To the editor:
As COVID cases continue to spike nationwide, full-time in-person instruction will not be a reality in most school districts this fall. As a working parent with four kids at home, I understand how daunting and frustrating that reality is. It is essential for families to return to work both for their own financial stability and for our country’s economic recovery.
But while schools serve as de facto childcare during normal times, we cannot expect schools to shoulder the burden of reopening the economy by providing the sole source of affordable childcare to working parents during COVID. It’s time for policymakers to separate the childcare crisis from the extremely complex task of reopening schools.
We’re not being creative enough in solving this vexing problem. Students will likely be participating in distance learning for several days a week, if not every day. What if we leveraged furloughed after-school staff from the Campagna Center or recreation centers or college students taking a gap year and provided safe, socially distanced supervision for distance learning?
We could tap unused public spaces like school gymnasiums in districts that are closed, recreation centers, churches or even outdoor areas such as athletic fields to provide large open spaces for distance learning.
Staff who are typically charged with overseeing recreational activities for students after school could provide structure and supervision to students while they participate in asynchronous instruction or even a live feed from a certified teacher on a projection screen. College students could tutor children individually or in small groups to improve the quality of distance learning.
Districts could even coordinate programming so that small class groups remain clustered together on their “off days” to limit exposure to new networks. Offering a sliding scale fee structure to families could help alleviate funding concerns and prioritize access for families with more limited resources.
There are at least seven clear benefits to this model, which could:
• Solve or mitigate childcare challenges for working parents by providing a safe, supervised space to participate in distance learning.
• Counteract equity concerns posed by the establishment of “learning pods,” a growing national trend where families with greater resources hire private tutors or babysitters to supervise distance learning for small groups of children in a family’s home.
• Free up certified teachers to do what they do best – teach. Teachers could potentially reach more students by providing live-feed instruction to distance learning sites across a district. More centralized instruction could free up some teachers to provide small group or individualized virtual tutoring to students who need it most.
• Provide access to 1:1 devices or wifi in a centralized location to address digital equity gaps and offer tech support on site.
• Provide employment for potentially furloughed after-school workers and offer public service and career development opportunities for college students or aspiring teachers.
• Offer teachers who do not wish to return to the classroom an opportunity to focus on virtual instruction exclusively, while working with networks of kids at off-campus sites.
• Provide wellness screenings, free meals and some safe socializing with peers and ensure children are safely supervised while parents are at work.
This would no doubt be a complex and expensive undertaking, requiring cross-organizational cooperation between ACPS, after school providers and city recreation centers – and funding. But creative solutions are essential for addressing this crisis. Relieving the pressure of schools to address society’s public health crisis and focusing on providing engaging distance learning is worth further consideration.
-Dana Chambers, Member, ACPS Cross Functional Reopening Team