Will COVID-19 reshape education? Will kids return to the classroom this fall? Shane Blanton, executive director of the Mid-South Association of Independent Schools (MSAIS) seems to think so. Blanton recently spoke with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the impact COVID-19 will have on education this fall and in the future.
What will school look like this fall?
“The initial plan is that we’ll be back in school, as normal, come August. Every school will have some alternate plans, and may look more like a university setting, such as having a day on and a day off, with the hope that we minimize large group contact. But we will be having kids back in school.”
Minimizing large group contact? Does that mean things like football games and pep rallies are not going to happen?
“We anticipate those things to happen, and we are putting out guidance for them to get back to competition and to participate in practices. A number of schools are starting practices the month of June, as long as they keep safe distances and have groups of no larger than 20 and are cleaning facilities.
“I don’t know what school will look like as far as group settings, but hopefully we can function as normal as possible. As far as the content of the school day, there may be attention to how we feed students, the size of groups attending chapel, and other large group settings.”
I want to go back to something you mentioned a moment ago. You said that schools might have more of a university setting. Can you flesh that out a little more?
“There are a couple of models out there, one particular one we’ve studied over time has been the university model, where classes have Monday, Wednesday and Friday meetings, and students do work on their own. As far as that is concerned, it could work in the upper and middle school, but I think it gets a little more difficult in an elementary setting.”
Why is that?
“Anything that is sixth grade or below has a childcare component as well. Parents are working, kids can’t drive or take care of themselves. In elementary settings, school might include more spacing of students and spreading out.”
Do schools have the facilities to do more social distancing in classrooms?
“I think so. The ones that I’ve been in over the last year do. There may be some additional costs, as far as hiring additional teachers and teachers aides, but I think they have the space. They will have to use their resources wisely, but they have the space for sure.
“A lot of schools are running programs this summer and are working out the details on how to maintain distancing, how to feed students and what outdoor activities look like.”
How many schools does the association represent?
“We have 122 schools, and about 45,000 students. It covers Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, but we’re predominantly in Mississippi. We have about 6,500 educators.”
With some states having worse outbreaks than others, will MSAIS have different rules on schools reopening?
“We’ll abide by those guidelines that have been pushed out from government authorities in those states. There is a potential that there could be some differences as far as participation in activities is concerned, but for the most part, school rules seem to be aligning. Louisiana did have a bigger outbreak, with much of that in the New Orleans area, but the rest of the state has mimicked Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. We do not have any schools in the New Orleans area. Most are along the river and the I-20 corridor.”
How often do you communicate with member schools?
“We’re still hosting weekly class with all of our heads of schools. We’ll have group sessions for all of our heads of schools this summer. We also have a message board that we post information on, as well as an internal post office where we keep them up to date on new guidance being pushed forward and offer a platform to allow for questions and answers. Our schools, which are divided in five districts, are also meeting regularly with each other to understand local rules. We’re probably the best we have ever been when it comes to staying in contact.”
Do you think education will change as a result of COVID?
“I absolutely think education will change. It’s given us a great opportunity to do things differently. Education, from the state school standpoint, has been stuck in the industrial model for many years. We, in the independent schools, have the ability to do things differently, but we had gotten accustomed to do more things in the industrial model, or a one-size-fits-all model.
“I’m not sure how it will change, but I think there will be a greater focus on mastery and the method of delivery. Teaching doesn’t have to be confined to an 8 to 3 setting. Students can be learning continuously. I also believe there will more of an open concept going forward, with students having adjusted to doing their work in and out of the classroom.”
Could online programs eventually mean that students, who are sick, could still go to class, making absences less relevant?
“For sure. In the spring, with so many activities and sports going on, students miss quite a number of hours in the classroom. With this, they won’t have to miss any hours. Some of our schools are already working toward this.”
Will the outbreak have an impact on tuition? In other words, will school costs go down because parents think they could offer more classes online, rather than in person?
“Right now, we don’t see that. There is a lot of debate out there on the university level, with entire programs moving online. But our anticipation is that for K-12, in-person classes will be back in session and the online learning will be an added benefit.”
Have educators grown as a result of the outbreak?
“I think our teachers have probably grown more than any group, to turn around in a week and to have to provide everything they were doing in the classroom on a digital platform, to having to learn how to engage students in different ways and to use different modalities to reach students. I’ve seen some remarkable stuff from our teachers in the last six to eight weeks. Even some of our smaller schools challenged with internet access have done a great job because of their connections with larger schools.”
Will students have a lot of remedial work to do this fall?
“I don’t see that for our students. We sort of coined the phrase, that even though some people pushed the idea that school was over, we pushed the narrative that even though school was out, education continues. Most of our schools were continuing education through May 20. We really focused on how our schools were meeting accreditation goals. Each school had to submit a plan outlining their goals and how they were meeting them.
“There will be some remediation classes offered if you feel your child is left behind, some things offered this summer so schools can start as planned next year.”
So, some schools are offering remediation this summer, rather than waiting until the fall?
“Yes; if there is any that is needed. It will be on an as-needed basis. The message we pushed out at the start of the outbreak was that we needed to meet our educational goals. Of my four children, there is one who I would like to look at math skills before school starts next year, so he can start fresh and be ready to go.”
Who are schools within MSAIS accredited by?
“MSAIS is authorized under the state of Mississippi and surrounding states to accredit schools. We are an integrated partner with Cognia, the largest school accrediting body in the world. Schools go through the normal accreditation process every five years and update their information annually. Part of the supplement for this year, was for schools to articulate their goals and how they would achieve them even during the economic shutdown.”