Return to School
1. For my position on the remaining days of the 2020-21 school year, please click here.
2. For my thoughts about the steps we need to take to support all students as we recover from the pandemic, please click here.
3. For information about the planning and budgeting APS needs to do in order to ensure a successful start to the 2021-22 school year, read the piece below. Please note that this was originally published in early April, before Dr. Duran announced that in-person instruction in August would likely not factor in any social distancing measures even if the March 19 CDC guidance is still in effect. I believe APS could have developed a plan that incorporated social distancing had it begun its planning and budgeting work earlier this spring--exactly the point I was making in the piece below.
Five Steps to Take Now for Five-Day School in August
APS will offer a full-time, in-person school option next school year. We need to plan and budget for it now.
Note: this information was originally published in newsletter form on 4.06.21. The text below was posted to this website on 4.08.21 and contains a revision that clarifies one point readers of my original email newsletter asked about.
There’s been a lot of talk about recently updated guidance from the CDC that reduces social distancing in schools from six feet to three feet in certain circumstances. Many families want to know whether this means that students who are in schools two days each week can now attend for four (or even five) days per week.
Dr. Durán and other APS leaders addressed this question at the March 25 School Board meeting, and at the request of several School Board members they’ll take up the issue again during the next School Board meeting on April 8.
Whether or not additional days are added this spring, APS will have to offer a five-day in-person experience next school year, because the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation mandating a full-time in-person option by July 1. During summer school and next school year, APS will also offer a full-time virtual option for students who need to continue learning at home.
I know there are many in the community who want to see a meaningful change based on the updated CDC guidance for the nine weeks remaining in this school year. I’m an APS parent, and
I understand the motivation to safely expand in-person learning as quickly as possible.
At the same time, it’s essential that families, APS, and the School Board conduct some immediate, intensive, and collaborative planning for the fall.
The things I’ve been thinking about include classroom capacity, transportation, Extended Day, lunch, and virtual learning.
Classroom Capacity. It feels like it should be simple math: going from six-foot distancing to three-foot distancing means that classrooms can hold twice as many students. Right?
Actually, that’s not the case. But I would argue that it’s also not true that classroom capacity increases by only 20%, as APS leaders stated during the March 25 School Board meeting.
I wanted to check this out for myself, so I drew some classroom layouts and arranged “students” in three- and six-foot bubbles within those spaces.
I drew 900 square foot elementary school classrooms and 1024 square foot high school classrooms. These are average classroom sizes in U.S. public schools.
Here’s one of my drawings:
This is a 32’ x 32’ high school classroom with minimal built-in storage units and a SMART board. As you can see from the picture, I was able to fit eight students into the room while maintaining six feet of social distancing. (One flaw I’m sure you’ll spot is that I haven’t left room for students or the teacher to walk between desks and maintain six feet of distance—but ignore that for the moment and bear with me.)
Here’s the same classroom with three feet of distance between students and six feet of distance between the students and teacher (provided, again, that the teacher isn’t walking between desks):
There are now 12 students in the classroom, a capacity increase of 50%.
I repeated this exercise with three other sample classrooms of different dimensions and built-in furnishings. If you want to see the actual drawings I’m happy to share them with you, but the summary is as follows:
In each of the cases I looked at, capacity increased significantly more than the 20% projected by APS. When APS leaders report back to the School Board on this issue at the next School Board meeting, it would be helpful for them to share photos or diagrams illustrating how they arrived at their 20% figure (and I’m sure their diagrams will be much prettier than mine!)
Let’s be conservative and assume that the three-foot distancing guideline is still in effect when school’s back in session in August. Let’s assume that other factors including building ventilation, symptomatic and asymptomatic testing, and infection rates are conducive to a five-day plan. Then assume that 80% of students and their families opt for full-time, in-person learning. Using average class sizes for elementary and high schools in APS, we can expect the following numbers of students in each of these classrooms:
If we’re still observing three-foot distancing in the fall, and if my sample classrooms are representative of real APS classrooms, how will we safely accommodate all students who return to school buildings? (Note as well that this analysis focuses only on classroom space and doesn't factor in common areas where six feet of distance may still be required.)
In my analysis, there are only two possible ways that APS can solve this capacity problem, each described below.
If we don't actively plan and budget for Scenario A, then we may be forced into a two-shift-per-day model where separate groups of students attend school for five hours per day. For example, Group #1 would attend from 7 am to noon, and Group #2 would be onsite from 1 pm to 6 pm.
We need to solve our classroom capacity issue now as we’re firming up the budget for next school year. APS is expecting $18.9 million in federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act that can subsidize these capacity-related costs--but only if we haven’t already committed it to offset other budget needs.
To maximize the amount of available classroom space for students, we’ll also need to temporarily remove a lot of the extra furniture, décor, and supplies that you’d find in a typical classroom like this one. Many of our schools don’t have the extra space to store these items, so we may need to locate and pay for additional storage in 2021-22.
Transportation. Social distancing applies on school buses, too, and it’s not yet clear how difficult it might be to transport a significantly higher volume of students, even with the reduced three-foot distancing requirement.
What is clear is that transportation shouldn’t be the limiting factor to getting kids back to school. Busing capacity is a solvable problem. What if we temporarily expanded our bus fleet by outsourcing to private companies?
APS already charters coach buses for some of its field trips and extracurricular activities. Many school districts outsource all of their busing. With appropriate background checks and training for drivers, we can use private shuttles and buses to get every child to school safely and on time. We can manage the logistics of moving additional buses through drop-offs and pick ups at schools. We just need to plan and budget for it now.
Extended Day. We should be prepared to offer Extended Day next school year for K-2 students who need it. I’m limiting it to grades K-2 because of the capacity issues I described above, which are even more challenging in Extended Day because it appropriately emphasizes play and movement. I see two important considerations to plan for:
Lunch. This may be the toughest logistical challenge and so it deserves early and significant attention.
The CDC is still recommending at least six feet of distancing in situations where masks are off, which includes school lunch.
Let’s say that normally, all of an elementary school’s fifth grade students eat lunch at the same time. 100 have opted for full-time, in-person instruction next fall. They can’t eat together in the cafeteria and comply with the six-foot distancing requirement, so the choices are:
At the high school level, it’s even more complicated. Each of the school’s three lunch periods may need to accommodate 800 or more students. Using classroom space likely isn’t an option as it is in elementary schools. There’s a real need to create additional, safe space for lunch outdoors or in temporary structures. And again, this has a price tag attached, so it’s important to think about it now as the School Board is developing its FY22 budget.
A Robust Dedicated Offering for Virtual Learners. There will be many students and families who need to stick with virtual learning next school year, and they deserve the best experience that APS can provide.
This means planning for school-based, dedicated virtual teaching instead of concurrent instruction. Educators who will be teaching virtually next year will need to explore questions like:
We would do well to identify next year’s virtual teachers soon, so we can provide them with collaborative planning time and professional learning over the spring and summer—and budget to make sure this happens.
There are excellent articles and professional learning courses and programs for teachers and school leaders from providers like the Online Learning Consortium, as well as more informal blog posts and videos from sources like Edutopia.
Additionally, we can be brainstorming creative ways to keep virtual students connected to their school communities through afterschool virtual gaming, outdoor activities, collaborative activities that can be done from home or school (like participating in a read-a-thon or a Crazy Hat Day), and more.
All of these are things we should be talking about and planning for now. And while it can be tempting to focus solely on this school year, there are only four months until we need to make good on the promise of full-time, in-person instruction, with a robust full-time virtual alternative. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
If I were a School Board member, the process I'd call for would include: