I can’t believe how far we’ve come.

To say that 2020 has been challenging is certainly an understatement. We’ve seen our world upended to an extent that was unfathomable a year ago. I remember that we couldn’t wait to get out of 2019, and there were a lot of online jokes and memes about “2020 vision.” But I can’t remember what was so bad about 2019. We couldn’t have had any real problems back then, right?

And that’s what worries me about 2021. We know that turning over the calendar page doesn’t really change anything. But we also know — we have learned — that the things we’re so worried about may be trivial tomorrow. I don’t see how things could get worse, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I lack imagination for these kinds of things.

COVID first hit my radar on February 27. I had heard about it prior to that, but February 27 was the first time I saw it as something that might affect me. There were conversations about it on Twitter, and on a state-wide listserv, and on Reddit. All on the same day. The message was clear and consistent: this thing is a big deal, and it’s coming fast. By mid-March, all schools in Ohio were closed, and they did not reopen for five months. We went from “you might want to be aware of this” to “congratulations on your new online school” in two weeks. The basic cultural touchstone of how kids spend their days completely changed in a fortnight. That’s a monumental shift in how our world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we would have handled the pandemic at other points in my career. Prior to 2010, the technology to do online school simply didn’t exist. Working in an affluent, upper-middle class school district in 2010, there’s no way we could have provided computers to the families that didn’t have them at home, and there was certainly no way to address the connectivity challenges. Students didn’t have Google accounts, or even email. Very few people had any idea how to use a learning management system. All of our learning resources were on paper.

Our approach prior to 2010 would have been to simplify the curriculum, print packets of worksheets to send home, and hope for the best. We probably would have had teachers coming in on some sort of rotating schedule to print out materials for their students, and we’d have had families picking up and dropping off packets of work. All of it would have been focused on knowledge and skills in key subject areas. Most of it would have been busy work. Assessment wouldn’t have happened.

After 2010, things got a little easier. The flawed OLPC project did bring the costs of computers down enough that netbooks (and later, Chromebooks) became feasible. Assuming schools could afford to spend, say, $100 per student per year on technology, they could begin putting devices into every student’s hands. Things started getting better at home, too. More households had wifi. Some families had smart phones. In an affluent school district like the one I was working in, we could do some learning with technology. Video conferencing was probably out of reach. But teachers could email students, at least, and send resources and activities for them to complete. Schools could implement a BYOD approach, allocating school devices to families that don’t have any connectivity. It would be impossible to provide a device to every student, but if you relied on families to mostly use the things they already had, the school could find a way to fill in the gaps. School in this model would probably still rely on printed packets to a large extent, but some asynchronous online tools could help students and teachers stay in touch, at least in some classes.

It has really only been within the last few years that we could have pulled off virtual school with any kind of synchronous component. Prior to that, video conferencing with more than a handful of people at a time was expensive and complicated. Worldbridges-style webcasting required servers and Shoutcast and virtual audio cables and all kinds of behind-the-scenes magic that schools just aren’t prepared to handle, especially at scale. Even just recording and posting a video online was difficult and time consuming. We could have pushed classes into Moodle and managed instruction there, but actually talking to students would have required a whole lot of phone calls.

It’s only within the last couple years that it’s been possible to talk about online synchronous remote classes. And we pivoted to that model overnight. We didn’t spend a year getting ready for it. We didn’t have a lot of Zoom training sessions or PD days devoted to online learning. We just jumped into the pool and hoped there was water in it.

That’s not to say that we earned a gold medal in diving. Pedagogically, there’s still a long way to go, and there are a lot of things that could have been done better. We didn’t meet the needs of every learner at every grade level in every class. And, honestly, the learning experiences in 2019 were probably better than those in 2020. But there WAS water in the pool. We didn’t drown. School didn’t stop. We didn’t just go home and vow to try again next year. We kept going. We focused on caring for one another. We innovated. We definitely got out of our comfort zones. We learned a lot. Our students learned some things too. Mostly, we learned that the line between “impossible” and “unremarkable” is a lot more fuzzy than we thought.

Photo credit: Todd F. Niemand, Flickr.