If a measure of a society is how well it takes care of its young, the past nine months are a damning indictment of our nation.
Parents and teachers have been working overtime under impossible circumstances., and states have prioritized keeping gyms and restaurants open over keeping schools open. A result is that about 48 percent of all students are still in full-time virtual instruction (another 18 percent are in hybrid), according to Burbio, a company that tracks school calendars. These rates are higher among poor students and students of color. This is shameful — private schools holding classes under tents on spacious campuses while poor students are sitting outside McDonalds to get internet access.
There is little doubt that going to school is, on average, better for students. They are frequently tuning out of virtual learning. In higher poverty communities, older students are working to help make ends meet or have simply disappeared from the school rolls. What parents have seen streamed into their living rooms often reflects uninspired curriculums and pedagogy. Students think much of what they are learning is irrelevant and disconnected from their identities and the world around them.
These are not new problems — they are just newly visible because of the pandemic, and in some cases exacerbated by it.
It’s looking as though all schools should be able to open fully in the fall. The pandemic — and the pause in institutionalized schooling — has helped us to see what should change when that happens.
The first lesson that the pandemic has revealed is the limits of one-size-fits-all schooling. Some students have actually liked not being in school — the lack of social pressure and anxiety has made them more able to focus on learning. Some were miserably lonely at home and couldn’t wait for school to reopen. More reticent students have really liked being able to type into the chat instead of talking, and some students have thrived in the small groups afforded by virtual breakout rooms. When we reopen schools, could we do so in a way that creates different kinds of opportunities for all kinds of students — introverts and extroverts, fast processors and reflective thinkers?
A second lesson is the necessity of making schools more human. One of the best outcomes of the pandemic is that it forced schools to get off their treadmill and actually talk to students and parents — understand their life circumstances and how those intersected with school expectations.
As one seventh grade teacher in New Jersey, William Stribling, said to me, “When we’re on campus, our schedules don’t allow us to be as human-centered as we are in this environment.”
We often are in such a rush in school — from one class to the next, from one topic to another — that we don’t remember that the fundamental job is to partner with families to raise successful human beings. The pandemic is helping many of us to think about our students in a fuller and more holistic way; we should remember that when the crisis ends.
Another part of making schools more human is having them start later; some studies show that teenagers’ mental health actually improved last spring, and researchers think one of the most likely explanations is that the students got more sleep.
Classrooms that are thriving during the pandemic are the ones where teachers have built strong relationships and warm communities, whereas those that focus on compliance are really struggling without the compulsion that physical school provides.
Creative teachers are allowing students to choose music during breaks, scheduling one-on-one check-ins, and designing assignments that give students agency, choice and purpose in their work. They are taking some questions that Zoom school has raised, such as whether students should have cameras on or off, and inviting students to codesign these classroom policies. They are connecting learning in the classroom to the major events that have happened outside of it: Covid-19, as an occasion to understand epidemiology or political leadership; George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, as a way to explore institutional racism or the power of organizing.
Some of the results have been spectacular. Charlotte Bowder, a student at Casco Bay High School in Maine, had the idea of writing a song that would celebrate community amid social isolation. She recruited her friend Luthando Mngqibisa to sing co-lead, and with the help of the EL Education network of which the school is part, recruited 34 other musicians — from high school string players to elementary schoolers on pots and pans — across 11 schools in seven states to play the song together virtually. The resulting project, “Make the World Better,” is one of the most uplifting, professionally done pieces created during the pandemic. Give it a listen; it will be the best four minutes of your day.
Smart schools are making significant organizational changes to become more human. Some high schools are moving away from semesters with seven-period days — unsafe in person, unmanageable at home — to a quarter system where students take no more than three subjects at a time. This frees teachers to focus on half as many students (reducing their loads to, often, about 80 from 160), which has given them the time to build the relationships that students need — particularly in a pandemic, but always.
Other schools have foregrounded the student-adult connection piece: La Follette High School in Wisconsin has reorganized itself during the pandemic so that every adult in the building is responsible for 10 to 15 students. Students can call or text these adults as needed — the equivalent of an on-call adult to help them navigate their virtual classes.
A third critical issue is that we cannot set the needs of students against the needs of adults. Many American school reformers have this strange habit of positioning themselves as the moral defenders of kids while demonizing teachers and their unions as standing in the way of progress. Other countries do not do this; they recognize that the success of their students is intimately connected to the success of teachers. They make good on that understanding by paying for teachers’ preparation, compensating them fairly, and respecting the importance and complexity of their work.
The pandemic created a difficult conflict: Parents wanted teachers in school; teachers were fearful for their safety. In some communities, this was worked out through extensive dialogue and flexible solutions that enabled some teachers to come to work while the most at risk stayed home. In other communities, teachers were demonized, unions dug in, and the situation spiraled downward. Coming up with ways to build trust and find solutions that are good for both students and adults is one of the meta-lessons of the pandemic.
Fourth, there is the question of how to catch students up on what they missed during the pandemic. This is a serious problem — 56 percent of teachers in one survey reported covering half as much material as they would in a normal year, or less. But, at the same time, we don’t want a repeat of No Child Left Behind, where disadvantaged students got endless drills in reading and math while more advantaged students were given a richer curriculum.
The right choice here is to get very specific on what needs to be made up and what does not; teams of teachers and administrators could work together to decide what is essential to keep and what can be pared. We should take a page from the Japanese tidying expert and Marie Kondo the curriculum, discarding the many topics that have accumulated like old souvenirs, while retaining essential knowledge and topics that spark joy. Such an approach would responsibly prepare students for the future, without exacerbating many of the conditions that turn students off from school.
The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago. We have been on a treadmill of short-term fixes, pretending that if we just get the right test, the right incentives, put the right pressure on teachers and students, they will achieve what is good for them, like it or not. But we are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized.
The same is true for teachers — they need to feel physically safe, they need support, they need their work to be recognized and honored, and they need working conditions that make it possible for them to succeed. All of this is doubly true in high-poverty communities, where in the name of urgency, we have moved the furthest from taking a human approach to both students and teachers.
Districts could embrace this shift by moving away from top-down edicts and instead inviting teachers, students and community members to codesign the structures that affect them. We need to talk about what we are trying to accomplish — not just about what knowledge we want our young people to possess, but what sorts of skills, capacities and qualities we want them to develop. And then, and only then, about what sorts of teaching, learning and policy structures would support the cultivation of those qualities.
States could help by following leading international jurisdictions like British Columbia in honing standards to focus on the truly essential, enabling opportunities for local adaptations and greater depth on fewer topics. Given the radical inequalities in learning opportunities this year, states should declare a moratorium on testing this spring. The federal government finally approved $54 billion for schools in stimulus funding, but districts serving high-poverty students, especially, need more. We should increase support for much needed counseling services and encourage states to equalize funding across their districts.
In the very short term, if state constitutions guarantee students access to school, and if school is virtual, then states must provide students a working internet connection and a laptop or tablet. And given the role of schools in not just educating children but also enabling their parents go to work, teachers should be considered essential workers and be early in line to be vaccinated.
There has been considerable attention to the health crisis, and some to the economic crisis. But there hasn’t been a serious commitment to the corresponding educational crisis. We need to rebuild and reimagine schools. We now have a chance to do both.
Jal Mehta is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-author, with Sarah Fine, of “In Search of Deeper Learning.”