Schools need to be allowed to be creative, flexible to save this school year

Open the schools?

Like most parents with a school-aged child, I find myself longing for yesteryear. When August meant back-to-school shopping and carts filled with composition notebooks and No. 2 pencils and pink erasers and glue sticks. When the first day of school meant a photo of my kids heading out the front door, backpacks in tow.

This year, there will be no photos with backpacks. No shopping cart with supplies.

This year, everything from sports seasons to in-person learning is TBD. The only sure things are uncertainty and stress.

For teachers, the worry is that they’ll be forced back into classrooms before it’s safe to return, putting their lives and the lives of their students and families at risk.

Parents worry the new year will be a repeat of this spring, with parents working double-duty, kids home alone, grade schoolers navigating Zoom, teenagers sleeping until noon, WiFi interruptions and Chromebook shortages.

State officials, as well, seem utterly perplexed (some would say reluctant), offering vague guidance to schools and waiting until the last possible minute to design metrics for in-person learning.

But in the midst of this chaos, some are finding creative ways to manage indecision.

Parents are joining homeschooling co-ops or forming learning pods with other families, also known as “pandemic pods.”

Pandemic pods consist of a small handful of students who meet at a designated home or location with a tutor or parent who oversees online instruction. The pods allow for socialization, but because the number is small and consistent, it also minimizes risk of exposure to the virus.

While innovative, these pods are not without controversy. Critics contend this is yet another way to create an uneven playing field in education. Those with means to afford a tutor or stay home with kids will get a leg up while the rest will fall further behind.

They’re right.

Pandemic pods for the lucky few will exacerbate existing achievement gaps. But instead of panning the idea, maybe we should be trying to create something similar for students in need. Maybe we should be working with education experts on ways to reimagine the school year instead of trying to work within or around the current system.  

Because our state is already suffering from a severe teacher shortage crisis, it’s not possible for schools to simply break down overcrowded classrooms into small groups with instructors.

But schools could create pandemic pods that prioritize at-risk students, such as those with special needs or who struggle in traditional classroom settings.  

Schools could also partner with community organizers to set up free learning pods in lower-income neighborhoods. By expanding the partnership to include nonprofits, as well as libraries and community centers, those pods could have access to tutors or instructional guides to supplement online learning as well as neighborhood locations to house the learning pods.

That kind of large-scale coordination would require the support of local and state officials, but isn’t that why the government exists? And as Gov. Ducey says, aren’t we “all in this together?”

Though we’re all hoping the pandemic will subside in a few months and students will return to in-person instruction at some point this fall, it’s possible the opposite will happen. It’s possible the flu season will produce another wave of COVID-19 infections. It’s possible schools will be empty until spring.

Those very real possibilities are why our state legislators should be working right now on flexible options for districts and charters to expand or modify the current school year as well as funding streams to appropriate emergency dollars.

For instance, allow schools to continue instruction into the summer, with full staffing and full funding. Pause standardized testing so teachers can focus on teaching instead of wasting precious days on tests that fail to measure a child’s potential or abilities. End “test-based” funding schemes that worsen achievement gaps and implement “needs-based” models instead.

This will be a school year unlike any other. It could be one that furthers the divide between low- and high-income students. Or it could be one that forces leaders to think outside the box, collaborate with new partners, and find creative solutions to close achievement gaps and help all Arizona students succeed.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we chose the latter?

Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.