Andrew Potter: Blow up plans for the school year and get creative, you fools

Move classes outdoors. When it's cold, hand out blankets. Make field trips mandatory and routine. Change the curriculum. Make the long break from November to February. Be bold, and be quick about it.

It’s been over eight months since we first started hearing about a “novel coronavirus” that was eventually dubbed COVID-19, more than half a year since the first cases appeared in Canada, and five months since most of the country went into pandemic lockdown. But while there is still a lot we don’t know about the virus and its modes and mechanisms of transmission, one of the earliest and most widely replicated features to emerge from the case data is that outdoors is significantly safer than indoors.

That stable and enduring fact about the virus should have been guiding our policy responses and reopening strategies from the earliest days of the pandemic, but unfortunately it did not. Still, with Canada’s provinces and municipalities frantically trying to figure out how to reopen school safely in a few weeks, it is not too late to get it right. Back-to-school planning is now the focal point for a number of intense and very high-stakes political questions. These include the question of getting women back into the workforce, the mental health of children, the social inequality that will result from the myriad ad hoc arrangements parents are making, the basic requirements of a more general economic reopening, workplace safety for teachers and school administrators, and the ongoing front in the culture war opened up by the conundrum of whether to mandate the wearing of masks. 

One way of cutting through these questions is to simply move schools outdoors. 

Since COVID-19 hit Canada in force in March, our ability to cope with the personal, professional and public disruptions it has caused has been confounded by two related problems. The first is a collective inability or unwillingness to think creatively about the appropriate policy responses. The second is a relentless focus on getting things back to “normal,” where normal is understood entirely as “how things were on March 10.” 

The decision by many jurisdictions to allow bars to reopen is one glaring example.  The question of how to manage the return to schools this September is another iteration of this persistent dynamic. Politicians and school boards are trying to reconcile all of these competing agendas within the context of the way school has always been done: 20-30 students in a square room with a teacher, all of them moving from one room to another as the schedule dictates, with the occasional trip outside for recess or for lunch or maybe gym class. 

That pretty much everyone is angry right now is a sign that our officials have failed. But given what they are trying to do, failure was inevitable. If by “open schools in the fall” you mean some facsimile of how schools opened last fall, and the one before that, and pretty much every fall in living memory, you are bound to fail, because it can’t be safely done. 

Thankfully, there’s an alternative, which is to flip the entire model on its head. Instead of students spending most of their time indoors with occasional trips outside for some fresh air, the default should be to hold school outside with very occasional sessions indoors only when absolutely necessary. 

This is hardly a new idea. Open-air schooling was widely used as a way to control the spread of tuberculosis in the early 20th century, and it was also employed during the 1918 influenza pandemic. But while the notion of doing it today has been getting some traction in the United States, the Canadian debate has remained largely stuck in the deep wagon-ruts of conventional thinking. When it comes to opening schools, our central preoccupations have been over questions of class sizes; of the distance between desks and how to manage social distancing in the school; over whether to allow students to have recess or lunch together; and of whether students and instructors should wear masks, at what age, and in what circumstances. 

That is, we are arguing over the logistics of how to go back to doing school the way we have always done it despite the fact that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that makes that impossible. And even on the few occasions that holding school outdoors is even mooted, it is entertained only for the sake of dismissing it as an interesting little thought experiment that no one should really take seriously. 

And of course it isn’t hard to come up with objections — the obvious ones range from practical concerns about space and materials to the more philosophical concerns about the nature of the curriculum. But it is surprisingly easy to deal with most of them. 

Canada, as is widely known, is huge. There are plenty of school yards, sports fields, baseball diamonds, public parks, shopping mall parking lots, and other spaces that could easily be commandeered for outdoors classrooms. So space isn’t a problem. And while you might not be able to easily set up smart boards or wifi or any of the other trappings of modern learning, it’s not hard to set up some chalk or whiteboards under a tent with students arranged in small groups around tables. If you’re having trouble getting your mind around how it might work, consult your local wedding planner. 

But not everything can be taught through chalk and talk, after all. What about science labs and computers and music class and art and drama and all the other things that go into what we consider an education?

Well, what of them? Concerns with what gets taught are themselves part of the problem. Lots of schools build field trips into their curriculum. Why not make field trips the default? Why not teach kids how to identify all the trees and plants in the park, how to use a compass and read a map, or how to follow the sewage system from where a toilet gets flushed to where it discharges into the nearby river or sea? What is preventing us from using this as an opportunity to rethink where and how we educate our children, and why? 

Maybe this is crazy talk. And maybe the reason we aren’t considering any of this isn’t because our politicians are weak, or because our education administrators are unimaginative, or because our teachers’ unions are too selfish. Maybe it’s something much more straightforward, namely, the weather. After all, most of Canada is pretty much frozen over from mid November till early March. 

This is true enough, though a lot can be accomplished with heaters and blankets. Also, this is a country where millions of parents happily spend hours every weekend freezing on a bench in a hockey rink sipping their double-double and don’t think much of it. 

But if it turns out that in many parts of the country it is just too cold to hold school outside in the dead of winter, then should we bite the bullet and get the kids back inside? Not necessarily. Perhaps we need to make one last, big, cognitive leap, and invert the entire school year. Your holidays are now from the end of November to late February, school runs right through the summer. 

Crazy? Sure ... but it’s a lot less crazy than the prison-warden thinking that passes for pandemic education planning in Canada right now. 

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