How to Approach School Closures During COVID-19

Here are some ideas to create positive outcomes for kids and families.

Posted Mar 10, 2020

'Gerd Altmann from Pixabay'
Source: 'Gerd Altmann from Pixabay'

Writing this post on March 10, 2020, I have no idea what the future holds for COVID-19 fatalities. Looking back months or years from now, will we determine that we overreacted to a novel coronavirus? Or will we be profoundly grateful for the closure of schools, the cancellation of events, the warnings about travel, and the calls for extra handwashing and social distancing that led to the tapering off of what might otherwise have killed millions of people?

From this relatively early moment in the spread of coronavirus, none of us can know the answer to these questions, but there are solutions we can embrace now that can lead to positive outcomes during this potentially dire disease outbreak. 

In my work as a humane educator, I teach others how to become solutionaries, people who are able to identify inhumane, destructive, and unsustainable systems and then develop solutions that are healthy and just for people, animals, and the environment. Conscious of their personal impact, solutionaries are not simply problem-solvers; they also embrace the principle of doing the most good and least harm (MOGO for short) through their personal choices.

What does the MOGO principle look like in relation to COVID-19? This principle asks us to keep everyone’s interests and well-being in mind, not just our own. 

Thus, in the face of an existing or potential COVID-19 outbreak in your community:

  • If you are not in a high risk category (e.g. you are younger than 65 and in good health), you should still avoid traveling to places where your exposure to COVID-19 would mean you could bring it back to your community and spread it to others at higher risk. 
  • If you think that you have been exposed, you should quarantine yourself to protect others and call your doctor.
  • If you are in a position to be able to withstand the challenges of school closures, either because your work is flexible, you are able to take time off, or you are able to work from home, you can reach out to single parents and those who cannot work from home to care for and/or provide food for their families.
  • You can volunteer to bring food and essentials to those in high risk categories in your community who should avoid exposure to large groups.
  • Whatever else you do, please don’t hoard masks and other essentials that health providers need to ensure the mitigation of this virus!

To be clear, though, these are not solutionary ideas; they are humanitarian acts. 

Because I am not a scientist, economist, or infectious disease expert, I cannot offer solutionary ideas to address the virus and its economic impacts myself. However, I do have expertise in education, which means I can offer some solutionary suggestions regarding potential school closures. 

This is a time to think differently about school curricula and what students might do and learn if they can’t be together in classrooms. Asking teachers to switch to teaching online classes, as has been suggested in numerous articles and news reports, is not the best way to approach learning during a time of school closures. Not only does teaching online require its own learning curve, curricula would need to be properly migrated to a digital format. Neither of these can happen overnight.

School closures will exert potentially grave economic hardships upon many parents and families and prevent many children from free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches (hence the humanitarian suggestions above), yet there are opportunities for learning that are exciting and meaningful, and which may carry over into classrooms in positive ways when schools reopen.

How might teachers and parents join together to support children’s potentially profound learning experiences during a time of school closures? 

Here are four ideas:

1. Go Outside. Nature beckons. With the reduction in school time spent outdoors, children have been steadily (and dangerously) deprived of opportunities to connect with nature. Most people understand the imperative to protect ecosystems, but without a relationship with nature, the motivation to preserve and restore the natural world is often lacking. Time in nature nurtures the best in our children: their wonder, curiosity, sense of place and belonging, love of the natural world, commitment to sustainability, patience, and groundedness.

These are deeply important qualities to cultivate, and school closures can offer opportunities for children’s wonder to be ignited and their appreciation for science to soar (while getting fresh air at the same time). We can find nature everywhere, even in dense urban areas, where tree roots upend sidewalks, pigeons make their homes, and seeds sprout in the tiniest of concrete cracks.

Practice OARing: Observing, Asking, Researching.

Teachers and stay-at-home/work-at-home parents can bring small groups of healthy children to a natural setting and have them sit in a single spot and observe for at least an hour. (If you live in a region where tick-borne diseases are prevalent, bring camping chairs or cloth sprayed with bug repellant and ensure your children have their socks over their pants and are wearing repellant on their clothing and exposed skin.)

Provide the children with a notebook and colored pencils to record their observations and write down questions that arise as they quietly notice their surroundings. Remind them that no question is too small and invite them to fill up as many pages as possible. 

Prepare to be amazed by the depth of their curiosity and the quantity and quality of their questions, from “What are the birds communicating when they sing?” to “Why is that squirrel chattering at me?” to “Who lives in this hole?” to “What’s all the green, yellow, orange, and gray stuff hanging off trees and plastered along bark, and how did it get there?”

When you get home, your children can choose the questions that most intrigue them and research the answers online or in books.

Expected Outcomes: Highly engaged, self-directed, happy learners full of curiosity who gain research and investigative skills. Kids who love nature, care about the environment, and want to go outdoors. Budding scientists and advocates for sustainability.

2. Become a Solutionary: Time away from the standard curriculum opens up opportunities for children to dive into their interests and passions and learn how to make a difference in their neighborhood, nation, and world. What better time than during a pandemic to consider challenges close to home as well as across the globe? Teachers and parents can invite children to conduct research on problems in their communities or world that concern them, and support and mentor their work as the children begin a solutionary practice in which they: 

  • Choose a problem they care about solving
  • Identify the underlying systems and root causes of the problem
  • Learn about what’s been done thus far to solve it
  • Reach out by phone or email to those affected by the problem to learn from them
  • Devise solutions that do the most good and least harm to all life
  • Assess how solutionary their solutions are according to this scale
'Institute for Humane Education'
Source: 'Institute for Humane Education'
  • (To the degree possible) implement, assess, and share their most feasible solution

Kids can also collaborate with classmates to create solutionary teams tackling problems that concern all of them. After doing solutionary work together, they can produce a video to share their ideas and successes.

Expected outcomes: Socially conscious, caring, empowered learners with better communication and research skills and a growing solutionary mindset. Advocates and changemakers for a more just, healthy, and peaceful world.

3. Take existing online courses: Khan Academy, the most well-known and popular of free online classes, enables children to keep up with their current classes and even forge ahead. Many children find these platforms and clear progression for learning both exciting and satisfying as they work at their own pace and gain mastery over subjects that may have previously vexed them.

Older students can take free college-level courses through Coursera and discover topics and subjects of great interest to them.

TED-ED offers students lessons on various topics through short videos.

There are so many resources for online learning, and the opportunity to explore them at their own pace will help our children become more proficient at utilizing self-directed learning, an important lifelong skill.

In conjunction with utilizing these existing online resources, students can meet via weekly video conversations with their teachers to build individualized learning plans, receive mentoring, and have personal check-ins.

Expected outcomes: A sense of efficacy and accomplishment among learners and growing interest in new fields of study they may not have known existed. Growing proficiency in selected subjects. Deepening connections with their teachers through one-on-one mentoring.

4. Turn off devices and connect. As much as online learning will be helpful to both kids and their parents if schools close, it can be stressful for children who aren’t used to learning online or sitting in front of a computer or tablet. Children can become restless and frustrated.

Keep in mind that for your temporary “homeschoolers,” the home is just as important as the school. Create balance with fun projects and relaxing, spacious activities. Remember, too, that there are exciting opportunities for creativity and family connection that can come through turning off devices.

Without overly-scheduled lives, high schoolers might be able to get the sleep they need, de-stress, and produce art, all things that often disappear after elementary school, but which are essential, restorative, and deeply enriching. Families can do relief-related projects together, such as preparing food for neighbors in need.

Expected outcomes: Deep rest, awakened interests, revealed talents, stronger family connections, and even joy. A strong ballast for when the routine of school returns.

COVID-19 will certainly result in terrible hardship for many, especially for the most vulnerable, which is why I began this post with the call for humanitarianism. To reiterate, this is the time to think beyond our own family’s safety and well-being and to help other people’s children as we are able. With that caveat in mind, let’s also embrace potential school closures with a solutionary mindset that may awaken new possibilities for learning when schools reopen.