School & District Management Opinion

Schools Faced a Massive Systems Failure During the Pandemic. How Do We Fix It?

Education leaders can (and must) find common purpose
By Laura Kagy — August 03, 2021 2 min read
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School routines and the instructional practices of educating students have historically been slow to change. The rapid disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.

When faced with the pandemic-related school closures and the abrupt transition to at-home learning, schools turned on a dime. Changes that normally would have taken years were implemented in a matter of days or weeks.

Although we are all hopeful that the experiences of this past year are an anomaly, that may not be the case, especially as COVID-19 cases once again rise with the spread of the Delta variant. If there is a lesson to be learned from history, it is that it repeats itself. We need to learn today’s lessons so that we can benefit from them in the future.

About This Series

Over the past few weeks, we have been rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading through the pandemic. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

When I reflect on the past year, I see countless parallels to the Apollo 13 lunar mission. In 1970, the spacecraft encountered a serious mechanical issue that threatened the mission and the life of the crew. It required an immediate shift in mission goals. The focus of the crew and ground support shifted from landing on the Moon to returning to Earth alive.

To do this, the astronauts had to collaborate with ground support over remote channels and use the limited supplies at their disposal to refashion critical components of the spacecraft’s carbon dioxide scrubbing system. All involved with the rescue engaged in inquiry-based brainstorming to reenvision their mission. The Apollo crew was forced to take risks they would have otherwise avoided.

Similarly, school leaders and teachers encountered a massive system failure during the pandemic, forcing a shift in goals. Instead of normal everyday face-to-face learning, we had to connect remotely with students to facilitate learning. This common goal united us, forcing teachers and school leaders to collaborate in search of solutions.

So, we reached out and found education professionals from around the country that were interested in collaborating. We joined remote Zoom meetings and other platforms to ask questions, to strategize, and to share experiences. These collaborative efforts created a shared purpose. We saw the urgent need to rethink how we delivered instruction. And we developed a keener understanding of the out-of-school challenges many students face.

Another parallel to Apollo 13 was the sense of urgency that surrounded the need to make change and connect with students. Many schools across the country offered meals to support families within the first few days of the school closure. This would have seemed like an impossible task pre-COVID-19. But we made it happen within a few days. Likewise, teachers who had limited technology skills were using remote learning to conduct classes. This transition would also have been labeled impossible prior to the pandemic.

All this was possible because teachers and school leaders collaborated and shared ideas like never before. It was an environment where we could take risks because every day was a new experience. We made a total commitment to our work.

The secret recipe for change is highly engaged collaboration driven by a common goal.

But can this be replicated in the eventuality of another crisis? There is no way to know if climate change, artificial intelligence, financial collapse, the threat of war, or some other yet-to-be-imagined emergency will again force schools and society to reinvent themselves. But if that happens, we will know how to pull ourselves through.

Complete Collection

Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

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Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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