Could some creative thinking from the 1950s enable today’s students to return to their classrooms more safely in August? It was called “split session” and it was a response to a very different sort of crisis — schools that were bursting at their blackboards with Baby Boomers.
At the corner of Walnut Street and Kanawha Terrace in St. Albans, Highlawn Elementary School was stocked with far more children than it was meant to hold. More than 40 students were jammed into each classroom. To deal with the absence of space, school officials devised a unique plan. As a fifth-grader, my classroom was divided into two groups. One group attended school from about 7:30 to 11:30 each morning, then went home and was replaced by the other half of the class, who attended from about 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. At the start of the second semester, the morning students switched to afternoon and vice versa.
Which brings us to the coronavirus and the need for 6 feet of space between students’ desks. With today’s elementary school limit of 25 students (20 in kindergarten) per classroom, it seems impossible that desks could be spread out to safe distances. But with a split-session format and just 12 or 13 students in the room, adequate spacing might be arranged.
Given that we likely will have a vaccine for coronavirus by fall 2021, a split session would be needed for just one year.
However, the issues to be dealt with would be numerous. State law and/or state Board of Education policies likely would have to be amended, given that students presently are mandated to have specific numbers of hours in each subject area — language arts, math, social studies, etc. But a mitigating factor is enhanced quantity and quality of individual attention to each child.
Technology might make additional learning opportunities at home possible, as well.
Another vital consideration is compensation of teachers and all other personnel — longer hours mandate additional pay.
Meals would seem another challenge, considering that many students now eat both breakfast and lunch at school. And parents whose employment depends on their children spending a full day in school would need to make arrangements for additional child care. Even so, four hours of school would be a step up from the last three months of the present school year. Surely there would be other issues in need of resolution, as well.
But the primary upside is that far fewer children and school personnel would be at risk of getting or spreading COVID-19. And the virus would have greater difficulty finding its way home to infect families. There would be reduced numbers of doctor visits, hospitalizations and, ultimately, deaths within the community, along with reduced odds of another complete school shutdown.
I don’t know whether my overall education suffered because of split session. I don’t even remember whether students in other grades or other local schools featured split sessions that year, although I do recall that it was a one-year-only phenomenon. The following year, we sixth-graders (sixth grade was part of elementary school in the Pre-Cambrian days) attended school all day, two blocks up the street where the school system leased space in the basement of a local church, which is another potential path to social distancing in the coming school year.