be reimagined — and I’ll get to that. Buses, featuring assigned and spaced seats, would no longer be delivering multiple, dense groups of K-12 students. Instead, focusing only on elementary students, they could be portioned into even smaller micro-routes to deliver cohorts of children. To optimize the intersection of wellness and learning, ASD should put the pre-K-2 students at existing elementary schools so as to permit greater access to playground equipment. Students in grades 3-6, meanwhile, could be placed in nearby middle and high school buildings, where they can utilize bigger-kid spaces like gyms and tracks and are more likely to fit in larger chairs and desks. Then, throughout a school day focused on educating the whole child — not just teaching to the proverbial test — teachers can optimize learning and access to fresh air by frequently utilizing outdoor spaces to teach and play in.

Spacing out elementary students across all of ASD’s classrooms would require more elementary teachers — maybe twice as many. But because teachers don’t grow on trees, these would have to be pulled from the ranks of middle/high school teachers, and I’ll get to that, too. Meanwhile, another option for more adult bodies in the classroom could involve the hiring of “gap year” students, pulled from the ranks of recent ASD graduates who have decided to hold off on college this fall, to assist elementary teachers as a kind of “ASD COVID-Corps.” This could have the long-term community benefits of increasing the numbers and broadening the diversity of Alaska’s future teachers.

For elementary students, the benefits of twice as many socially-distanced classrooms are not just that they’d receive social emotional learning, nutritious meals, and adult supervision, all of which the American Academy of Pediatrics promotes. The benefits of reimagining education also include opportunities to finally have evidence-based small class sizes, which we know promotes literacy, and to start school at age-appropriate times without being beholden to a shortage of buses. (Elementary students could begin at 8:30 am, for instance, while online middle and high school classes could start thereafter.) All of these changes will benefit student learning outcomes and well-being. For families, meanwhile, and especially for mothers who have shouldered the largest burdens during our shutdown, the benefits of having elementary students out of their working parents’ hair would be tremendous.

So where would more elementary teachers come from? If we turn to the ranks of middle and high school teachers for some supplemental elementary teaching (yes, this would be a hard pivot), the remaining middle and high school teachers could be divided to provide the content for online teaching platforms and to work in small group settings — like tutorials — to support students in groups of online learners.

But we can’t have teaching without the support that teachers need. ASD must lean on community partners and/or the state to help provide testing to all ASD employees on a weekly basis. Someone — or a small group of people in full PPE — needs to push carts through the halls of every ASD school this year, along with the bus depot, and take the 30 seconds required to swab each staff member’s nose. This should be free for educators and support staff. In this imperfect but better-than-nothing way, staff can serve as proxies for whatever contagion may lie in classrooms. To complement this, ample PPE, contact tracing and an increased allocation of time and money to custodians would also be required.

Education is extraordinarily complex, and these proposals are radical, but these are extraordinary times, and students need to be educated in the ways which are most likely to improve and protect their lives and those involved in education delivery. Keeping older students out of school and younger students in solves this dilemma in the short term.

Kelly Lessens is an Anchorage parent, a co-founder of the ASD60 advocacy group, and has submitted a Letter of Intent to run for School Board in April 2021.

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