After a tumultuous end to the 2020 Spring Semester due to COVID-19, Fall 2020 brought a waning summer pandemic surge, and many school leaders yearned for a return to normalcy. They pushed to have students back in schools, and in many cases let their hopes interfere with planning for the likely COVID winter resurgence. But viruses don’t care about human hopes, and in fact, the Winter 2020-21 impact on schools and students was, in many places, as disruptive as the initial COVID closures had been.
By early spring, the widespread availability of vaccines was on the horizon, and again it was easy to look to the future and envision a return to “normal”, in education and across society. But again, the virus had a trick to play, in the form of the Delta variant. Now, as the new school year is underway, we are seeing school openings delayed, a shift back to emergency remote learning, battles over masks and mandates, and another extended period of uncertainty.
As we begin the third school year impacted by the pandemic, it’s time to shift our thinking in a few ways. Instead of seeing COVID as an event to move through, we should see it as an indication that schools should become more flexible and resilient, to be able to adapt to disruptions, whether that disruption is hitting the entire school or one student. Some districts have begun moving in this direction, including those participating in the Resilient Schools Project. Those districts, and others that we have studied, demonstrated that districts with innovative and flexible instructional models in place adapted to system-wide disruptions far more easily than those who had not. These districts also, however, appear to be relatively few in number.
Instead of looking to go “back to normal”, we should acknowledge that the majority of parents want something different. According to a National Parents Union poll,
“66% of parents say schools should be focused on rethinking how to educate students, coming up with new ways to teach children moving forward as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Of course, that leaves open the hard question of what should that “different” form of education be? Here we can look to the many examples that exist, but which are usually relatively small, including early college high schools, truly innovative charter schools like Big Picture and Iowa Big, and the private schools which take advantage of freedom from state constraints on school attendance, adjusting learning spaces because of smaller class sizes, as well as the flexibility to accommodate all students on more customized schedules..
Instead of being overwhelmed by the negative stories in the press about emergency remote learning, we should look to the examples of success in the form of districts and schools that already had strong systems in place, and to online and hybrid schools, that demonstrated that students could continue to learn during a pandemic. In addition, let’s recognize that in a system as large as K-12 education, there will always be naysayers — and they will always receive attention in the traditional media which thrives on controversy and is amplified by social media.
Finally, and most importantly, we should acknowledge that, more than ever, students and families are seeking new and different options for their education. In many cases, they are seeking opportunities that are not constrained by classroom walls and school bell schedules. Instead, they are looking for the flexibility that goes beyond place-based learning (particularly with the shortage of buses) and schedules with bookends that don’t match their work schedules.
Certainly, this is not true of all students and families. Many are satisfied with a traditional physical school, on a traditional schedule. It has served them well for a number of years. Those students will continue to have many options for schools, depending on where they live. The reality is, however, that COVID is not the only threat to traditional schools. Hurricanes, floods, fires, and rising coastal water levels could all bring school buildings offline for extended periods of time. While the primary model for some families will be a physical school building, all schools have to be prepared for those times when students have to learn remotely.
That opportunity exists for the schools and systems that are willing to create new options for students. Already, we are seeing parents engaging with organizations that support learning pods and micro-schools, and in some cases, districts working with those pods. District after district after district — probably close to a thousand — are creating online and hybrid schools for the first time.
Online and hybrid instruction are not new; they pre-dated the pandemic by more than two decades. In the public sector, about 500,000 students were attending online schools pre-pandemic, and more than a million students were taking supplemental online courses. Within independent schools, examples like the Bay Area BlendED Consortium were showing how schools could work together to provide truly innovative classes for students. In the case of BlendEd, these classes usually combined online instruction and communication with face-to-face gatherings in locations across the Bay Area, taking advantage of the historical, cultural, and natural resources of the region.
Should every district offer an online learning option? Should every independent school have its own BlendEd-type courses? No. There will always be students and families — especially at younger grade levels — who will select a school with traditional onsite instruction on a conventional schedule. But in addition to ensuring that students have online and hybrid options, schools and districts should also seek to innovate in ways that allow student learning to flourish either in place-based schools or under a variety of remote circumstances. Using online tools and resources, teachers can free their time to shift from a focus on content to a focus on students. Schools can and should shift from a focus on minimum outcomes such as grade advancement and high school graduation, to embrace a vision of each and every learner as engaged and excited as possible.