Tucson teacher: Re-imagining schools in the wake of COVID-19

Tucson teacher: Re-imagining schools in the wake of COVID-19

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 forced Arizona schools to close their doors in March, I’ve heard many folks lament that schools as we know them will “never be the same.” When we eventually return to classrooms in August — or perhaps later — schools most certainly will operate differently. But how?

As a teacher mentor and parent of three school-aged children, I often imagine how schools might look when students once again roam their halls. Surely, there will be masks and social distancing. But there will also be opportunities for innovative ideas to grow in the cracks that have formed in our school systems.

Right now, teachers and district leaders are cultivating practices that focus on flexibility, empathy and a student-centered approach. Of these practices, three in particular have the potential to benefit students greatly if carried over to our brick-and-mortar schools.

First, school districts must continue to put issues of equity at the forefront of our educational conversations. On March 27, the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board did just that when they voted unanimously to invest $3.5 million into purchasing computers for families who lack technology to complete online learning.

Issues like the technology gap shine a glaring spotlight on inequities that students within our districts face. When school resumes, let’s not forget this reality. School districts have the power to tackle equity issues — whether by providing loaner laptops or offering child care at school events — if that’s what we choose to prioritize.

Each time we place our most vulnerable students at the center of educational decisions, we are one step closer to creating an equitable playing field for all.

Another shift that I hope continues is that we provide children more opportunities for movement and time outdoors during the school day. Throughout this crisis, I’ve heard experts emphasize the need for exercise and fresh air to help students cope with stress.

Fortunately, Arizona is one of eight states that requires two daily recess periods for elementary students. However, to best support children, movement and nature must be valued and embedded throughout the day.

Studies show that physical activity may increase students’ test scores, but that’s not why we prescribe it during a pandemic. We do it because outdoor activity and movement are good for the soul. When classes resume, let’s remember this truth and make it our mantra. Getting students outside to take a walk, draw the natural world around them, or dig in the dirt isn’t frivolous; it’s beneficial for their mental health.

One last small but significant change focuses on how families and schools communicate. Before COVID-19, many teachers already did an excellent job contacting parents and guardians about classroom news, upcoming tests, and student behavior.

What if, going forward, family contact also included more of the language we’re hearing during this pandemic? “How is your family doing? What are your concerns for your child right now? What barriers to learning can our school community help you to address?”

Families face crises big and small throughout their lives, not just during a virus outbreak. Teachers and guardians have an opportunity to reimagine their relationships with each other, building off the foundations laid over the past month.

Since schools turned to at-home learning, our country has witnessed teachers innovating, building community and reaching out to students with creativity and compassion.

I have no doubt that educators and districts can carry these practices over to students when they’re finally reunited in person. And if that’s what we mean when we say schools will never be the same, I say bring on the change.

Heather Mace, M.Ed., is a Beginning Teacher Mentor at TUSD, and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

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