This section describes the second of four layers provided in PCE's Vaccine Policy Alternatives in Schools page.
Social distancing in the sense that we commonly mean it is hard to manage. Simply put, students are not going to keep six feet of distance, and the problem is exaggerated at younger ages. In fact, we have an intuition that this sort of distancing may cause harm – students learn by interacting with each other, and the social interaction is good for them. However, that is not the only sort of distancing that we can consider.
A class – especially in elementary and middle school – tends to be a relatively stable group. There is no sense in protecting them from each other: their distance needs to be from other stable groups. Sometimes we can have stable groups that learn everything together. High schools are more porous – but they are still segregated by grade, at least. If parents desire social distancing in school, what we need to do is maximize the number of stable learning groups – we’ll call them “pods” – and minimize interaction between them.
- Create learning Pods: Where possible, a school can try to schedule groups in the same class even through high school. The effect would be like dividing large schools up into several small schools. This has a social cost: it requires limiting course choices to some extent, which may result in students being directed into streams for reasons of cohesion rather than academic performance. There may not be enough students in a pod to justify doing Math 20-2 rather than 20-1, for instance, so a student may be forced to take 20-1. It also carries a financial cost: some classes that would otherwise be handled with a single crossover class, may need to be duplicated for different pods.
- Restrict meetings of student clubs: The social expense should give us pause, as part of the psychosocial task of adolescence is making and having friends, and clubs are essential socialization outlets. That being said, if we are already streaming pods together, we can simply restrict clubs to operating within pods.
- Stagger lunch hours: This makes it so students from different pods are not meeting in cafeterias. This has a moderate cost: it extends the hours of food staff in cafeterias, and limits socialization.
- Implement a partial online teaching model: While this seems simple and inexpensive, it is more difficult than it seems – mixed models place a great deal of stress on teachers, who must prepare lessons in multiple formats. This will have a moderate financial cost – at least on paper – but the social costs through burnout and strained relations with teaching staff are very serious.
- Shrink classroom sizes: Although this is the most directly effective measure, it is also the most economically burdensome. This may be financially out of reach – and perhaps impossible if extra classrooms are not available. However, declining enrollment in public schools suggests that there may be empty classroom space.
- Increase education choice: Parents for Choice in Education describes what can be done to increase access to choice in education. As mentioned before, we have already experienced a major shift in school choice during the last two years. Private school enrollment stood at 37,865 for 2020/2021, almost 20% higher than the 31,632 enrolled in 2018-2019. As moving to different education options is a voluntary movement, there are no social costs to speak of, and there is a net economic benefit to the Provincial government through a diminished cost of student support for both tuition and facilities. However, there is an economic cost for declining public boards, as well as to individual families in time and money.
- Rural systems: Public and Separate systems in rural areas may already have small learning pods, by dint of having smaller schools already. While this has often meant that they might lack resources, it puts them ahead of the game in terms of coping with Covid.