Over the last week, the administrative team at Veritas in Richmond collaborated with teachers to launch Veritas at Home, a strategy for quarantined students to carry on the school year in the safety of their own living rooms. As opposed to dictating to teachers all they should do, the administrative team began by seeking the counsel of several experienced teachers about what was reasonable to expect of students and teachers alike.
While times of crisis call for bending the rules and making exceptions, times of crisis also tempt otherwise reasonable people to throw out everything they believe sacred and to adopt purely pragmatic approaches to law, religion, health, and so forth. Whatever contingency plan a classical school adopts over the coming weeks, it ought to be a classical contingency plan, not just Secularism For The Time Being. The common sense and wisdom which the Veritas administration has shown in assembling our contingency plan is impressive— so impressive, in fact, I would like to share a few of the principles which have helped us put together a sane, serviceable, classical program for learning at home during the coming weeks.
1. Don’t dramatically increase everyone’s screen time. This will be the first temptation. Granted, the quarantine will mean everyone spends more time online, but no reasonable school will attempt a 1:1 conversion of actual classrooms with virtual classrooms. In fact, no reasonable school will attempt anything close to it. People who spend a lot of time on screens are lethargic, depressed, spiritually disoriented, and have a poor grasp of reality. This is true whether they are viewing “great content” or not.
By this point, every classical school in the country ought to have invested quite a bit of time into fighting screen addiction among students (and the permissive parents who allow screen addiction to take place). The quarantine gives no one license to toss aside everything which has been said about the awfulness of screens. The more heavily a school leans on screens during the quarantine, the less seriously students will take the school’s cautions against screen addiction when the quarantine is over.
2. Don’t try to create a surveillance state. Get used to the fact that unusual circumstances— which is what we’ve got right now— always create new loopholes. If you attempt to close off as many of these loopholes as possible, you’re going to spend half your time under quarantine just trying to keep slackers from slacking off. This would be a profound waste of time. Under quarantine, your obedient students will keep being obedient and your slackers will keep slacking. Quarantine or no, teach to your top third.
3. Don’t try to collect the same number of grades as usual. I’ll wager that too many of the grades you collect during the normal run of things exist to “keep students accountable,” and because the quarantine is creating new loopholes for slacking off, it will be doubly hard to keep students accountable. Let that go. We all know that for the next ten years, there’s going to be a huge asterisk on every transcript for the 2019-2020 year. Here’s the thing, though: the quarantine is happening in March 2020, not November 2019. You know who the diligent students are. You know who the slackers are. At this point in the year, the grades you’ve already collected fairly represent your students. If you’ve got a fourth grader who is ready to go to fifth grade, you know it by now. A few more test grades isn’t going to clarify anything for you.
4. Don’t try to keep students occupied for seven hours a day. While students should not be on their laptops and phones for seven hours a day doing schoolwork, I will press this point a little further: during the quarantine, students should not be asked to do seven hours of work per day, online or otherwise. For anything other than seniors, I would advise between two and three hours per day. Seniors will need to finish their theses, regardless of the time it takes to do so while at home. The seven hours your child spends at school every day is not spent doing focused work— at least not the kind of work which they’ll be doing at home. A normal day involves discussion, diversion, tangents, explanations, and numerous instances of teachers entertaining leftfield suggestions. All these things constitute the school day. Not everything that goes on between homeroom and dismissal is work as such, which means that assigning seven hours of “remote learning” or work every day is entirely disproportionate. Besides, your students have interesting, enriching things to do besides normal work. Your responsibility during the quarantine is not to make like it isn’t actually happening, but to roll with the punches, which is going to mean doing things like giving students a list of documentaries you suggest they watch, not doubling the number of worksheets they have to complete.
5. Don’t assume a lot of parent involvement. But not for lack of desire. Students need work they can do on their own. Students need options, recommendations, suggestions, and access to teachers. Your contingency plan should be flexible and contain options. You need to put a small number of demands on students and offer a huge number of possibilities. You need reading lists, viewing lists. You need to get creative.
The quarantine means less work for some industries, the same amount of work for others, and far more work for others still. Parents who work from home are in no position to abandon their obligations at work and spend hours learning Singapore Math just so they can assist their children. In the same way the quarantine is going to hit some industries harder than others, it will hit some subjects harder than others. As one of my colleagues noted the other day, when school resumes, it will not be fair to assume everyone is on the same page. Some students have parents with free time, others don’t. For teachers, this will prove one of the most vexing inconveniences of the quarantine, but God knew of these vexations when He permitted this all to happen.
6. Do use Loom. So far as tech-savviness goes, your staff is all over the board. Some of them have probably never pirated a movie or a Metallica album in their entire lives (strange, I know). One of my colleagues lately directed the administration to Loom, which is a remarkably easy service which enables users to create videos without a complicated setup. Each Loom video comes with a URL that can be emailed to students who can then view the Loom video without ever creating a login. So, so easy.
7. Do talk with your teachers. I wish such things didn’t need to be stated, but a classical school’s quarantine contingency plan should be a collaboration between the administration and the staff and faculty. If the school board is determining what the day-to-day life of a quarantined school looks like, things at that school are completely out-of-whack. The people calling the shots in this thing need to have classroom experience and day-to-day knowledge of the school. Big picture people need to step aside.
Before going forward with any contingency plan, the administration should ask all the experienced and veteran teachers, “What is reasonable to expect our students to accomplish week by week until the quarantine ends?” The people with the most classroom experience ought to be front-and-center when setting up your school’s contingency plan. As Edmund Burke would say, what you need is “men of experience,” not “men of theory.”