When Denmark reopened its schools during the coronavirus pandemic a few months ago — after bringing its rates significantly down — many classes were held outside, especially for younger students.

In the fall, Rice University in Texas plans to invite students back to campus and hold some classes outside, in big tents and temporary buildings to be built — all to allow for social distancing of six feet. Students who have portable chairs will be asked to bring them.

In this post, University of Georgia professor Stephanie Jones takes the idea of unconventional learning settings even further — into coffee shops, barber shops and other locations with her vision for community-based schooling.

Jones is a professor in the department of Educational Theory and Practice. She is a former elementary school teacher and has worked in teacher education for 20 years teaching courses on social class, poverty, gender, sexuality, feminist theory, philosophy, writing and literacy.

Jones’s research focuses on powerful teaching and learning for young people who are often marginalized and harmed by schooling. Her work on innovative, critical and community-based educational spaces for children and teacher education students has received national and international recognition and awards over the years. Jones’s most well-known book is “Girls, Social Class, and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference” and her most recent book (co-written with James F. Woglom) is “On Mutant Pedagogies: Seeking Justice and Drawing Change in Teacher Education.”

She lives in Athens, Ga., where she co-directs (with Hilary Hughes) the Red Clay Writing Project, an inspiring network of K-16 teachers who are making powerful changes in the educational lives of youth every day.

By Stephanie Jones

I didn’t want to write this essay.

So many people have already said so many things. And yet I’m struck by all that has been left unsaid, or perhaps unthought, amid the all-or-nothing approach to teaching and learning in the fall.

The choices of “fully online” and “fully in-person” lack any possibility for nuance, for being responsive to local needs, and for taking seriously the importance of stable and relatively predictable learning environments that teachers and students need to feel safe and be productive. While there are many reasons some people are advocating for in-person schooling, the fact that so many of our young people fall through the cracks in online education is the one that concerns me the most.

Families are scrambling, and several have reached out to me recently to help them figure out a way to get their children with some other children and ideally with a professional educator in a safe environment. Many are worried about the in-person or online options their schools are offering and are seeking something in the middle that can also be safe in a pandemic. Some who have the financial resources are already planning to opt out of public schooling, and they’re looking for teachers to hire on their own for small groups of students.

Teachers are scrambling, too. They know the plans for reopening aren’t safe enough, and they’re dreading just thinking about trying to work with children without being able to get close to them or even touch them. That might mean holding a child’s hand around a crayon to guide them in writing letters, or a big hug after reading a beautiful poem, or high-five celebrations after working through really hard math problems.

These encouraging physical connections are integral to building positive and confident feelings toward learning, and the classroom would be very different without them. In other words, reopening schools in the time of covid-19 doesn’t mean a return to some normal version of school. Of course, teachers are also worried about their own health and the chaos that will ensue if (probably when) schools shut down again and go fully online.

So, I am writing this to ask all of us if it is possible to have some version of school that:

1) takes seriously the health and well-being of children, teachers, staff and all of their families in a pandemic;

2) builds upon what research tells us about social, emotional and physical relationships as well as the physical environment in teaching and learning;

3) incorporates the critical need for teaching and learning about current events (e.g. the global pandemic, Black Lives Matter, economic crises, epidemiology, the role of government and the history of criminal justice systems, to name a few) and how they are impacting the lived experiences of students, teachers and families, and

4) is nuanced and flexible enough to be immediately responsive to any viral spread.

I’ve spent the last 25 years with one foot inside traditional educational institutions and one foot inside community-based learning spaces with small groups of children and families. Those 25 years have taught me a lot, and the first lesson is this: No one knows what the children, families and teachers need except the children, families and teachers in that specific place.

My 25 years of community-embedded work offers much more insight and vision to what might be possible — and even quite powerful — for education during a pandemic than my 25 years inside institutions.

Community-embedded work is intimate, you get to know one another on a level that institutions rarely afford, and it opens up learning opportunities that would never spontaneously arise in a typical school because the place itself is interesting and often connected to the lives of the children you’re working with. It forces you to be nimble and generous, to change your plans when someone has to run home to take care of a sibling or arrive late because transportation let them down — again. It shows you how to “be” together in the real world, not in a made-up version of the world that plays out inside schools.

Community-embedded work with young people and community members is powered by creativity and collectivity, a build-as-you-go orientation that finds its center from the ground-up for the common good. This is the opposite of most institutional hierarchies that are almost always top-down.

One possible way forward today is small, grass roots and thoughtful, just like the paths that community activists and community-based educators have forged for many decades (see some famous examples including Septima Clark’s work, Jane Addams’s Hull House Settlement, Freedom Schools, Reggio-inspired community schools, the Harlem Children’s Zone, and so many local examples in my own city of Athens, Ga.).

These efforts are not all that different from local nonprofit organizations figuring out safer ways to serve the community during the pandemic and small groups of families organizing for their own versions of “school” in the coming year and the surge in interest in home schooling in general and home schooling for black families specifically.

Our public school resources can be leveraged to support and build community-embedded learning spaces rather than facing a reality of losing students and families (and thus, funding) to more responsive and nimble models in this unprecedented time.

I suggest that there might be four conditions for in-person teaching and learning that puts the health and well-being of students, teachers and families at the center, builds upon what we know about relationships and physical environments for promoting positive learning experiences, supports teachers’ abilities to engage with current events important to the lives of students, and prepares for a quick shift to a remote model for a short or longer period of time depending on the needs of the group:

1. very small circles of educators and young people

2. meeting in community-embedded places

3. with open and relevant curriculum that supports social and emotional well-being and draws upon the integration of life, the arts, and all the traditional content areas, and

4. ongoing negotiations of consent about everyone’s comfort level regarding the viral spread and their own personal safety.

Detractors might say this is a logistical nightmare, and I say no more than the logistical nightmare you’re already in. They may even point to “liability” issues for teachers and students being off campus, and I would point to the liability of having hundreds and even thousands of people inside relatively small and poorly ventilated school buildings during a pandemic.

Many educators might say they’ve never taught anywhere other than inside a school building, but I would remind them of field trips, soccer games, Sunday school, after-school programs, coaching, summer camps, babysitting jobs and so many other things many of us have done across our careers. And besides, you wouldn’t be coerced into doing this. Mutual consent must be at the foundation of any community-embedded work.

Families might wonder what this could actually look like, but I already know that most families are willing to give creative options a try. They want their children to have some in-person experiences and meaningful learning, they don’t want them glued to a computer screen, and they want them to be as safe as possible.

So here we go. A school could start with a community, neighborhood or general geographic area, find out which teachers are interested in working in which communities, and begin the work of talking with families about what kind of small group situation might work for them and where they might meet.

Go slow and small, maybe try two half-days a week for a couple of weeks to make sure the place and the plan is working for everyone and to solve any challenges that start to arise. It might work right away, or it might not work at all, and some teachers and students might end up fully remote/online anyway. But we’re in a pandemic and if we are open to learning then we will get smarter by trying something new.

Very small circles. We have a collective responsibility to keep our human contact circles small until we have a defense against this infectious virus. School buildings are the opposite of small, and therefore we probably shouldn’t be thinking about using school buildings in the way we’ve used them in the past but rather for very particular purposes only. One purpose might be to house the materials teachers will inevitably need during the year, another purpose might be to set up video recording stations for teachers to use when they have to be online. But we probably shouldn’t be thinking about hundreds of young people and adult workers filing in and out of these large buildings because our human-contact circles will quite simply be too big to control viral spread.

How small is small enough? Well, when possible it might make sense to keep siblings together so a family’s circle can also remain fairly small. This means these small circles might be multi-age learning spaces, which have a long history in our country and internationally. When possible, it might also make sense to keep young people who are in contact with one another in their neighborhoods together so a community’s circle can also remain relatively small.

Is there a magic number? No. This small circle is an intimate one, and it will take some negotiating among the person (or people) who will be the teacher(s) in this setting, the young people, and their families. For the sake of getting a conversation started I might suggest a group of 5-to-7 students and go from there. Maybe you might add a student or two if they would work particularly well with the group and wouldn’t expand the potential exposure too much, or subtract a student or two if the young people have special needs or require more time and attention from a teacher or another adult.

Community-embedded places. Imagine this: Your child attends school in a small learning space right in, or near, your neighborhood with a teacher and a handful of other students. That space might be a room in a community center, an empty commercial building, the backroom of a local coffee shop or barbershop that’s closed, a family’s basement or spare room, a recreational building in a public park, a church, an outdoor natural space, or the clubhouse in the center of an apartment complex.

Having access to the outdoors is crucial. This is always the case for education (humans need outdoor time!), but it is especially important in this time of viral spread. The space would need to be cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis and hold some basic furniture and materials for the group to use. This will take some figuring out, but it won’t take any more figuring out than doing so in gigantic school buildings. Family members might help, students can help, or there might be traveling custodial and sanitation workers from the school district who help do this important work.

Open and relevant curriculum. In addition to this being potentially “safer” for everyone involved and more responsible in containing spread and outbreaks, these more intimate community spaces offer a chance for families and teachers to build more friendly and powerful relationships. The teacher has the ability to develop a fuller understanding of students and what’s important in their lives to incorporate it into curriculum; and especially in a time where civil unrest and racial justice protests are prompting social and political change, these educational spaces can offer critical and creative learning that aim to create anti-racist and abolitionist ways of being that affirm young people’s lived experiences and actively work against racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the ways of thinking and acting that dehumanize.

Ongoing negotiations about consent. This is absolutely critical. Every teacher, student and family member involved in these small circles needs to feel comfortable about being there. This includes the level of cleaning, the amount of in-person contact, the use of masks, decisions about teachers and students having physical contact (there is typically a lot of physical contact in teaching and learning, especially in early childhood and elementary grades!), and how their work together is going in general.

In other words, it is the physical togetherness that puts us at risk, and any group coming together has to feel safe and confident enough about the precautions being taken to consent to being there together. Just as conversations about consent in any relationship are ongoing and constantly being renegotiated (e.g. what someone feels safe and confident doing at one time might be different from what they feel safe and confident doing at a different time), these small school groups should incorporate open and honest conversations about feelings of personal safety, well-being, and what would make them feel better about being together.

If someone doesn’t feel safe in person at all, then the group finds a way to shift to be responsive to that person’s needs. And if there is direct exposure to someone who has tested positive for covid-19, then the small group follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, which they could do fairly easily without upsetting many more dozens or even hundreds of students, teachers, and families.

I’m a social scientist, not a public health expert. I’m also an educator who has worked in schools and community spaces for 25 years and a researcher who has studied community-embedded learning for 20 years, a teacher educator who studied future teachers spending time in community learning settings, and a mother who navigated traditional schooling and unconventional community-embedded education for my own child for 13 years.

These experiences have shown me that there is never a single answer, there is no one-size-fits-all, and there is not a silver bullet plan for anything in education, but there might be certain conditions that can support more desirable possibilities than others.

Now is the time to be creative and bold. If we put children, teachers and families at the center of any teaching and learning plan and follow their lead, and if we combine that with lessons learned from many decades of community-based educators, we might even reimagine a powerful future for public education.