Learning Pads: A safe place for students to land

One of the biggest challenges in the battle against COVID-19 has been how best to provide our children with a quality education. As school districts are preparing for a rapidly approaching new school year, many questions remain about whether to proceed with schooling in a traditional in-person setting, to begin with online-only instruction, or to offer some sort of blended model where parents and students can choose what is best for their families.

One approach that is being considered around the country for private instruction, and which I am proposing we offer as a public option in Michigan, is the concept of what I call “learning pads.” This option, I believe, is a best-of-both-worlds approach to teaching students in the era of coronavirus. In the simplest terms, a learning pad is like a one room schoolhouse of old with a homeschool twist that is currently only available to those with the means to hire a teacher, or already has a parent willing and capable of homeschooling a group.

The operation of a learning pad is quite simple and preserves the teacher-student relationship we know and love, as well as the local school district funding we rely on. First, parents would band together from local communities to form a pad of students and arrange for a local public space, such as a community center, to serve as the classroom. Next, the group would contact their local school district to secure a teacher, curriculum and materials for the learning pad.

This new approach to learning solves problems while mitigating others.

It helps students, because they would receive in-person learning with significantly reduced exposure to other children beyond those they are likely already interacting with in their neighborhoods. And by not relying on a school bus for transportation, student exposure would be further mitigated. Importantly, the learning pad would reestablish a continuity of learning, with in-person instruction and a holistic curriculum that could catch students up from what they missed last year and keep them on track for what they are supposed to learn this coming year. This would set students up well for when in-person education resumes in a normal manner, preventing another large disruption to their education.

Learning pads not only help students, they are also beneficial to our educators. From a safety standpoint, as with the kids, teachers’ exposure would be limited to just the group of children they would be teaching at the pad. From a professional perspective, they would have the opportunity, through direct in person instruction, to establish relationships with children that just can’t be mimicked in an online scenario. What’s more, they would be able to maintain employment with their school district. And for the teachers who would remain working in a traditional school environment, learning pads would reduce the number of students in school buildings and provide better opportunity for physical distancing for those who attend.

Lastly, as I mentioned, the design of learning pads would allow existing school districts to retain vital per pupil state funding, since they would be providing the student’s education. Districts would offer the curriculum, the teacher and, through a recent budget supplemental funded by the federal government, the technology and connectivity necessary for student achievement.

In the end, nothing can truly replace a normal, traditional teacher-classroom-school setting. And while some school districts may begin offering some form of traditional instruction in the fall, there is no way of knowing when we may fully return to what we consider normal K-12 education.

Last spring, educators were thrust into an impossible situation of figuring out how to transition to completely online-based instruction in only a matter of days. Without the benefit of time or the resources to ensure student access to technology and connectivity, it was extremely difficult to ensure all students could receive a quality education. This moment also exposed, or further clarified, the have-have not divide that exists in education. Families with means are already planning to use this model across the country, it’s time we introduced an opportunity that provides equity for all.

Learning pads would provide Michigan parents an option for a quality educational opportunity to help us overcome the barriers we are facing now, in a familiar, unique way — and establish better equity — while we await our opportunity to leap from learning pads back to normal classroom instruction.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, is the chairperson of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee.