Thursday, September 24, 2020 -
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Pandemic — an opportunity for schools

Just as many school openings were delayed in Denver, in New York we just learned that the famous East Coast post-Labor Day back to school time has been delayed by a couple of weeks.

The corona virus pandemic catalyzed us to rethink so many aspects of our lives; rethinking schooling is one of the central issues.

Collaborative learning had become the cutting edge model of education. Instead, now social distancing is the new challenge. Obviously collaborative learning was not about physical proximity to a partner, but a mindset of team work. So with some logistical adjustments it can still be done in a socially distanced way. But the wording of “collaborative” versus “distanced” is striking. So much has not only changed, but turned on its head.

Once upon a time, in 2019, school was a straightforward kind of business, getting up in the morning, going to school for the day, mostly indoors doing work. These days it’s so much more complicated.

There are half days, alternate days, split weeks, a hybrid learning of both in-person and zoom; there are pods, forms to fill out ahead of each day, then temperature to be taken before you can even set foot in the building.

While students are returning to school, they are returning to a different world of school. It remains to be seen what the newest iteration of schooling will ultimately look like.

All this social distancing concern got me thinking about school and the great outdoors, since it is safer and preferred to socialize out of doors. I wonder whether turning indoor school time into outside school time could become a new context for learning, a new way of going to school. The majority of the learning would be outdoors (at least when weather permitting). What was always the minority part of the day, time spent outside for physical education or recess, would be indoors.

This way you solve the distancing issue in a room with four walls, while the students are bathed by cheerful, sunshine-filled vitamin D instead of closed in under florescent lighting.

Gardens and planting new life can literally become part an integral part of such a school setting.

Huts and sheds and other temporary structures could be created to facilitate some form of structure and shelter while keeping walls to a limit, allowing nature to be the canvas of the day.

In many ways, I’m actually an Old-School type, a firm believer in providing children with structure, rules, boundaries and respect for authority. They are crucial in helping regulate behavior and developing an inner core. But I’ve also always felt that what school has become — closed square rooms in square buildings, with the harsh glare of florescent lighting, expecting conformist square children — is problematic.

When I was a kid, if it was an exceptionally beautiful day outdoors, our teachers would leverage the good weather, incentivizing us with it. If we were good, we would get to leave the school building and enjoy one class outside. A shiur shemesh, it was called. “A sunshine class.” I wish there were more of that!

I wonder whether the pandemic, while it poses enormous challenges to educators, can also be an opportunity to make long needed changes.

Perhaps the focus on safety can bring the educational leadership to consider new approaches to education overall. Start with the architecture of a what a school facility and day should look like — more connected with nature, lit up by actual sunlight. More sunshine into children’s days. Thinking past test scores toward a bigger picture.

When you have to distill a curriculum into two to three days of learning per week — the way the pandemic has done in many place — it makes you pause and ask yourself: What is really important for a child to learn? Is it only the data, as vital as that is? Or are there greater lessons to impart to each child?

What about mental health? Children have been exposed to the vulnerability of illness and even to death, prematurely, and on on a large scale. That alone can trigger anxieties. Also, many children, through second-degree experiences of their parents, have looked at true economic hardship and struggle, as they never were before.

Life that might have been replete with free flowing affection may have turned sterile and contained for children.

Of course, so many children and families struggled before corona, and it is nothing new. But now the default assumption can pretty much be that almost every child has been impacted one way or another.

Then again, who more than children can be so adaptable and resilient? So perhaps this generation of children has already gotten its greatest lessons, even before the delayed official school day opening arrives.

These kids might just be ahead of us all.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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