Do We Need a National Gap Year?

It was the worst of times, and then…it got even worse. The age of foolishness, incredulity and the winter of our darkness and despair. But now, it’s spring, and even in Michigan, the snow patches in the woods have receded and everyone’s talking about what comes next. Because, clearly, Plans Must Be Made.

We have to get back to normal. Even though normal wasn’t working all that well for us, six months ago.

I have a friend who lives in California. His high school senior son, after a lengthy college decision-making process, chose Purdue, in Indiana. Right now, the focus is on the missing final exams and graduation ceremony. But soon, my friend may be sending his child 2000 miles across the country to start college during a pandemic. Because Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana, says it’s OK.

There are upwards of three million high school seniors in the United States, right now. That’s a lot of young people being dumped into a dangerous society, college- and career-unready, to borrow a phrase. What do they need most right now? What do students already enrolled or just leaving college need?

Perhaps we ought to ask first what the nation needs, at this moment.

There have been hundreds of op-ed and think pieces published, about the transformative nature of a pandemic, as applied to education. And I love reading this stuff—the idea of re-making education from the ground up, fashioning an equitable system that’s based on genuine human and social needs, is just so magnetic. I have participated joyfully in the ‘just imagine’ exercises and soberly considered questions like this:

With worries about fall enrollment and a growing understanding that the fall semester, if it happens at all, will likely be taught at least partly online, colleges will have to argue that what they are delivering onscreen is worth as much as what students would have received in the classroom. This, in turn, may force a conversation about what the colleges are actually selling. Although the service they provide is education, the product for which they charge is the college degree—the piece of paper that promises a student will earn eighty-four per cent more in their lifetime than if they had only a high-school diploma. This and similar statistics are what allow so many college students to think of their loans not as astronomical debts but as investments in their future. Now that future is changing in ways none of us can really apprehend.

But. Tick-tock. It’s going to be September in four months.

Are we going to have school—PK-16—or not? Evidently, unless there are some more convincing guarantees of safety and lots more testing, folks—by a huge margin—don’t want to see conventional school re-opening.

What if 2020-21 became a national gap year? With a new conception of ‘credits’ and compensation awarded to young people and older volunteers for doing essential work in health care and rebuilding the economy?

I have seen the suggestion that entering college freshmen now consider taking a gap year, as is common in EU nations. Generally, those tentative proposals are immediately followed by all the reasons that a gap year is not feasible. Gap years, it seems, are perceived to be the purview of the wealthy or well-connected, who can ‘afford’ a year off from school, without affecting their eventual life prospects.

But what if large swaths of the population, young and old, were deputized and put to work for a year, or even six months? Returning to full-time school—not to mention full-time work, full-time commercial enterprise, regular civic and religious activities—will not be possible without several guarantees (testing, viable therapies and vaccines, trust in leadership). Those things will not be in place by September. So why not build a short-term Peace Corps-like volunteer force, including students?

The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a piece proposing that twenty thousand incoming medical students take a year off from medical school to form a national service program for public health. There would be a stipend for these students and a guarantee that medical school would be waiting for them, in a year, when they returned with a better understanding of infectious disease, contact tracing, working with live patients–and perhaps a new purpose.

Appalachian Magazine also suggested that a 21st century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps be established, with work and training available for unemployed citizens. Our crumbling national infrastructure and underserved public institutions—libraries, schools, parks and the post office, for starters—could provide jobs for a year or two, with the feds picking up the tab (better than unemployment). Workers could fill in critical gaps and pick up new skills along the way.

Why aren’t we thinking about creating these kinds of service opportunities for older students as well? I’m not talking about sending high school kids into dangerous hospitals or grocery stores–although the number of people who learn more from jobs that put them through school, than the actual classes, is legion. I learned more waiting tables at the dockside breakfast restaurant, at dawn on summer mornings, than I did in my college lecture courses with their droning lectures and punch-card quizzes. But there wasn’t a pandemic back then—just mouthy fishermen and lousy tippers.

The main worries about secondary school resuming in September come from packing so many students into classes and hallways. I can envision these students attending school mornings or afternoons only—or every other day—to create social-distancing space, then being sent out into the world to address real problems in the off hours, using data collection and analysis, or creative writing, or civic organizing.

Or more free-lance opportunities with the arts, as this lovely article demonstrates. There are lots of creative and practical things older students can do outside the classroom, especially if they have an internet connection and device and a teaching adult checking in with them frequently.

It seems to me that a wide variety of real tasks—everything from shelf-stocking and pizza-making to park maintenance and painting—might be assigned to teens, short-term, as steps in rebuilding essential businesses, acquiring work experience and doing something productive for towns and neighborhoods. These should be tracked, credited and compensated, perhaps in accounts designed to pay for vocational education, college or starter accounts to start small businesses, down the road. It would also give ambitious kids a realistic, insider look at our new economy.

If we were to concentrate education resources now, it might well be around younger children, who cannot be left alone, and cannot be trusted to distance themselves and maintain cleanliness. If there ever were a time to stringently reduce class size, provide high-quality day care and rich, intensive, more-personalized instruction for young children, it would be now.

Bricks-and-mortar schools and good, reliable childcare programming before and after school free parents to return to work, knowing their children are well cared for.  This is the first place that daily temperature testing, masks, bracelets that beep at six feet and sanitation standards should be imposed. If this is our new world, no better place to start than first grade.

Programs like a latter-day CCC or a national health service should be federally funded and administered, but most schools or states would be better off creating their own ad hoc ‘gap’ programs as coronavirus therapies, test-and-trace protocols and vaccines make their way into the world. They will need to feel their way through the difficult developmental space between the crowded middle school cafeteria and a full-blown, live-on-campus college education.

One of my most cherished and repeatedly proven theories about middle school students is that we never give them real, meaningful tasks, or the tools to handle genuine responsibility. Instead we fill their days with rules and ‘practice’ assignments and tests. They can do much more—and high school students can do even more than that– and learn by doing.

If we’re going to ask what can be done to rebuild, after the corona deluge, we can start with youth. First, we honor their sorrow and pain, as the small town below did, with graduation banners on Main Street for each of the 83 members of the Class of 2020.

Then, we ask them to contribute. We need them.



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