COVID-proof Pikes Peak region schools

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on May 2, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Historically, school’s been about being in a certain place at a specified time. Not anymore.

Covid-19’s upended that formula, and if we in the Pikes Peak region don’t lean in and make changes to the academic calendar, clock, and cord now—our children may just suffer for it in the fall.

For those who think that Colorado passing the peak Covid-19 infection rate means the end to this crisis, think again. The current vaccine production record is 4 years (for mumps) and while a lot of smart people are working on one for Covid-19, there’s no guarantee it’ll happen quickly, or even at all.

School officials must prepare as if this nightmare won’t end. A solid place to start is the issue of re-opening this coming fall.

Our pre-Covid-19 school calendar was already showing its essential weakness. Now’s the time to consider strategic change to build a more resilient calendar.

The legacy school calendar is anachronistic. We no longer live in an agrarian society. Weather cancellations have become routine. Pre-crisis, bad weather forced several local superintendents to petition the state to permit fewer days of school than the state normally allows.

Winter weather’s a larger problem for the Pikes Peak region compared to most other areas. Close proximity to rugged terrain makes commuting through tough weather a serious challenge (even setting aside the shifting climate).

Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity to move local schools onto a more resilient, year-round model. It’s true that studies can’t conclusively demonstrate an across-the-board uptick in academic performance for year-round schooling. Yet, it’s equally true that everyone knows the “summer slump” is real (acknowledged by school districts that draw kids into classrooms several weeks early for “jump start” refresher programs). Widening the school year would make local districts more resilient by cutting down on last-minute weather cancellations.

“Year-round” is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s the same number of days, just spread more evenly across the year into smaller blocks to better withstand disruptions. It would shift some time off in the summer toward more time off in the winter months. Cost would likely be neutral.

Unfortunately, the second set of resilience measures isn’t cost-neutral. Even if we shake up the school calendar to be more strategically resilient, the corresponding tactical changes to daily delivery—breaking the clock and cutting the cord—will be substantial in terms of cost and effort.

Because we cannot ensure the presence of high-speed internet in each home, e-learning must aim to make-ahead and produce a full fall semester of educational material for kids both with and without internet access.

Every school must host its own digital educational video lab, recording make-ahead lessons on a scale a YouTuber would envy. Perhaps it’s time to partner with the sleeping giant Pikes Peak Library District to piggyback off their unused recording facilities and equipment.

To achieve this, teachers must teach in teams. It is grossly inefficient for individual teachers to produce and deliver personalized lessons to individual classrooms. Money currently going unspent on traditional operations and maintenance (i.e., busses, etc.) should be redirected toward the purchase of laptops or hard drives loaded with a semester’s worth of lessons and work for kids without home internet. Other students with the internet at home can get by with less expensive tablets.

This two-track make-ahead system should be robust enough to hedge against the loss of more in-person school sessions. Even if all lesson videos aren’t a full semester ahead by go-time in late August, schools can create pre-established pauses when non-internet families can drop-off their school laptops for lesson reloads.

Some will push back on this proposal, which is understandable. This clearly isn’t optimal. But it just may be the only choice we have. If students cannot return in the fall, then without a plan for make-ahead resiliency, teachers will find themselves like firefighters without hoses. Loads of expertise, no way to deliver.

Just like the public health side of Covid-19, this is a planning problem. The danger is distantly visible and action is necessary, even if advance countermeasures will be hard.

We can again prevent the worst with some foresight and elbow grease, and we must. Because if we simply “hope this will all pass with the warmer summer months,” then come the fall, our kids may just suffer, again. Only this time it will have been needlessly.

 

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