October 22, 2020

The following are my thoughts on the effects of COVID-19 on our education system. This comes from my experience in Pennsylvania working with school leaders throughout the Commonwealth.

#1 Educators are now frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19

In the Spring when COVID first impacted us, the frontline workers were our health care professionals who treated us, the workers who kept essential businesses and services open, and people who worked to keep us safe. Educators have joined this group. Educators are meeting the needs of our students through teaching. Schools are serving the function of the lynchpin of their community. Schools being “back” is a large part of the little normalcy that people feel right now

#2 Teachers are turning themselves inside out trying to provide the best education for all students

I have had so many conversations with teachers over the past few months where they share what they are doing to try to engage students in an online, hybrid, and face to face settings. All three of these instructional modalities offer challenges in the age of COVID and most teachers are up to the challenge!

#3 School administrators are now de-facto public health officials

At least in Pennsylvania, school administrators are being asked to make recommendations to their school boards that lean heavily into the space of public health officials. School leaders find themselves contact tracing when there is a positive case in their school. They know more about “line lists”, latency periods of viruses, and symptoms that are problematic and ones that are not than they wish to admit.

#4 The importance of school for “coming of age” rituals is paramount

School serves as an important socialization component for American society. Homecoming, Friday night football, proms, band events all help inculcate a community’s values. A school is so much more than just academics.

#5 In some communities, schools are the safest place for kids to be regarding contracting COVID

In many communities, there is a belief that the virus is a “hoax” and will go away once the election cycle is over. In some cases, community members compare it to the regular flu and downplay the severity of it. This results in entire communities not heeding the most basic safeguards we can use to stop the spread of the virus. Mask wearing and social distancing are often totally ignored. The school setting offers the best place for kids in these communities because basic safeguards are being met.

#6 There are hotspots of innovation happening in schools

I am heartened by the examples of educators thinking outside the box and trying new instructional, curricular, and assessment strategies. I am also excited by partnerships formed between school districts, charter schools, and philanthropic organizations as we try to “rethink” what education can be moving forward. Great stuff!

#7 High school sports are insanely important to American society (see #4 above)

See #4 above. Sports serve as the most important socialization factor for American youth…in my humble opinion.

#8 Local control of governing schools brings challenges

Everyone likes “local control” until they don’t. The theory of local control states that the best decisions are made by elected officials closest to the situation…in this case the school board members. There is always tension between following the compliance directives of the Federal and State governments. In Pennsylvania, local control has a deep history (think the Whiskey rebellion which serves as the only time in American history where a sitting president, George Washington, led an army to put down a rebellion). Local control means that a local elected body must take responsibility for their decisions and this is playing out in school districts across the Commonwealth. In many cases, the community is happy with these decisions even when they go against the recommendation of education and health officials. The future will determine how wise the decisions are.

#9 Students need face to face time (see #’s 4 and 7 above)

I think it is obvious that for most students, a face to face component in instruction is necessary. That does not mean that 100% of instruction must be face to face, but 100% online is not the answer either. Face to face helps students and teachers connect in ways that are not possible if you are online all of the time. The magic pill in education will be figuring out the right combination of face to face and online for each student (and the teacher). The changes in the way schools deliver instruction because of COVID will be long-lasting and it will be better for students.

#10 Schools serve a babysitting function for our society

I am not being cynical here. In order for parents to work, their kids need to be somewhere. Schools are the vehicle our society has created to take care of this problem. Now, I am not going to get into a debate/discussion on why this is a fact, or whether it is good or bad. I am just saying that it is obvious we need to recognize this fact.

#11 Educators care deeply about student learning

This relates to #6 in a lot of ways. My experience is that educators that I deal within the public school system in Pennsylvania think about, fret over, and deliberate how they can do the best job for their students. Enough said about that…

#12 The “school space” has become a major battlefield in the culture wars in America…politicized more than normal

From face masks to social distancing, COVID elevated schooling to a level on the culture wars that we are not used to. In the past, there were issues that flashed for short periods that made school a culture war battlefield. The curriculum is an example of issues that caused people of all political stripes to focus on schools.

COVID has placed schools front and center of the culture wars because schools were shut down for a long period and the requirements put in place to get kids back in school. I think it also reveals underlying anti-intellectualism that is permeating society right now. Whatever the case, it is not a fun place to be when you are trying to make decisions in a calm, deliberative fashion.

#13 Inequities in society are being highlighted

The experience of students during COVID who are from affluent communities and those that are from less affluent communities is stark. The fact that some schools had computers, IPads, or other devices for all of their students put those students at a significant advantage over those students who attended schools that did not provide devices. Communities that do not have a robust infrastructure for daycare and other services for kids and parents became apparent during COVID. When a parent has to quit their job to be home with their child while they attend online school, that family (and community) suffer.

#14 There is a lot of work to be done to get quality broadband service to rural communities

The lack of broadband services for schools, students, and communities is another glaring example of how the digital divide is only growing more pronounced. I subscribe to the idea that assuring quality, cheap, broadband for communities is a national security issue and should be treated as such.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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