(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What do you think have been the biggest mistakes made by district leaders during the pandemic, and what are the lessons that can be learned from them for the future?
Part One‘s contributors were PJ Caposey, Selena A. Carrión, Altagracia H. Delgado, and Marci K. Harvey. They all were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
Today, Jennifer Orr and Margaret Thornton wrap up this series.
‘One Size Does Not Fit All’
Jennifer Orr is in her third decade of teaching elementary school students in the suburbs of Washington. She is a national-board-certified teacher, mom to two teenagers, and an obsessive reader of books of all kinds:
I think the greatest mistakes we have made throughout the pandemic have been attempts at sustaining the status quo. For all of the negatives, and there have been plenty, this period has been the greatest opportunity for educators to address issues and make change that we may ever see. We are more aware of inequities than we have been in the past. The inequities are not new, not by any stretch, but a spotlight has been shown on them, and their existence is far more well- and widely known than was previously true. There are schools and districts and states that have put Band-Aids on those inequities, but attempts at wholesale change to address them has not happened.
It is clear that some students have food that is plentiful, healthy, and consistently available. Some students do not. Some students have access to reliable internet connections and multiple devices. Some students do not. Some students have tutors and families who are home and able to support with schoolwork at any time. Some students do not. Some students have families who are able to advocate fiercely on their behalf. Some students do not.
Some students are caring for younger siblings or other family members before and after school (or during virtual school). Some students are not. Some students must work full-time jobs while trying to finish high school in order to help pay the family’s bills. Some students do not. Some students help their family navigate paperwork and various bureaucracy for education, work, or other needs. Some students do not.
The fact that we have continued to function in education with seat hours as the final say for middle and high school credits and with standardized tests for both in-person and virtual students suggests we have not learned the lessons that were glaring throughout this pandemic. If we want an educational system that serves all students, we must reconsider much of what we hold sacred.
If students are able to complete work and show mastery of skills and knowledge but aren’t able to be in the classroom for the requisite hours, should they not earn the credit? If students can show they have mastered the skills and knowledge through projects, interviews, classwork, discussions, etc., should that not be sufficient?
One size does not fit all students. We need to be open to questioning the structures in place in education from credit hours, to bell schedules, to cafeteria options, to homework, and on. We should be getting student, family, and community feedback on how well we are meeting their needs and what would be helpful. We can’t do everything, but we should aim a lot higher than we’ve done in the past.
The Wrong Priorities
Margaret Thornton is a former high school English teacher and current postdoctoral scholar at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs studying how to ameliorate school inequality:
Over and over during the 2020-21 school year, we saw districts across the country prioritizing the needs and desires of upper-middle-class and/or white parents over more marginalized children whose families largely continued to want to keep them home. Had district leaders prioritized children without regular access to internet, a quiet space, or a normative home life, I think the past year would have looked extremely different. Districts would have found ways to safely offer spaces to learn to these children first and foremost.
I cannot, however, heap too much criticism on individual districts where leaders were largely genuinely trying to do their best. For most of the school year, transparent, data-based decisionmaking wasn’t happening at the federal or even state level. Individual district leaders and often noneducators who sit on school boards were tasked with making decisions community by community—and often without complete information. If we as a nation really value the education of the children most impacted by this pandemic, we will work on vaccinating their families, providing clear worker protections at schools that take all families’ concerns into account, and be frank about the limited data we have on kids, schools, and COVID-19.
The learning from these mistakes may serve us sooner rather than later, unfortunately, as we see how the Delta variant of COVID has impacted the world. This winter may see a resurgence in COVID, particularly in communities with low vaccination rates. Federal, state, and district leaders should prepare now to offer quality remote learning to all students in the event they need it. These leaders should also consider how they might reopen schools in ways that privilege minoritized students’ and families’ needs. The first students back in buildings should be those who need them the most, and their families’ concerns should not be ignored.
Thanks to Jennifer and Margaret for contributing their thoughts.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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