“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill is widely credited to have said in the throes of World War II. A crisis, in other words, can be an opportunity.
In summer 2020, my district, like all others, found itself in the midst of the COVID-19 catastrophe. We were also in a battle against time, with just six weeks to forge a plan to reopen our schools safely while offering students opportunities to learn and grow.
We prevailed for the most part. Since September 2020, our district has been in a full in-person mode with a remote-learning option. Despite having to quarantine various groups since then, there’s been no break in our full in-person schedule.
We used the crisis to adopt an approach we had been discussing for years: block scheduling. In our version of block scheduling, we replaced the traditional schedule of seven 42-minute daily periods with two alternating blocks of four 85-minute classes for both full-time and remote students.
What appealed to us about the practice is that it frees up time for hands-on learning and collaboration, while affording deeper levels of teaching and learning with fewer interruptions.
Even in normal times—as everyone reading this knows—changing a school schedule is a complex and contentious business. Coalitions must be built. Contracts must be negotiated. Teachers must be trained. The public must be convinced.
Among the perverse benefits of the crisis was that it forced us into what some corporations describe as disruptive change—a modern version of a “good crisis.” We used the pandemic as an opportunity to quickly adjust and innovate in our determination to safely reopen our schools.
We based our response on the bedrock belief that school is more than a building; it’s where students develop positive relationships with their teachers. Those connections, our experience taught us, make students more likely to engage in learning and have better academic outcomes—far better, we believed, than in online settings with their distractions and lack of oversight.
That’s where block scheduling came in and came through—both for its scholastic benefits and for meeting our safety and health challenges.
Reducing the number of classes from seven to four limited the time that students had to pass in the hallways. Keeping students together in cohorts facilitated contact tracing. The increase in class time in class afforded teachers a greater stretch during which they could balance in-person and remote teaching, as well as schedule mask breaks.
More than that, at a time when the outside world was anything but calm, the schedule gave students consistency and stability—the most salubrious conditions for learning and growth.
Students have reported that the added time has enabled them to learn at deeper levels and to work on projects longer with continuous feedback from teachers. Teachers say they’re able to give students more individualized attention with the increased duration of class time.
There were glitches. We experienced a shortage of teachers. This resulted in too many students consigned to study hall. In addition, safety precautions precluded group work and moving around the classroom.
Such challenges are fixable. We’ve added three additional teachers to next year’s budget. And many of the restrictions, we hope, will be lifted by September, allowing us to maximize the instructional benefits afforded by block scheduling.
Whether you call it a “good crisis” or disruptive change, it’s fair to say that block scheduling for our district is here to stay.
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