The Florida government is mandating schools re-open as the number of virus cases explodes across the state, which most already know from the headlines around the world.
And while parents in some counties within my state have options to choose for how their kids go back to school next week, none of them seem palatable, let alone desirable against the backdrop of the rising cases and our government’s unwillingness to take appropriate measures to protect its citizens.
Even many of our teachers, who have no choice but to return or lose their jobs, are dreading this fall term.
As of now, in the school district where I live, parents have three publicly-funded options: 1) traditional in-person learning, 2) e-learning through classroom livestreams, and 3) virtual learning through virtual schools.
Our School System Is Putting Students, Families and Teachers at Risk
There are other approaches being floated around nationally as alternatives to traditionally overcrowded classrooms, clogged hallways, and congested lunch rooms. If it keeps our learning environments safe, they are worth exploring. Most of them are rooted in homeschooling and distance learning along with others that when all things are equal, ultimately separate kids from an entire school body.
As a service designer, I recognize that this is a larger problem that needs addressing, for which service design is ideal. For what my district presented as the alternatives, they all fail to address parents’ needs, special needs of some students, and the needs of teachers. Each are stakeholders in any solution. Failure to address their needs, as with any service, will cause a breakdown. Instead, our school district, along with the others in Florida, is simply meeting federal and state requirements to continue educating students in a transparent veil toward improving the economy.
Pandemic Learning Pods
Even so, here are a couple of ideas that have been proposed, starting with Pandemic Learning Pods. The idea, which circumvents the public school system, involves student families hiring a teacher or teachers to stay with a set group of, say, six students throughout the day. “It’s a 2020 version of the one-room schoolhouse,” Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson wrote in the Washington Post.
In the U.S., it is compulsory to attend school until age 16. Taxpayers fund the education system, whether or not they have a student. With a learning pod, the idea is for groups of families to collectively fund their own student’s education, a tally which includes teacher salaries, location, and supplies, minimally. The idea solves the problem of some parents’ unavailability to teach and provides safety in a one-on-one learning environment. But it is not cheap, leading some to argue that pandemic learning pods will be available only to those who can afford it, thereby perpetuating the downsides of income inequality.
Another alternative is a hybrid learning environment that combines the idea of pandemic learning pods with grassroots homeschooling and traditional education, called Microschooling.
The idea of a Microschool has been around for more than a decade and is now growing in popularity around the U.S. and perhaps elsewhere. It is considered by some advocates, including at Getting Smart, as an affordable alternative to private schooling at “around $10,000 a year or often less.”
The Microschool teaching approach emphasizes hands-on and activity-based learning, which for one, is a more concentrated education style, and for two, considered “as more worldly education.” (see About Microschooling). Microschooling has been used to teach specialties to smaller, interested or like-minded groups of students, inside or outside the confines of a public or private school.
As a benefit to address the current situation, students are separated from the mainstream. What remains uncertain is how the schedules will work for families, since Microschool schedules are typically quite different from other learning institutions. Selected topics may continue on for days, for instance, and then there are days off for breaks whenever that falls during a week. However, during the pandemic, its applications may well serve many families’ needs.
Additionally, there are organizations, including Swing Education, that both connect teachers to these independent education groups seeking teachers, and can help teachers develop their own independent teaching business. Some options offer hiring professional teachers to co-quarantine with students for $250 – $500 per child per week.
In comparison, our district offers a Florida Virtual School as an alternative, a state-wide online school that, for all intents and purposes, is its own school district. That option offers extreme flexibility for those students who can work on their own and can rely on accessing remote learning tools. However, once they opt in, they lose their seat at the district school. Even if they can return again at a later date, the loss of the student to the district results in a commensurate loss in funding.
Building a Solution
The above chart shows a user-centric approach to trying to solve this problem. While this chart, in particular, may be oversimplified due to the lack of detail, the notion of evaluating how each alternative satisfies user needs is the first step to understanding the problem. This approach also begins to narrow down the aspects of a preferred solution.
In reference to the chart, it would appear none of the alternatives are ideal. But here’s a quick analysis:
- State government’s needs are met with any of the alternatives.
- Teachers who desire to keep working should be able to do so, and only the Virtual School model would seem to counter those needs.
- Of all these, learning pods might be the best option for meeting everyone’s needs. However, it will require state and federal resources to help offset the family’s costs. Yet, the school districts already have existing facilities, supplies, teachers and administration functions. The only distinction is the smaller class size, requiring more teachers. But if, say, learning pods is just one of the alternatives, the school districts might find they could juggle resources among all the alternatives to satisfy everyone’s needs.
It’s the thinking of a service designer that could help in this situation. It’s not to say it’s an easy fix, merely to suggest there are tools and skills to apply.
We still have a ways to go in the U.S. for awareness of service design and the benefits of using service designers. I’m quite confident the field will mature here as it has in Europe. But awareness also requires more individuals who have an interest in becoming service designers. Even though there is a lack of awareness on the part of some, there are still well-paying service design jobs in the U.S., across industries. The public sector is hiring more service designers—the Obama administration had service designers on staff. Management consulting, hospitality, healthcare and other industries are hiring service designers. These are jobs that will help improve the way we live by solving some of our most pressing challenges. Service designers have bright futures. Now, if only our school system hired some to help them.