The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a healthcare crisis. But it also causes an identity crisis for schools. The next year and a half will require our education system to constantly reinvent itself in response to rapidly changing needs, and school system leaders will need grace, high expectations, and new mental models for what school can become to best serve students and families.
Schools have changed more in a month than they have in a century. For generations, schools have been physical hubs of community and education activity. Now schools need to become a service, not a place. Educators are rapidly trying to build grab-and-go social service programs for basic needs, connect with students and families virtually, and steward distance learning experiences.
This transition to distance learning is not the end of the reinvention phase. This is chapter 1.
Chapter 2 will not be a return to normal. Until there is a vaccine or scalable treatment plan, those at risk will need to be cautious. It is very possible that, this fall, some students may be safe to return while others need to stay away to protect members of their families. Schools may have to go back to distance learning or reimagine a more complex hybrid model, with a portion of students in school and another portion at home for extended periods of time.
In chapter 3, once there is a vaccine, schools will have to find a way to incorporate back together a student body that has been largely dispersed. Educators will have to help students process loss and fear while simultaneously facing an equity and opportunity gap wider than ever before. To have any hope of recovering lost learning, schools will need to fundamentally reorganize, developing new models for providing individual student support and rethinking staffing and schedules.
Finally, in chapter 4, schools will have to reimagine a new normal on the other side of this pandemic. Some habits will be forever changed. We may never go back to 7:00 a.m. starts for teenagers. Fourth-grade book reports may always hereafter be submitted by email. And parent-teacher video conferences may become the new default. Educators will have to incorporate all they have learned—hopefully stronger, more adaptable, and more in tune with students than ever before.
Times of crisis demand strong and innovative leadership. The COVID-19 crisis will be a stress test of education leaders’ ability to quickly adapt and reimagine what it looks like to be a school. Educators possess qualities that will serve our children well in this time, including resourcefulness, an orientation towards learning and compassion, and undying commitment to students. But many educators came to the profession because they liked school as it was. Breaking the mold of such a familiar institution will be challenging for us all.
We should be able to find answers in community and learn from good ideas that are working in other schools and even countries. Old lines of division are currently irrelevant. Private, public, magnet, charter—all schools are faced with the same daunting task of coming up with big ideas to solve hard problems. For example, pre-K through second grade is a distance learning conundrum. Students at this age require more significant adult facilitation that is hard to replicate by screen. And yet, every day of school has an outsized impact for young children. If antibody tests materialize quickly, how could we enlist the energy of immune college students or senior citizens to give parents some relief and protect learning trajectories for the students who need the most help?
Just as we hope teachers approach students with empathy and high expectations, schools will need empathy and high expectations from parents and citizens. We all need to give teachers and school leaders grace as they move into uncharted territory. There will be bumps, and it will take time to adjust. But ultimately, we must hold schools accountable for finding a way to serve all students effectively. It is unrealistic to expect immediate perfection, but taking action is the only acceptable response.
Ultimately, if schools cannot find a way to serve students through these chapters, a generation of children will feel the impact in diminished opportunities for the rest of their lives. Employers, higher education institutions, and economies will see the fallout. But if school leaders succeed in adapting and reimagining school, students may be forever better off. I am betting educators will rise to the challenge. Let’s rally behind them and help them do it well.