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VOL. 44 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 21, 2020

Return to the one-room schoolhouse

Parents turn to pods, alternative tools to cope with shutdowns

By Hollie Deese

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Williamson County mom Jenny Myhr’s mornings are just as hectic as ever. The pandemic that changed most aspects of life the past six months is no longer providing slower mornings or a reduced schedule.

Instead, with school back in session, she has quickly cobbled together a plan that provides some kind of routine – for now – in a world that is ever-changing and anything but stable.

Both of her children were set to go to school in person but, because of the community spread level of COVID-19 a few weeks ago in Williamson County, the district delayed the start of in-class learning for older students but moved forward with kindergarten through second grade returning to the classroom.

That meant her son Finn was able to start second grade at Grassland Elementary in person, but her daughter Maggie, a fifth grader, had to start school remotely, at least for the first two weeks. Williamson County is reevaluating the return to school every two weeks, with an update set for Aug. 17.

So, like many parents in the pandemic era, Myhr has fallen headfirst into navigating a new way of learning.

The director of philanthropy for Barefoot Republic Camp, a summer camp ministry that focuses on cultural, racial and socioeconomic diversity and reconciliation, Myhr had returned to the office a few weeks ago. And while she has some flexibility in her work schedule, she can’t be away five days a week, stay home or be unavailable indefinitely. Her husband works 12-hour days.

Myhr needed a plan.

She turned to some local Facebook groups, Williamson County Moms and Williamson County Schools, where education pods were being discussed.

The idea is simple and involves a small group of children whose parents rotate handling the implantation of virtual learning. Fellow Williamson County mom Kim Neese started planning early on and organized three different pods, including the one with the Myhr family.

Now, Myhr leaves the house four days a week with both her children and drives 15 minutes to Temple Hills, where she drops Maggie at the home hosting the pod that day. She then she takes her son to Grassland Elementary School, where he is greeted on arrival with a temperature check and must answer some health-related questions before being allowed in the school.

And then she goes to work.

Myhr is lucky that she gets to drop Maggie off early because both children’s schools start at the same time – 8:50 a.m. But any parent with more than one child in the school system is looking at the same logistical problems since some start remotely and some in-person within the same district.

“It’s kind of a nightmare if you didn’t have the situation that we do,” Myhr says. “We’re fortunate, because I can drop her off at 8:30 so she can be online and ready to go by 8:50, and then I can get him to school on time as well. They didn’t think through a parent who might have two kids doing the same thing.

“And if they can’t stay home alone, then they’re screwed.”

The pod was only open to parents who could host a day. One parent has two children in the pod, so she takes two days. All the moms communicate via a text thread about any glitches to look out for, tips and tricks, and of course, pictures.

“They have their headphones on, and the lessons are live on Zoom,” Myhr explains. “They’re really self-led and my job is truly technical support.”

These students are part of a Franklin-area learning pod in which a closed set of children go to a different home each day so that only one parent has to stay home instead of five. Grassland Elementary School fourth and fifth graders in this pod are, from left, Sydney Williford, Maggie Myhr, Ethan Kaplan, Anna Grace Maynard and Emily Mills.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

The children bring their own lunches every day, along with water bottles and snacks. They have an hour in the middle of the day that is 30 minutes for lunch and 30 minutes for recess. “So, they are getting that physical activity and social interaction. And my kid is very, very social, so this has been great for her,” Myhr adds.

Once school reopens, Myhr says she is unsure what schools will do if there is an outbreak or someone tests positive. There are typically 20 children in her second grader’s class, and the students have been split up so there are 10 each in two classrooms, never mixing, though the teachers switch back and forth.

Children are not going to the cafeteria – they eat lunch in their room – and when they go outside for recess, they are staying within their same group of 10.

It is Myhr’s understanding that if a child gets the virus, only the children and teachers that he has been around will be quarantined and sent home, that everyone else should be able to stay in school.

The Tennessee Department of Education has created sample protocols for schools to follow when positive cases occur, but some districts have not clarified to parents what their particular plans are about who would be notified if a school has a positive case beyond those in close contact.

Opportunity amid chaos

Unfortunately, the academic long-term effects of any option – hybrid models, in-person during a pandemic, rotating closures – are unknown right now, says Joseph Murphy, associate dean at Peabody College of Education of Vanderbilt University.

“We have no evidence on this at all,” he points out. “My entering point on pods would be neutrality because when I entered home-schooling in general, everybody and their grandma was telling me, this is just terrible. The world is going to end. And that turned out not to be the case at all.

“And I don’t see anything that would tell me that is going to cause a problem more than what they would get at school.”

The question of whether there are some approaches better than others really depends more on the engagement of the child and the quality of the activity than the approach and location of the lesson, Murphy adds.

“If it’s really a quality pod, with just the numbers, you’ve got five kids and you’re working with one-to-one contact with 100% engagement,” Murphy says of a workable system. “Or, it could be just a charade. The parents don’t know what they’re doing and the whole thing falls apart. You really need to know what exactly is unfolding, and I don’t think generalizations around these alternatives carry a lot of weight at this point.”

Five years from now, if people continue with alternative methods like virtual learning in pods or video classes, then there will be some evidence to compare with more controlled, traditional models, Murphy says.

Franklin homeowner Jenny Myhr watches as the children in her pod do their schoolwork.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Any kind of regular schedule led by loving caregivers is better for children right now than the uncertainty and lack of consistency when schools keep opening and closing, displacing time and energy.

“We should be building a new model of education for our children, simple as that,” Murphy explains. “The old model that was here for 100 years, where we packed them off every morning at 7 and sent them to school is not going to be the model of the future.”

What will that model actually look like? Murphy says it will be a collection of different experiences that will be different for each student’s interest and needs.

‘‘The overwhelming majority of learning occurs outside classrooms,” he says. “Why are we not making progress on using the 75% of learning that kids do every day outside of schools, much more productively than we do now? I think the new understanding of schooling is that it is an ongoing activity. It just doesn’t happen when you’re thrown into a school somewhere.”

Murphy says engagement is key, and creating opportunities for children to explore what interests them.

“It’s better to be engaged in a music activity after school than it is in a math class where you’re not paying attention,” he acknowledges. “If they’re excited, then I’m excited. They don’t need to have a bunch of tasks if most are not engaged, 50% is not unusual. Then I get nervous – that’s half a school day you just wrote off.”

Murphy says he is going to be doing more research this year into home-schooling and the development of what schooling is going to look like in the future compared to what it looked like in the past.

“We had home-schooling before we had public school, but we’re in a different world now,” Murphy says. “And what we think of education, how we think of schooling, has to be different than it was for the past hundred years.”

Make your own plan

Kyah Hillis, an East Nashville mother, had been thinking about making big changes in how she educates her daughter Haven, 9, long before the coronavirus began playing havoc with schools. She posted a job listing to hire an educator with teaching experience who thinks outside the traditional classroom box to engage students in learning for three families.

The job posting stated “if Peloton and home-school made a baby to create a dynamic, engaging learning experience.”

The goal was to document, with high-quality video production, a hands-on, project-based curriculum in which elementary-age children learned life skills, entrepreneurship, leadership and academic excellence through a combination of projects, technology and outdoor activity.

It was an idea she had a long time ago before she even had her daughter, and the idea really ramped up once she began searching for schools after Haven was born. The family ultimately went with a private school because of the uncertainty of getting into first-choice schools in a lottery.

Ethan Kaplan, left, Anna Grace Maynard and Emily Mills particape in Zoom lessons with their remore classmates and teachers.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“I’ve always felt like our education system is a little bit antiquated because it was based around the industrial revolution, and to the best of what we know, our future will be technological. And if something catastrophic happened, they aren’t equipped with life skills either,” Hillis adds. “So, if you go back to like pioneer days, they’re screwed. And if we are really working towards coding and like more technology, they’re not getting that either.”

After schools were sent home for virtual learning in the spring, Hillis could see the school was doing the best it could. But with so many children needing assistance, teachers were quickly doing the bare minimum to get through the day – then Haven could go outside and play.

“They sent enrichments and things you could do, and we did all these things in the first two or three weeks,” Hillis adds. “After that it was like, just go play.”

The struggle for Hillis was following somebody else’s plan.

“Even though it was good, I didn’t have the buy-in. And I wasn’t as enthusiastic about doing all the things because I had to quickly read the lesson plan, regurgitate it and then do it with Haven vs. if I had a say in the curriculum.

“It’s not like real home-school,’’ she points out. “And it’s not nearly as good as the socialization of real school. So are we going to limp along for the next year and we’re in school, we’re out of school, we’re in school and just make the best of it, but really not be able to plan or are we going to take control of our own destiny, so to speak and make a plan ourselves?”

Ultimately, she knows her daughter would love to go back to school but she also likes the idea of doing a home-school the way her mother has described. The family was unable to find the right teacher in such a short time this summer. After considering the pros and cons, they knew Haven might just be back in school for two weeks and then back home, and they would be back to where they were in the spring, doing school just to get it done.

So, Hillis is moving forward with a mashup of remote learning and added enrichments to help guide her own curriculum. For instance, she has bought books about the constitution and electoral process to coincide with the election, and has signed up for enrichments online like Mandarin and music.

After six months they will reevaluate and know if they have a real model to go with or it didn’t work at all, and they can reenroll Haven in school with the confidence they tried.

“It’s long overdue,” Hillis says of rethinking education and school. “Probably this is the most exciting thing for me to come out of COVID. Every family has different priorities of what they get out of school and every school is not going to work for every kid. And nobody’s getting behind. If anything, I think our kids might excel and go further. At the end of the day, they’re little sponges and they’re absorbing as we just do life.”

Maintaining mental health

New home-school parents also are hearing the same kinds of grumblings parents of home-schoolers have always faced – that their children’s lack of traditional school socialization will lead to depression, loneliness and even suicide. And it is still a factor parents consider when deciding whether to send them back to the classroom during a pandemic.

But Murphy says those concerns of children being deprived of social contacts and relationships have not played out historically.

“Kids have many contacts with adults and interactions with a variety of different peers,” Murphy says. “They go to church, they go to camp, they do all sorts of things. So, the idea that the socialization is worse than for these kids, I don’t find that right now.”

But it isn’t just the kids potentially suffering. Parents are struggling with decisions that have taken on grave new weight, and underneath it all, is a balance to not risk their entire livelihood, maybe even losing their homes, over a pandemic that hopefully has an end in sight.

“To me, they’re going to be OK from an education standpoint,” Myhr says. “They’re all in the same boat. And we may feel that impact for years to come. We don’t know because we don’t know how long it’s going to last. But truly, for us, we both need to go to work. You’ve got to be creative and you can’t live in denial.

“You’ve got to do what’s best for your family. And this is it for us. It doesn’t work for everyone, but we needed it. There are people who are losing everything in the process and this is our creative venture to not be a statistic in the pandemic. An unemployed statistic.”

There has also been one other benefit for Myhr – making new good friends, both for her daughter and herself.

“I don’t know that I would have met these mamas,” she says. “When they get older, you really only tend to spend time with the parents that your kids are friends with, if you even do that. But now, I’ve met four other women who I just think are fabulous. The kids, they’ve formed new friendships. But I feel like I have, too.”

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