Back to school time for local K-12 districts typically follows a circadian rhythm toward summer’s end.

Youngsters get new pencils, shoes and pants. Mothers with 5-year-olds get teary-eyed with the prospect of their “baby” venturing into kindergarten. Teachers spruce up their classrooms, and administrators troubleshoot the myriad issues that naturally arise when opening back up dozens of facilities, with hundreds of bus routes, to serve thousands of students.

A normal year is enough of a project. This year is different. Some districts are so concerned about COVID-19 spreading, they are closing their physical facilities indefinitely. Some are proud to be opening their doors to kids.

Various stakeholders in our community have a wide variety of opinions about what should be done. It would seem school leaders cannot win because there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will satisfy a majority, let alone everybody. Whoa be it to the school board member or superintendent these days.

However, Columbia Public Schools seems to be adopting a quite practical plan: Students can either show in-person (as usual), take classes online exclusively, or show up on-site two days a week and do remote learning the rest of time.

The first day of school has been delayed to the day after Labor Day (for now), giving parents a little more time to decide.

Since last spring, when the pandemic was rolling our way and schools temporary closed — then switched to online, then paused, then online again, then just ended the school year early — there have been some amazing and eye-opening conversations among parents. It has revealed and clarified that parents weigh aspects of schooling differently.

Most parents, though concerned about COVID-19 transmission, want their kids to get back to some kind of normal, so they lean toward some kind of on-site schooling with precautions. CPS’ own polling found that 85% of parents would favor in-person school for their kids this fall.

However, some parents’ concern about safety overrides the benefits of on-site attendance, so attending is not acceptable for now, which is fine, too. Some are in between, where the prospects of group learning would be good, but maybe not in large groups.

Some parents have rolled with the change to online learning from home. Others don’t have the wherewithal for this interaction that is new to them and does not meet their expectations. Regardless, many were confused with the impromptu presentation that they found to be less than user-friendly.

Some parents don’t have time or interest in watching their kid in the house. While some, frankly, want their kids out of their hair so unfortunately consider the public schools as glorified day care.

For over a decade now, Columbia Public Schools has made a sustained effort to keep up with the increasing student enrollment in an ever-growing community. While the district was rapidly opening a new school building about every other fall, it still seems like it took forever to get rid of those overflow trailer classrooms.

To efficiently accommodate ever-increasing enrollment, each school campus was scaled up. Typically on a multi-acre plot along the city limits’ expanding frontier, new schools were built for hundreds of students to congregate daily, with large shared amenities such as a dining area, playground, auditorium and sports facilities.

Once touted as valuable attributes, facilities for large groups have presently become a big liability. So accommodating some variety of distance learning was the immediate alternative.

Meanwhile, parents are getting creative to find the interaction that best suits their child’s needs and their family’s values.

Around the country, some parents have organically coordinated their own “pods,” where space in a home and/or backyard is transformed into a modern one-room schoolhouse. Kids from a few neighbor families explore a new vision of what learning, discovery and socialization can be.

These can be formed as a home-schooling co-op, a lead instructor can be tapped — with or without a stipend — or a professional teacher can be hired. Particularly, the latter would mean the parents would need to possess some financial means to do so, short of education policy flexibility to allow subsidies — or even an available public school teacher — to follow wherever students might be these days.

Nobody wished this pandemic and its widely pervasive challenges to be thrust upon us. While the status quo has become impossible, creative disruption has finally come upon the field of education.

We should remain receptive to outside-the-box solutions on how to coordinate and experience learning, for now and the future. Out of this, as the pandemic might linger longer, we can hope for the dawning of a new age of how to most effectively educate each of our children for the 21st century realities they will face.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on KOPN/89.5 FM.


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