The rules of schooling have been rewritten. Let’s not go back to normal.

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed school doors in March, the rules of grammar that underpin our collective beliefs about what “real schools” look like were erased. In a matter of months, school system leaders and teachers were required to break down complex and notoriously unalterable systems into their component parts and rearrange them so kids could keep learning.

An invisible virus accomplished in months what throngs of reformers with billions of dollars in philanthropic support couldn’t. 

Suddenly, waivers from rigid regulations and renegotiated labor contracts freed schools to try new ways of using their time, space, staffing, student groupings, and resources. Devices, broadband internet access, and online learning platforms, which have long been accessory to in-person instruction, became critical means for teaching and learning. Parents who are typically treated as customers were enlisted as co-educators.

Millions of students are now learning in ways that look nothing like school at all.

Yet, nearly a year on, districts are still in crisis response mode. And after months of physical isolation, prolonged stress and anxiety, upended routines, financial uncertainty, and, for some, sickness, death, and grieving, people just want to go back to normal.

For kids who thrive in a traditional setting, getting them back into school buildings may be the best thing. However, for many low-income students returning to “normal” means returning to dilapidated school buildings in segregated neighborhoods staffed with the least experienced teachers and operating on a fraction of the funds other schools enjoy. Lakisha Young, founder of Oakland Reach summed it up this way, “Our Black children have long been failed by in-person learning, so we don’t want a return to the status quo.”  The status quo might also not be the best solution for students who are targets of bullies, suffer from anxiety, or simply prefer remote or hybrid learning environments. For students that were undereducated by their schools during “normal” times it would be a mistake to return to schooling the way it was and ignore the lessons that the pandemic has taught us. 

Instead of going from the status quo to crisis education and back to the status quo again, what if we went from the status quo to crisis education to a more equitable and effective public school system?

Some district leaders envision post-pandemic learning to be fundamentally different from what schools were doing in March. For instance, Karen Quanbeck, superintendent of Clear Creek School District RE-1 in Idaho Springs, Colorado, said at a recent event: “We are navigating this seismic shift in education and my gut is, we’re not going back to pre-pandemic learning, and there’s pros and cons to that.” Quanbeck isn’t alone in her thinking. A recent Rand survey of over 300 district and charter leaders found that “…remote learning, in at least some form, will outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. One in five districts were considering, planning to adopt, or had already adopted a virtual school or fully online option, while about one in ten have adopted or are planning to adopt a blended or hybrid form of instruction.”  Innovation researchers are beginning to wonder whether the lessons that we’ve learned will change schools forever. Teachers are thinking about what pandemic-era classroom practices they want to carry with them into the future. Even parents expect schools to look different in the future. After taking time away from work to support his two kids’ distance learning pod, a colleague returned certain that school would never look the same saying, “parents can’t unsee all of the things they’ve experienced during the pandemic.” 

Of course, not everyone sees this moment as a quantum leap in education innovation. Education historian Larry Cuban, for instance, points to the limited effect of past efforts to create “the classroom of the future” and sees students heading back to school as soon as we hit herd immunity. Others rightly point out to the millions of students who are struggling with online learning or not showing up at all as proof that online learning is a failing experiment. Surely, much of what’s been tried hasn’t worked. There’s value there too. We have as much to learn from the negative effects of the pandemic on schooling as the ingenuity that’s been marshaled to respond to them.

For those of us stubborn optimists who work at the intersection of education and innovation, this moment is an important one. The nation’s 13,000 school districts, 130,000 schools, and 3.7 million teachers have participated in what Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend Education called the “largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind” as they shifted to distance and hybrid learning. More accurately, the pandemic hasn’t prompted one experiment, it’s spun up millions of small and large experiments in a wide range of settings, some of which are succeeding while others are failing. Regardless, the experiments have generated countless lessons that can strengthen, diversify, and augment traditional schooling if — and only if — innovators, system leaders, and policymakers prepare for the rapidly approaching future when students can go back to schools safely. 

Over the next few days, I’ll make the case in a series of blog posts here on Ahead of the Heard that we should be actively looking for pandemic-era education innovations that increase equity and effectiveness. Even though there will be challenging headwinds, there are ways we can tack against them to create conditions where promising new ideas can be tested and shared. 

All students, but most urgently low-income and BIPOC students, and students with special needs, should benefit from the countless lessons generated by the nation’s 130,000 schools over the last 11 months.

You can read more from this series here.