Safe face-to-face learning and development should be our shared priority.
School’s out and it struck me that I don’t have any photos of my daughter using her iPad for the sudden COVID-sponsored experiment with online learning. I have pictures of her everywhere else in the house during quarantine—doing gymnastics in the backyard, laughing with friends six feet apart on the porch, teasing her brothers at the dinner table. But using her tablet? None. Zero.
We don’t photograph our kids staring into screens because those aren’t cherished experiences worth remembering. A 6-inch touchscreen can display information as part of an educational experience, but it cannot be the experience. The solution is worse than the problem.
It’s time to let our school-age children experience joy, healing and connection alongside their peers and the teachers who inspire them to learn, socialize and grow. We can do so safely this summer and fall with just a few logistical tweaks.
First, children can and should experience summer camp. Since the pandemic began, my organization, Right at School, and other providers have been operating safe, healthy and fun face-to-face camps every single day at school without incident, primarily for the children of first responders.
Now it’s time for all school-age children to get the same experience. To be sure, it looks different from camps of old—there’s no hugging, contact sports or crowded field trips, but there’s plenty of old-fashioned laughing, crafting, singing and playing (all happening a safely-managed six feet apart). Right At School already has loads of videos and documentation to share with policymakers and school district leaders who may be interested.
Second, we all need to rethink how “afterschool programs” will function this fall and beyond. For most Americans, elementary school will not operate five days a week and six hours a day. Some schools will, but others will have A/B days (where children go to school on alternate days) or half days, where some school-age children will be in classes in the morning, and others in the afternoon.
This will be great for social distancing, but a fiasco for working parents and even worse for our children’s social-emotional development. But there is a solution. Let licensed and professional afterschool providers offer enrichment classes on the school campus during the gaps in the kids’ schedules—morning, noon and night. We’re about to enter an era where there may be no consistent “before” or “after” school, so let’s rethink the entire construct in order to serve working parents and their children in meaningful and practical ways.
School gyms and other larger spaces can be divided into temporary smaller rooms for fitness, art, drama and more. When parents are told their students won’t be attending their normal school classes on certain days, these “off-cycle” programs can come to the rescue. It’s low cost, meaningful, and can keep children happy, healthy and engaged while their parents work or tend to other obligations.
Third, afterschool educators can fill in a critical gap in reduced student-teacher classroom interactions. When school schedules change this fall, our children may get less face time with teachers. Current “afterschool” program educators not only make a big impact in the hours after school, but can also fill in the gaps during the daytime when students aren’t physically in a classroom.
Afterschool educators are trained on the important social and emotional supports our children need now more than ever. In addition, professional afterschool providers are trained to provide support for online learning, homework completion, and age-appropriate academic enrichment. These skill-sets can be a huge benefit to working parents who are not able to help their kids navigate online learning and lesson plans during out-of-school hours.
Finally, businesses and nonprofits can play a role. Community enrichment providers like Right At School can offer year-round enrichment and childcare at the workplace every day school is not in session. If parents need to come to the office, their children can come with them and benefit from the trained educators who are onsite and ready to help. A business just needs to dedicate a conference room or unused office for on-site childcare, and working parents can take their kids to work whenever they need safe enrichment, socialization, fitness and fun.
Nearly two-thirds of all parents say they need out-of-school-time care for their school-age children—and that was before schools were closed during the pandemic. This need will increase significantly this fall when children are not in school every day.
It’s time to rebuild. Whenever wars have decimated cities, schools have been among the first buildings rebuilt so children can gather for socialization, normalcy, learning and joy. Today, our children need no less. Keeping kids isolated at home and online for hours on end is not a healthy model. As my daughter might say, there is no substitute for IRL.