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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Killer Piano

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

If you've ever hung around 3rd and 4th grade classrooms, you've seen groups of kids packing for their epic, simulated trip along the Oregon Trail. Given long lists of items--skillets, socks, oxen, rifles, flour, blankets, musical instruments--kids must imagine the rigors of the long journey and load 'em up accordingly. Invariably, under the pressure of time, overwhelmed by choices and the struggle to imagine scenarios well outside their experience, one of the groups will pack a piano. The piano, of course, is a killer, more deadly than disease, bandits and rocky terrain. The piano group never makes it to Oregon.

As I hear Heads grinding out the details of multiple fall scenarios, discussing the availability of kid-sized PPE booties, calculating floor space, and diving into lunch serving procedures, I worry that they're missing the last weeks available to focus on a bigger picture, and build the principles they'll use to design the fall. I totally get it. Every constituency is begging (or grandstanding) for a description of what the fall will look like--edgy teachers, discount-demanding parents, prickly donors, white-knuckled trustees--and school leaders are planners by nature, and having the answers not only feels like leading, it often is. But, I also worry they'll pack the piano by becoming overcommitted to a particular plan for the sole reason that they've already sunk so much time (and, quite possibly, money) into it, or pay a dire opportunity cost in the exacting, zero-based budget of their own time.

What are those principles for scenario building? I see four categories:

Invest in Community

With two months' experience in moving school programs online, we have enough perspective to see how independent schools distinguished themselves from other schools by investing in the social and emotional welfare of students, their families, faculty, and the wider school community. Schools are also realizing that in doing so, they were leveraging the 7 months of cultural capital that they built in face-to-face encounters with kids, parents, colleagues, grandparents, and caregivers in dozens of formal and informal ways every day. And, they know how pale and infrequent those encounters became when mediated by a screen and juggled into the tedium and frustrations of our quarantine home lives and the dread that lies on the forest edge of our consciousness. This fall, schools will need to plan creatively to build classroom and wider school community when they'll likely do some or all of that work remotely. It's also important for school leaders to attend to their exhausted faculty, person-by-person and describe to all faculty the professional growth work you'll do to improve remote learning and plan for the year ahead. Ideally, you'll have the institutional wherewithal to give them a genuine respite, perhaps an entire month with no requests for action on their part, before that work begins.

Improve Remote Teaching

This spring, most independent school families were profoundly grateful for teachers' efforts in moving their work online and tolerant of the understandable bumps along that road. On social and mass media, teachers joined essential workers as "heroes," and anyone who attempted to qualify that term or hint at hyperbole was quickly shouted down. That deal will be off this fall. Most schools have collected feedback on spring efforts (if you haven't, do it now) and funneled that information into plans for summer professional growth and technical refinements for the fall. School families will have much higher expectations this fall and be much quicker to express concerns, publicly.

Confront Equity Issues/Inadequacy of Remote Learning for Elementary Kids

Many of the scenarios schools are considering for the fall anticipate extraordinary flexibility from parents, many of whom are returning to their own workplaces. For some school families, the nature of their professions, or their ability to arrange outsourced childcare makes possible an everyone-wins family adjustment. For other families, including, importantly, faculty families, these scenarios represent a potential loss of income if a parent must leave a job or become part time to stay home with children, or a family budget-breaking childcare expense. And for all elementary parents, regardless of income, remote learning amounts to a loudly clicking clock as even in its ideal form, remote learning separates children from some of their most important teachers, each other, making it a pale shadow of the classroom experiences kids left behind last March and a very weak value proposition. All of which is to say that independent school heads should explore every option for bringing elementary students onto campus daily and should put them first in line to do so, if a full return is phased.

Negotiate the Reality of Mitigation

Very simply, there is no way to return risk-free to in person schooling before a vaccine is available. Heads should begin communicating this fact and working on accommodations for members of the school community who lie outside the fuzzy boundary of the school's mitigation efforts.

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