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How to Rethink School Staffing in the Pandemic’s Wake

It might be time to bring some creature comforts into the classroom.

By Laura Zingg

Illustration by LA Johnson

April 21, 2021

Illustration of a classroom with couches

This story is the fourth in a series of pieces answering questions about how to return to in-person learning and how to do schooling differently—and better—post-pandemic. To source the questions, we spoke with dozens of educators, caregivers, and students. We are grateful for their curiosity and, despite all, their optimism.

To re-imagine school staffing post-COVID-19, narrow in on the needs that became most obvious during distance learning. That’s the tack taken by Jacob Allen (Chicago-Northwest Indiana ’13), the founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based pilotED Schools. Over the past year, he saw many of his elementary students strive to learn from home despite uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe living conditions.

Reflecting on students’ spaces inspired him to lean into lessons from his previous career in the hospitality industry. The most inviting restaurants and hotels “are intentional about space,” he says. “If someone nicks the wall with their suitcase, by the end of the shift, the space is painted.” Schools, he thought, should be no different. They should be a second home designed to nurture learning.

Allen’s dream is to hire a chief beautification officer to oversee maintenance, facilities, and the ambiance of all pilotED school sites. Until the charter network can afford that role, he and an art teacher are taking on the work. They’ve hooked up mood-boosting music to play in the hallways between classes. And, in a nod to hotel lobbies, they’ve installed scent-makers, allowing Allen to provide common spaces with a burst of “white peach” with a tap on his phone.

“Space heavily influences one’s mental health,” he says—a lesson made abundantly clear during a year of social isolation. “Who needs that the most? The people doing the hardest work: teachers and kids.”

At Austin Achieve Public Schools, founder and CEO John Armbrust (Metro Atlanta ’04) is also developing new roles to address needs that didn’t exist before the pandemic. Most immediately, he’s working to hire 25 additional intervention teachers across the charter network’s three campuses to help with academic slides in reading and math.

Down the line, Armbrust imagines a staff configuration in line with students’ desire for some continuation of online learning. Blended learning makes a lot of sense, especially at the secondary level, he says. He imagines seniors on campus every other day, using off-campus time for hands-on opportunities, like internships. He foresees the need to hire blended learning specialists to lead and monitor that work. “If we had half of our seniors learning remotely part time, we could free up classrooms and make a bigger impact in ninth grade by having smaller classes and an overall more efficient school model,” he says. “We're leaning into being flexible and meeting students where they are."