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With two children at home, I have witnessed the noble efforts of their teachers and our school system, as well as so many school systems around the state, to quickly adjust to an entirely new way of teaching at a distance. But distance, of course, is what we strive to eliminate in the manner in which our children learn and in how they interact with peers.
I have read of various ideas to safely reopen existing school buildings. However, we should not be focusing on reopening school buildings, but on reopening spaces in which to learn. We need to move away, for the time being, from the notion of the centralized school building and adapt to teaching during the pandemic and its unknown future course.
If the essence of teaching is connection, let us first break down the geography of educational connection to its smallest element and plan from there. That element is the single classroom. The single classroom is the safety spot that allows individual teaching and engenders the critical friendships that are fundamental to personal and educational growth.
The next element may be an entire grade level. Rather than try to fit all classrooms in a single building, we should quickly assess setting up classrooms or groups of classrooms outside the school walls, considering all available space, public and private, in all communities that may be rendered workable for individual classroom, grade, or cluster of grades learning.
Schools can always use virtual means of communication for larger virtual gatherings. Principals can address the entire school through linked classroom portals. Superintendents can do the same by further linking. Students can enjoy school plays or can share their work to a larger school audience. But the classroom must remain intact.
It is also easier to monitor the health of individuals in a single classroom and be able to react to illness without needing to shut an entire school. Teachers will also feel much more comfortable in a smaller geographic setting. Teachers will need to become generalists again so that they may teach at the classroom level. This should not be hard from grades K through 8. With classrooms for those grades spread out in the community, there will be more space available for properly spreading out specialized teaching for high school students.
I have worked in commercial real estate for more than 30 years. The government, at all levels, is a major lessor and owner of space. There are protocols and processes in place for private property owners to lease space to the government for use as classroom space. Every community has ample space available in various states of repair.
There is no question that taking a wider geographical scope will cost more money in the short term. The cost will be far less, however, than the mental costs of learning isolation and the very real costs of opening and reopening entire school buildings in response to a dangerous virus.
James J. Adams of Topsham is a consultant in the real estate and energy industries.