July 29, 2020

Considering How All Can Comfortably Participate in Reopening Schools

To the Editor:

Reopening the schools is an experiment, so let’s consider how we can all — comfortably — participate. This is just too big an experiment for the schools to handle alone.

How can we ensure that the public school system is, and remains, the core, the go-to source for our children’s learning, no matter where it is provided?

School must be safe.

In the ShopRite parking lot I spoke to a woman who was trying to get her (hysterically resistant) 8-year-old to wear a mask. When I asked the woman how she thought the schools would do with reopening, she shook her head in frustration and doubt. My doctor tells me that when West Windsor schools surveyed parents as to whether their children would return to school, 50 percent said no.

What is the best way for all our children to learn remotely, whether full- or part-time?

Bubbles: In one approach, children meet in stable cohorts (pods, or bubbles) — not in big buildings with Plexiglas shields, but in one or another of their homes. The difference is that the school must assign an aide — perhaps a family member — to each bubble, and teachers to deliver remote, PPS-provided lessons. The helper not only interprets the lessons, personalizing them for the children in that bubble, but also relays critical feedback to the remote teacher.

This ensures curriculum unity. But now parents of all economic levels are finding ways to avoid school buildings — separating communities more and more by economic status.

Admittedly this is homeschooling with an important twist: the public school provides teacher, lessons, and help, but not the building. Critically, however, it allows teaching to focus on individual needs, and new opportunities.

Flexibility, Finally: For now, New Jersey’s DoE encourages flexibility, as the goal of education is not to populate buildings but to help children learn, and children learn in different ways. The Dutch, for instance, even include Waldorf and Montessori schools in their public school system. 

We could develop the remote option as a permanent choice, but once COVID-19 is under control, most families will want the broader experience — school sports, band, clubs. Yet the bubble can offer a richer, safer learning environment, and models already exist. When the crisis is over, the buildings will still be there, better prepared and possibly more inviting. Then the challenge will be to offer education that is equally inviting to all.

How would pods, or bubbles, improve learning for those children in greatest need? By responding to their real needs: smaller groupings, top teachers, aides trained to provide the necessary interpretation and support — tutoring small groups, but more personalized than summer school.

Finally, we address discrimination and elitism by bringing all income levels and cultures together in our subject matter. Expand the curriculum for an accurate view of our immigration and slave-owning history. Foster remote debates and discussions between culturally varied pods. Listen to the needs and experience of the community. 

Mary Clurman
Harris Road