Public education has been used as a bandaid to address deeply-systemic societal problems since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. Schools have served as social service coordinators, meal providers, mentors, encouragers, leaders, and bearers of hope for our children. The presence of a pandemic has forced communities to a point of reckoning regarding the role of schools in our society. Administrators across the country are coming to terms with whether it is responsible, or even feasible, to reopen schools. And, at the same time, we risk furthering the opportunity gap as we fumble through a litany of proposed solutions in a real-time science experiment.
Though recommendations have been offered and schools across the country have begun to move forward, there is no clear pathway on whether and how to open schools; there is only trial and error. What must remain at the forefront of all this is the question that policymakers, educators, business owners, CEOs, and parents need to ask without ceasing: how will we educate our children? And, the answer to that question should be inclusive of a catalogue of factors that act as hurdles to quality and equitable education.
Avoid the Trap of False Dichotomies
Much of the discussion regarding education is being presented as a false dichotomy—a position where schools and parents have to decide between an all or nothing approach: all in-person classes or all virtual classes. It is paramount to acknowledge that there can be no one size fits all approach to educating our children. Educators and parents must work in concert together to build sustainable coalitions and produce a menu of options to address the learning needs of our children, while also keeping both educators and children safe. One way that education can move beyond the trap of false dichotomies is to implement a “technology-first paradigm”, in which school officials advocate for critical infrastructure improvements in order to enhance the learning experience and overall educational outcomes. In methods such as this, the structure shifts to one of students, teachers, and technology rather than isolating one relationship or another.
Invest in Technology
Until the days of students and teachers attending virtual lessons in the parking lot of a McDonalds are over—because access to reliable internet is more readily available in commercial settings than in their own homes—we cannot truly provide meaningful education for all. Institutions, whether they are educational or governmental, need to increase their investment in modern technology as advanced as full-stack virtual learning environments, and as rudimentary as broadband access and infrastructure. Once thought a luxury, internet access has evolved into a necessity so basic that the absence of it could impact educational and meaningful work opportunities for generations.
Consider the Teachers
As obvious as it may seem, it is crucial to reiterate the role that teachers play in determining appropriate, evidence-based ways to continue educating our children in the midst of a pandemic. Consideration not only for the practical aspects of providing education, but also for the health and safety of our teachers, need to be at the forefront of school reopening plans. The crux of all of this is the cliff of societal impact we are teetering on. Whatever decisions are made will have far-reaching and long-lasting implications on so many facets of our lives. In principles outlined for safe school reopening, Scott Sargrad and Maura Calsyn with the Center for American Progress underscore the stakes best, “Students need access to high-quality instruction and support services to prepare them for college, career, and civic life. Parents—particularly those who have young children and whose jobs do not allow them to work from home—need the stability and security that schools provide. In normal times, in-person schooling is the best way to accomplish these goals. But these are not normal times.”
We are in the midst of unknown territory and unknown circumstances. It is only fitting that our objectives, goals, and expectations be adapted to reflect our present reality. The measures by which we determined success in a pre-COVID-19 world may not be appropriate given our current status. Educators and administrators should anticipate the “COVID Slide” when it comes to academic growth. They should be prepared to reassess students’ understanding of certain educational objectives, and adapt curriculum as necessary, including further individualizing lessons. Policymakers, educators, parents, and others need to move beyond the usual practices and programs, and toward a more flexible mindset where trial and error begets continual evaluation and adaptation.