Schoolkids and risk management: A think-inside-the-pod moment

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion Page, August 16, 2020

Last week the St. Paul School Board voted overwhelmingly to begin the 2020-21 school year through distance learning, following the same course as Minneapolis. Distance learning would be the norm until the October MEA break. In the meantime, officials would continue to study options.

The decision was met with relief and despair.

How to safely school our kids ranks among the most difficult questions the coronavirus has presented: open the doors so students can return to familiar environments; proceed with a hybrid of in-person and online learning; or keep students at home, where families must assume a role for which few are prepared?

I don’t envy the decision makers.

Today’s decisions about how to regroup after an abrupt and rocky end to the last school year will have short-term and long-term implications.

By next spring, professionals will face another dilemma – whether to promote students who, after a year of disrupted learning, fail to master grade-level content.

And then there is the more difficult-to-quantify psychological impact of social distancing and hiding behind cloth masks to avoid an invisible virus.

Everything of value involves risk – relationships; adventures; jobs, and even education.

But risk does not keep us from living. It just requires us to take precautions, where we are able to do so.

Taking risks also reminds us of what we value.

We are in a moment, a defining moment.

This is the moment to acknowledge we cannot survive, much less thrive, in a world bent on eliminating all risk related to this virus.

This is the moment to invite bold and brave ideas.

Students thrive with structure, predictability, and routine.

They also need to develop interpersonal skills, face-to-face.

Adults know it. We’re experiencing the loss of the connection one only experiences by sharing the same space with another.

Staff meetings, board meetings, civic club meetings, church – you name it – they’re just not the same on Zoom.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also knows it’s true, which is why it recommended kids return to school – with the same types of precautions business owners are implementing to keep customers and employees safe.

Who suffers from online learning?

The children for whom school is already challenging.

The children whose parents must leave home to earn a paycheck.

The special education children whose brains and bodies work differently from most, who require special help for their special needs.

We know all these things.

And yet, despite that most deaths from the virus are elderly residents of long-term care or assisted living facilities; despite that child care providers, grocery store clerks, health care professionals, airline pilots, real estate agents, and first responders have continued to work for months, fear of the virus appears to be driving the decision how to proceed in the public school arena.

The fear is understandable.

For the past six months we’ve received regular updates on COVID-19-related deaths, hospitalizations, tests, recoveries, treatments, and potential vaccines.

It’s a steady drumbeat of scary news, an omnipresent reminder we have a virus in our midst.

But we don’t see a commensurate number of stories about children being left on their own while parents go to work; siblings battling over limited Internet connection; working parents juggling demanding jobs and kids’ lesson plans; a growing sense of social isolation, met with a growing social media presence, opioid and alcohol use and abuse, domestic violence, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide.


For parents who continue to work from home, there’s no respite from the stress. How can they get their own work done when they have to offer guidance, supervision, and support so their kids stay out of trouble and on top of their schoolwork?

Despite these concerns, a survey of St. Paul district parents demonstrated four of 10 prefer distance learning and less than a quarter preferred in-person classes.

Here’s a thought.

Let those who need to (or can) keep their kids at home do so for the beginning of the school year.

Fashion workable solutions for those who prefer to (or must) send their kids to school.

At the recent St. Paul school board meeting, Steve Marchese, the lone school board member who voted for in-person instruction, offered a reasonable proposal to bring small numbers of low-income, special education, and English-learning students back to school.

It gained no traction.

But, Marchese is on to something. He’s thinking outside the box, as he should, for we’re in a think-outside-the-box moment.

In fact, we could be in a think-inside-the-pod moment.

Parents around the country are forming learning pods and hiring teachers to provide personal instruction to small groups of students.

School districts could craft a similar approach until all students return to school.

Students for whom remote learning is difficult, if not impossible, who will suffer the most from distance learning, could return to school, though perhaps not their regular school buildings.

Not all school buildings can meet social-distancing requirements.

But there is empty space all around us that could be accessed temporarily.

Office buildings, churches, conference and co-working spaces could accommodate small groups.

Teachers could work with pods of students. If they need help, retirees, substitute teachers, student teachers, and volunteers could be enlisted to work with them.

There are logistical and financial concerns, to be sure.

It’s also not a long-term solution. But it is one way to manage need and risk for educators, students, and families so students can continue to learn and to thrive.

~~~If you would like to read more of Caryn’s work, you can purchase a signed copy of her award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page,” filled with inspirational stories about resilience, here.