While a few states and the president looked for ways to send children back to school beginning in May, most of the country was looking more seriously at September, and at new approaches to how in-person education is organized.
If, as both virologists and historians predict, we continue to ride out subsequent waves of pandemic infection, schools could and should look very different. Here are a few predictions for what we might see this fall.
One way that COVID-19 could transform schools is that classrooms will be arranged to encourage distance, with desks as far apart as can be arranged. More classes of fewer students would be prudent, and since gym and art are likely to be set aside as risky, those spaces can be used as well.
Schedules will be more staggered, so that only half the student body is in the hallways at once. Not just at lunch and recess, but at arrival and departure as well. For older students, class changes might also be staggered, or they might be eliminated, with teachers rotating instead of the students. Keeping students with one cohort all day through all their classes keeps mixed groups from remixing and limits the potential easy spread of a disease.
Lunch done differently
No more cafeterias – students eat at their own desks, perhaps with food delivered by cart from class to class, airplane catering-style.
Realistically, all of these potential measures to transform schools in the wake of COVID-19 present challenges. Teachers are older than average for the workforce, meaning they are at greater risk, so many teachers may prefer to keep teaching remotely even if their students are in a classroom setting. This requires more staff, which requires more money. Few schools have space to spread their entire student body 6 feet apart. Inner city schools around the country already had space and staffing challenges before this. Students who have begun to fall behind during this crisis will need individual help to catch up.
We were not, as a nation or even a world, prepared for this sudden change to education. We have four months to prepare for the next change, and we must take advantage of it.