Covid-19 has profoundly disrupted business as usual within schools, causing institutions across the country to scramble as they attempt to maintain services in the face of unforeseen obstacles. Operational challenges have meant picking and choosing which elements are essential to the function of school. In doing so schools have, knowingly or not, provided insight into what they most value. And while the pandemic provided an opportunity for radical experimentation, the lack of imagination exposed by the results has been profoundly disappointing.
Wherein lies the purpose of schools? Typical responses, often enshrined in mission statements, say things like “preparing students to be informed citizens,” “developing students who can make positive contributions to society,” or “preparing students for success in future academics and in life itself.” One who did not know this, who only observed the activities of the past few months, would not be remiss in concluding that the ultimate purpose is to “provide students with instruction aligned to the state and national standards and college expectations” with a good dose of “minimize institutional risk and liability” mixed in.
To see the lack of imagination shown by schools, consider the question of service-learning. For many schools, particularly independent schools, service is a large component of the mission, and completion of service projects a condition for graduation. The need for service, and the opportunity to provide service, has skyrocketed during the pandemic. A natural response during the pandemic, in fact, might have been to deprioritize academics for several terms and to fully embrace emerging service opportunities. Yet rather than pushing learning into the crisis, most schools have chosen to waive service requirements for their students.
Consider the academic calendar. Rather than rushing students into ill-considered remote learning in Spring 2020, schools could have declared summer early and spent April and May planning for a delayed spring term that could occur in June and July. Or, looking at seasonal rates of infection, they could have decided to shift from a long summer vacation to a long winter one.
The same holds true for the broader operation of the school itself. The most common responses to the pandemic have been to close physical classrooms and move core instruction online, to focus on preserving the standard class structures as much as possible. While technology is used to place-shift education, the end result is still the same one-size-fits-all approach that was prevalent in the classroom.…