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Unleash creative school staff on our worst school year ever

Local teachers pose for a selfie before holding a #Return2SchoolSafely Motor March protest. In the classroom or not, teachers’ creativity needs to be unleashed this school year. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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Let’s agree for the sake of argument that the next school year is going to be terrible. The federal government and the states are at odds over when to put kids back in classrooms. Planning by superintendents and school boards is both messy and tardy. Whatever is decided will probably crumble in the next coronavirus surge.

It will be a disaster. What should we do?

Here is a suggestion only the bravest and smartest school board members will ever consider: Let principals and teachers decide. They know their students better than anyone except parents, who would just as soon get back to work. If school staff are allowed to try their best ideas, some might click. The results can’t be any worse than what will happen anyway.

Tell each principal and teacher how many students they are going to have and let them sort it out. They must have the courage to put forth their ideas. Clever superintendents and principals should urge teachers to speak up. The only limits should be common sense, the resources at hand and the law. Parents would have to be consulted, but they will be happy for any help given the load that was dumped on them in March with no warning.

A few weeks ago I asked readers for ideas. Many of those who replied were teachers. Much of what they said was compelling and worth trying.

Why not create student pairs for reading and discussion? Even without the latest gadgets they could link up from their homes using my favorite ancient technology, the telephone. They could read to each other. They could discuss the questions teachers sent them while enjoying the contact with each other so many have missed.

How about assigning every student an hour of reading each evening with a parent or older sibling? That is what many families do anyway. Why not make it a requirement? It would be free of the stress that comes with regular homework, trying to figure out answers.

Some readers told me sources of learning in communities are being overlooked: museums, parks, recreation centers, local businesses and colleges. In this emergency, such enterprises could join with educators to put together something different that might engage students online.

If some classes are scheduled at school, why not try more art and music? There is no way in these circumstances we’re going to make much progress in reading, writing and arithmetic. Why not do something fun and cut down on no-shows?

The best students can be asked to work with those who need help. Children might suggest their own projects. They could walk around their block and write about what they found most interesting. They could bake cookies based on the official recipe, and then try different proportions and report the results.

The best charter schools have made good use of their freedom from old school district rules and biases. Why shouldn’t teachers and principals at regular public schools have a chance to do that, at least during this crisis?

I have praised the Uncommon charter schools in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts for their close attention to classroom practices in these difficult times. They have found that prerecorded videos are often the best way to teach online. Phone calls to homes, they say, reveal the best ways to encourage participation by students who aren’t logging in.

Why can’t regular school staff do that? They know their students as well as teachers in charter schools know theirs. Some of the most successful charter school leaders got their best ideas when they were still working in regular schools, being told they could not do what they wanted to do. The vast majority of our teachers still work in regular schools. Why can’t they use unconventional but sensible methods, such as visiting families at home to help them get ready for school? Union leaders should reconsider telling creative teachers to do less, as revealed by my colleague Laura Meckler in her big story about a San Francisco school.

I sound like I am giving up on the new school year before it starts. I am. We have to admit this will be the worst school year ever. No one knows exactly what will happen, but it will not be good. What we face is an extreme combination of hurricanes, tornadoes, major earthquakes and the day my drill sergeant ordered us to set up our barracks outside.

We have to get through it. We must look forward to the day we put it behind us. With a free hand, the professionals who will eventually have to clean up this mess might be able to experiment with fresh ideas we all can learn from.

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