No Pass. No Fail. Everyone gets a Gap Year

Schools reopen today and I’m still concerned about our teachers, our children and our parents. Just before the holidays there was an article in our local newspaper about how the year was ending. The desk shields set up to protect students isolated them so well it was difficult to see or hear the teachers or see the board, and the teachers had difficulty seeing individual students. Schools were closing for the second or third time since opening because of the number of teachers and staff who were out.  Parents and students were still not doing well, emotionally and academically, despite the fact everyone was doing their absolute best.

I don’t think my community is unique. I wondered before, and wonder now, if we’re doing ourselves and our children a disservice by trying to make things ‘normal’, when there’s nothing normal about what’s going on.

My friend Ev called 2020 a hiccup, an abnormal year. How I wish we could have hit ‘Pause’ and designated the end of the 2019-2020 school year and the 2020 – 2021 school year

No Pass, No Fail – Everybody gets a Gap Year

Full disclosure, my teaching experience is from homeschooling three of my children over a 20+ year period, so I tend to think outside the box about education and learning. During three of those years, my daughter was going through intense chemotherapy and radiation for her second bout of childhood cancer. (She’s fine now!) It wasn’t a worldwide pandemic, but it was a crisis in our family that affected and consumed everything. So I know a little about living, teaching, and learning through a time of turmoil. My daughter went through grades 2 through 4, my son, grades 6 through 8. We lost at least a year of academics during that time, but once we came through it, the kids caught up.

What parents have been forced to do isn’t homeschooling. For everyone’s sakes I wish with all my heart, that true philosophy had been introduced. There are different approaches to homeschooling, but the most basic doesn’t separate school lessons from life lessons. If ever there was a time when the two meshed–or collided–it’s now. I want to assure parents that when we’ve come through this pandemic, our children will catch up.

A Gap Year could’ve made that easier and been more fun. Maybe some of these points can still work.

Here are two definitions of Gap Year: 1) fosters those attributes by getting students away from the familiar and stretching their limits in new environments 2) A sabbatical year, typically a year-long break during which students engage in various educational and developmental activities such as travel or regular work.

So, an idea of what a Gap Year in a pandemic could’ve looked like.

First: Chuck the grades, the course outlines, the tests. That alone takes the pressure off everyone! Packets of school work would be review for what had been taught up to the time of closing. (I’m already visualizing the looks of shock and fear–bear with me.)

One thing that’s shining during this time is teachers’ creativity. I’ve watched teachers get re-energized because they’re no longer confined by the bureaucracy of the school system and they can teach how it comes naturally to them. Across the country teachers are doing phenomenal things to engage their students, make virtual lessons interesting, and going out of their way to help students who are struggling. We’ve redefined who our heroes are and teachers are some of the most powerful.

Second: This isn’t a free-for-all, there’s still structure. Playing video games all day isn’t acceptable. Teachers still provide creative review materials, and there is regular virtual class time (more on that later). This year would be to ‘leave the familiar and stretch’, a time for students to get lost in whatever subject or activity they’re interested in. It would be a time for family projects – home improvement, gardening, social projects, whatever – all without the added burden of keeping up with school work.

For those who’d already been falling behind, or were now at risk of falling through the cracks, they receive extra review and by the time classes resume maybe they’ll be closer to their classmates.

Third: No schools reopen until the 2021-2022 school year. All classes are virtual. No hybrids, no A Days/B Days, no agonizing family decisions over whether it’s better for my child to return to in-school classes or virtual classes, or trying to access three different portals for three different schools and setting up study/work space for more than one child.

By most indications, it was going to be early summer of 2021 before vaccines curbed the virus, so reopen schools in the fall of 2021. All students return to the class/grade they were in in March of 2020. No Pass No Fail–no stigma–just everyone getting back with their classmates.                                                                                                                                                                         

Fourth: In addition to pressure and concern over academics, equally stressful is how students are handling the social isolation. Instead of introducing new material and trying to make sure all the course content is covered, regular virtual class time is primarily a mental and social check-in. The discussion starters are along these lines. Since we were last together . . .

*How/what are you feeling? The most important question and this would be a safe place to unload, share, and maybe defuse some of the pent-up emotions that had no other place to go. With the weight of traditional school work temporarily set aside, if this question took up most of the virtual class time for the first weeks, that would be okay.

*What did you explore or investigate? This could be an Internet search, exploring one’s own backyard or apartment building, their basement or attic, a park . . . Can you imagine the endless possibilities? Imagine how conversations would spin off and generate new exploring? When I was in elementary school one boy lived and breathed dinosaurs. He learned so much about other things simply from his love of those reptiles.

*What did you discover? It could be anything! Maybe one child discovered that when you drop a bag of flour it takes a really long time to sweep up. Maybe someone discovered what their comfort food is, or how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be made out of one loaf of bread to distribute to those in need.

*What did you create? Songs. Dances. Visual art. Stories. Lego sculptures. Banana bread. A birdhouse.  And maybe the one child who will entertain when he says ‘Mommy said I created a hot mess when I dumped my bowl of cereal on the floor and Sadie – that’s our dog – tried to drink up the milk and then got Lucky Charms stuck on her paws . . .’

*What did you read?

*Whom did you help? During this pandemic families reached out to each other, to neighbors, to essential workers, to strangers. Virtual class time is a place to acknowledge how people come together, to give each of these students a virtual pat on the back or high five, to inspire one another.

*Who helped you? Another important question. It could be help with tying shoes, with school work, with cleaning up dumped cereal. It serves as a reminder we all need help sometimes. There were so many stories of people having difficulty accepting food or financial help because it was their first time being on the receiving end.

Just like my daughter’s cancer was different than a broken leg, this pandemic is different than an outbreak of head lice. It’s not simply an annoyance for our school families. It’s not normal. Maybe we’re not supposed to force that, then maybe our teachers and parents wouldn’t be so exhausted.

I return to my friend Ev and her description of 2020 as a hiccup. If we accept the hiccup, the pause to catch our breath, maybe we’ll be less anxious over what our children are losing, and we can celebrate what our children are gaining–even in the midst of a pandemic.

Every story, every experience can be a teaching moment, many just aren’t graded.

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4 Responses to No Pass. No Fail. Everyone gets a Gap Year

  1. quinonesev1 says:

    Kim- You have given this situation so much thought, and I agree so wholeheartedly, that I hope you’ll share it with the superintendents of our local school districts. As a former teacher, the aunt and sister-in-law of a teacher and teacher’s assistant, respectively, I can’t tell you how hard they work to reach each and every student, and make sure that not one student falls through the cracks. I can only imagine how difficult it must be as a parent to stay afloat, and keep his/her children afloat. A change in orientation is definitely called for, for the sake of the sanity of our teachers, teacher assistants, parents, and most of all, our children.

    • Thank you, Ev. Teachers and parents are doing amazing things and I admire all of them. But sometimes someone outside of the situation can see something others can’t because they’re so immersed in it. I know a gap year wouldn’t solve everything, but but it might have helped.


  2. Martha T Robinson says:

    Kim, Wonderfully written! I agree with your conclusion. At our house, the 5th grader is doing virtual school, as well as the 11th grader. But our local school district has had to go to “remote learning”–which I think means “homeschooling” because of the number of local COVID cases affecting the teachers/staff and students. I pray for the health and safety of all! It makes me wonder about those families struggling economically during this time–how do parents and/or grandparents cope/teach their offspring when their concern is daily survival. Life lessons! I’ve always thought “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” was true. A year in a child/student’s life is also a terrible thing to waste. But I like your ideas for making a gap year work. Thanks for posting!

    • Thank you, Martha! I just know when we were going through therapy with my daughter and our lives were upended, our priorities shifted and survival – both hers and ours as a family – was at the top of the list. Education didn’t fall off the list, but it dropped in the rankings. I think the same for during this pandemic. I’m not suggesting a complete ‘throw hands up in the air’ kind of response, but a new way of looking at what education can be. Education and academics aren’t necessarily the same thing. Our schools closed again this week after being open just one. It’s crazy. Your grands are blessed to have you in the house with them!

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