July 9, 2020

The Looming Disaster of Current School Re-Opening Plans and Finding Better Ways Forward

I need to get this off my chest. Last month Michigan announced it’s approach for re-opening public schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan, which I’ll get into in a moment, doesn’t even pass the sniff test as an effective approach to either instruction or safety. And it’s all going to fall apart the second an outbreak occurs anyway, putting the school building or district into a paralyzing rhythm of successive opening and closing. The plan does little to actually minimize the potential vectors and points of contact.

In short, the plan is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand and hoping the storm will blow over. My spouse is a high school teacher and I have two kids in elementary school. I’m terrified.

Moreover, the plan fails to seize the moment and opportunity to at least try something different. To at least try to build an approach that addresses equity while maximizing protections for people. To at least try alternate curriculums and different modes of instruction in concert with a different structure to schooling, when it’s apparent the old model will likely be inoperable anyway. The plan doesn’t try anything inventive.

So, this article will lay out three thing. #1 - What Michigan’s “plan” currently is. #2 - Why Michigan’s plan, and others like it being adopted across the country is horrendously flawed, and #3 - What we should do instead. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’m trying to think through this all in a practical and pragmatic way based on public knowledge of how the virus spreads and what we can do to stay safe.

#1 - Michigan’s "Plan"

Here’s an article from the Detroit Free Press that provides an overview of the school reopening plan.

(1) Staff and teachers would have to wear face masks at all times.
(2) All students would have to wear face masks in hallways and common areas and on buses.
(3) Every student would have to use hand sanitizer before getting on the bus.
(4) Students in grade 6 through 12 would have to wear face masks at all times; younger students wouldn't have to wear face masks in classrooms.
(5) It would be recommended that desks be placed 6 feet apart and students and teachers social distance, even in the classroom.
(6) Schools would have to work with local health departments on screening protocols.
(7) No indoor assemblies with students from more than one classroom would be allowed.
(8) It would be recommended that most meals be served in the classroom or outdoors. It would be recommended that meal times would be staggered to allow social distancing in the cafeteria if it was being used.
(9) Athletics would have to follow the MHSAA guidance and rules. Spectators would be allowed if they are wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.

Pretty incredible plan really. I’m glad that it’s taken FOUR MONTHS to come with this. Sarcasm intended.

Individual school districts are tasked with developing their own specifics within the above guidelines. My school district hasn’t put forth anything to date, with school starting in less than two months its pretty worrying. How can families, let alone teachers, prepare for anything with such a void in what lies ahead? But those concerns aside, the above plan... it’s a terrible plan in my opinion.

#2 - Here is why the plan is flawed and what it fails to acknowledge

It fails to acknowledge that schools - most notably 6-12, would presumably still have conventional class schedules with hall changes and teachers instructing multiple classes per day. My wife, as most other middle or high school teachers do, sees 150+ students a day. Nothing in this plan is geared to minimize the number of contact points. It’s basically business as usual with face masks, and maybe not even that. It’s ridiculous.

It fails to acknowledge that face masks are most effective when EVERYONE is wearing one at all times indoors or in crowded public spaces. If the past months have shown anything, it’s that an awful lot of people refuse to wear masks. If only having some people wearing masks is all we get, it’s a pointless gesture as the health of teachers and students is not really protected at all.. It also fails to acknowledge that wearing masks and trying to talk to a large audience is a challenge. It also fails to acknowledge that most school buildings in this state are OLD and have terrible ventilation and HVAC systems, which diminishes the effectiveness of both masks and physical distancing while indoors anyways.

It fails to acknowledge that “large groups of students” is most routinely experienced in schools not during assemblies (which are easy to avoid) but during passing times. My old high school, which is mere blocks away from me, had 12-foot wide hallways that were a CRUSH of students squeezing through shoulder-to-shoulder each class change. It’s a nice gesture to not have assemblies or large gatherings, but it’s a moot point if your entire school population is crammed into a hallway 6-7 times a day. Circulation plans are only going to go so far. You’re still going to have hundreds of students brushing past each other, sharing different rooms, and getting exposed.

It fails to acknowledge that classrooms are routinely over capacity. My wife has 30-36 kids in her science classroom. She planned out how to accommodate 6-foot physical distancing and her room could accommodate eight kids. EIGHT! Let’s be realistic here: this plan can’t accommodate physical distancing in any way. It is in direct contrast to CDC and global guidance.

It fails to acknowledge that sports are an unnecessary luxury during a global pandemic. Yes, staying active and healthy is important for everyone. And alternative sport programs could be deployed based on personal fitness approaches that don’t bring athletes and spectators into close contact. That sports are even being entertained is laughable.

It fails to acknowledge that, given all of the above, school closings are an inevitability. And the oscillation between in-person versus on-line learning runs counter to establishing any sort of consistency in instruction method and places tremendous burden on teachers to cobble together meaningful instruction in the 11th hour. No one benefits from this. And it still doesn’t address the lingering concerns about access to necessary technology in the first place for less privileged people.

It fails to acknowledge social inequities in our society and in finding ways to be more thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate about an approach that leverages the means of those with privilege to make space and a safer environment for those without. Particularly for the most vulnerable people or those with high-risk family members. As with so much of our policy at large, disadvantaged communities will be hit harder by this “plan” than more fortunate ones.

All of the above underscores the incredible crumbling failure of our system. Of our physical school buildings and administrative and funding systems. Of our leadership. It underscores that our education system, especially under national calls for “getting the country back to work” is viewed as a child care service for a lot of people. The approach above isn’t about effective instruction. And it isn’t even about keeping kids and teachers safe.

This plan is about pushing kids back into school buildings so people can “get back to work.” Except of course, that it doesn’t even do that well, because in all likelihood schools will be shut down periodically anyway putting everyone back to where we were in March 2020 when this all started. It’s a farce. It’s total chaos. And we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.

#3 A different way forward: A equity-based reopening strategy

I’ve done a modest amount of unqualified brainstorming about how school reopening and instruction could be addressed. A lot of it comes down to logistics. I’ll get into the specifics of my ideas in a moment, but it is first important to establish clear goals for the program:

(A) Minimize exposure and points of contact for students and teachers to keep as many people healthy and safe as possible;

(B) Be proactive about deploying curriculum and instruction that will actually be effective across a broad range of learning conditions;

(C) Integrate equity considerations head-on, recognizing that different people have different needs, means, risks, and privileges.

Let’s talk about the specific components that I envision, and which can be used in tandem to meet these goals.

COMPONENT #1: Re-Tool Instruction Methods and Pedagogy
First of all, let’s just acknowledge that the traditional delivery of instruction, especially for grades 6-12, is just not going to work in a consistent and reliable way in the face of successive closures and reopenings.

Rather than trying to do multiple half-measures, we should go all in on virtual instruction paired with more project based and/or self-directed study plans. Building instruction consistently around one set of methods will provide a backbone to delivering instruction that works regardless of whether students and teachers are meeting in person or remotely. It’s one set of instructions, it’s predictable for people, it can be relied on as circumstances change.

Along with this, there needs to be a retooling and adjustment to the curriculum itself for next year. Given that students, staff, and teachers can be knocked out of commission should they get sick with COVID-19, curriculum should be simplified and streamlined with a focus on team-teaching so that multiple teachers can pool their energies and co-teach a smaller selection of courses. This builds in redundancy among the teachers and makes the instructional delivery more resilient.

Furthermore, there is a lot of pedagogical evidence that more project-based and self-directed learning can be more effective for building good critical thinking skills anyway - so why not tap best practice at the same time? The co-teaching aspect is also important in order to free up teacher time for teachers to reach out to students individually who need more support one-on-one. Something that is also in traditional approaches.

COMPONENT #2: Enable remote learning for all students
This moment is an opportunity to address massive social inequality around access to the internet and technology. The reality is that while many people have a home computer and internet access, a large number of people do not. Federal, state, and local resources need to be directed towards equipping all students WHO NEED IT with IT technology to learn remotely.

I say “WHO NEED IT” above because the reality is that many students have access to their own computers or laptops and a good internet connection. This is time to recognize as a community and as a nation that many people are privileged to have access to such systems, but others do not have that access. Given limited public resources, these funds must be directed first towards providing capability for the least advantaged people. This strategy is really a no brainer.

COMPONENT #3: Individualized Participation Plan
There are a number of facets of this strategy, but this is the crux of my entire strategy. Basically it boils down to this: Recognize that different families have different levels of risk and concern with sending their kids back to school AND that different families have different means and capabilities for keeping their kids home versus needing to send them to school. We need to come to grips with this reality and take advantage of the flexibility it affords.

Moreover, we can’t lose sight of the fact that some students have high-risk family members that could easily die from COVID-19 if they are exposed. A good plan needs to provide flexibility for accommodating these families. Doing otherwise is grossly irresponsible at best.

The intent of this strategy is thus: to maximize the number of students who are able learn and participate remotely at all times, and thus minimize the number of students that actually need to be in a school building on a regular basis.

If the prior strategies are implemented (virtual / remote learning and internet enabling all students), then it doesn’t matter if you are learning from home or learning from the school building. Students will be attending all of their classes virtually anyway (more on that in moment) and receiving the same instruction. The difference is giving flexibility for where students are learning from to keep people safe.

How does this work in practical terms? The objective would be to get at least 50% (ideally more and as much as possible) of school students set up to learn from home full time.

Step 1. Identify all the students that can learn from home. This might be older high school students that can stay home on their own (sorry helicopter parents - but it’s time to entrust responsibility on your kids), families where another family member, parent, or guardian can stay at home or work from home in order to keep an eye on their kids, or where families can arrange for a in-home care person/sitters/au pair/grandparents, etc.. The last point can be an opportunity to hire people struggling with under- or unemployment, and would make a great federal stimulus program if paired with child care and educational-related degrees.

To maximize this, we need a national (or at least State and local) call to implore families to do what they can to keep their kids safe at home and able to learn. It will take some arm twisting on some people, but again state or federal stimulus programs can help. Free internet and a computer could be a good enticement.

Step 2. Restructure the school environment for safety for the students that must be in the building. The focus is minimizing points of exposure and contact. As such, all students attending in-person would be organized and housed within a single “home room.” More specifically, home rooms would be organized and structured not based on class or grade, but based on bussing. Kids that must attend in-person and must-ride the bus, would all be grouped into a cohort and share the same bus and room, and thus minimize exposure.

This could potentially mean that middle school and high school students are co-mingled. But you know what? There is good pedagogical evidence and benefit for mixed-age interaction as well. More best practice opportunity.

Inside the home room, students would be individually attending their classes virtually - and thus getting the same instruction as kids that are staying home. Ideally, rooms would be at less than 50% capacity. Other spaces in school buildings should be converted to “home rooms” (gyms, cafeterias, etc.) as well to diffuse the number of students per room. Some modicum of physical distancing could be achieved, which coupled with mask wearing for everyone can minimize risk.

Each home room would then be assigned a single teacher and/or home room monitor (again another employment opportunity) for the year that would monitor the room and provide some IT support for students. In-building teachers at the middle and high-school level would have the added challenge of needing to juggle their own virtual instruction during portions of the day.

For elementary schools, the situation is a bit simpler since the primary teacher would be the full-time instructor for their class, and could provide instruction simultaneously to in-school students and those "remoting" in from home. Elementary classes should again be re-structured around busing to the extent possible to minimize degrees of contact.

Potentially, home rooms could have a secondary person assigned (with a greater level of PPE) that could watch the room when the primary home room teacher has to step out or leave the room. These secondaries would ideally be pulled from teaching staff that teach non-core curriculum (art teachers, music teachers, etc.). This would maintain employment and also be an opportunity to share that “special” with the home room kids in order to break up what will be a difficult time confined to a single room.

Students that need lunches would have room delivery. There would be no passing time in the buildings since students attend all classes virtually from their home room anyway Bathrooms would require routine clearing throughout the day with strict mask wearing and sanitizing. Full-time cleaners / monitors could be another short-term employment opportunity. Kids arriving by bus would get in line with kids walking or being dropped off that they share a home room with, and would enter/exit the building in an organized manner. Everyone in the room would (all ages!) would have 1-2 recess breaks to get outside for relaxing, exercise, etc. Physical Ed could be accommodated a few times a week in this manner.

Putting it all together

The above strategies, working in tandem, make sense to me and follow the general guidance from CDC. Minimizing points of contact is the #1 thing. The above approach would mean teachers aren’t seeing 100’s of students a day, which not only puts the teacher at risk but also all of those students. Instead, they’d maybe only see 10-15 and that would be it.

If a home room gets a confirmed case of COVID-19, potentially only that one home room would shift to being at home (instead of the entire school building). But even sending just the home room back may not even be necessary if home rooms are sufficiently isolated from each other. If so, this would be a great benefit in terms of predictability and supporting people going back to work and maintaining continuity of learning at the same time.

While the above plan is onerous and challenging - it is also an opportunity to test out and experiment with different pedagogies and best practices, while keeping everyone as healthy and safe as possible.

But as with most of the grim reality we all struggle to wade through right now - the barriers to implementing a better plan are political. It’s hard to get people on board with something like I’ve proposed when large swaths of the nation refuse to wear a mask, let alone acknowledge the severity and impact of the virus. It’s hard to get people to come together and work on a common cause, and perhaps even give up a little of their privilege, when our leadership is hell bent on pitching those with more privilege against those with less.

I don’t know what’s going to ultimately happen with my local school district. But I worry about the safety of my wife and my kids. To be frank, going back to school with the current “plan” is quite literally the least safe and highest risk environment I can imagine. In what other sectors of society do you have 1000’s of people packed into crowded rooms, many of which are kids without the proper equipment or discipline to wear masks, sitting in buildings with outdated HVAC, and all talking to each other? It’s a perfect storm.

The pain and the frustration I feel is that there are clearly better ways of handling this. And I’m sure people far more informed and knowledgeable than me have even better ideas. But a better solution is going to take leadership and a willingness to pull the many strings of society together and towards a common goal. And that’s one thing that is sorely lacking right now.


  1. I have no immediate personal stake in the schools, being retired and having no children. I don't see how K12 or college can be safely re-opened until most people are vaccinated. Lots of people in the USA routinely rely on wishful thinking, and the idea that you can safely re-open schools is pure wishful thinking.

    If I had a child or grandchild living in my house, I would not accept the high risk being infected (I am 69 and have diabetes). I would home school (which is probably what I'd be doing anyway, given that I think K12 education is thoroughly screwed up).

    American kids are NOT going to follow the safety rules well, especially if they are only guidelines ("would be recommended" - you must be kidding). Hell, adults won't follow them.

    Remote/online "education" is . . . I want to say a joke, but let's just say barely better than nothing. It emphasizes memorization and regurgitation, which is just what we DO NOT need. Memorization and regurgitation for standardized multiple choice tests is why so many adults cannot think, they were ruined by K12 (and their upbringing, of course).

    If it's comparable to anything face-to-face, distance teaching is comparable to auditorium classes with 500 people listening to an oral book (the "teacher"). It cannot compare with real hands-on education in small (25 and fewer) classes.

    Zoom and other such software may help improve that considerably. But it will still be quite limited.

    Yes, it's schools as baby-sitters that so many people really want, and that's one of the major reasons behind the notion of reopening schools in the face of reality, the reality that so many will be infected and the schools will have to close again.

    Would your methods work well, Oliver? I'm skeptical (though I have no alternative). But for certain, what Michigan is evidently planning won't work. Unfortunately, schools are very conservative institutions, by and large. (That's the retired college teacher in me speaking.) And we have that moron as POTUS who provides no leadership, no imagination, no integrity, and so on. He won't help at all.

    1. Thanks for the comments Lewis - insightful as usual :)

      Our company is involved in a fair amount of campus planning for universities across the country. We've been helping a number of them plan out pedestrian management plans for COVID-19. A lot of interesting ideas for sure, but at the end of the day half the country doesn't even think this is a big deal, and half of the half that dose think it's an issue, is still lazy and sloppy with respect to physical distancing and mask wearing. Few of these plans are actually going to protect anyone.

      3 months of Zoom-based virtual learning was not fun in its extremely limited capacity that it was. That's why I'm also advocating that whatever happens with schools, the curriculum needs to shift to something less "traditional" in order to keep people engaged and sane.