As we work through the tenth month of the pandemic, we’re starting to talk about schools returning to normal.
I have to be careful here. The school that I work in hasn’t been remote (or even hybrid) since the start of the school year. Procedures have changed. Schedules are different. We spend a LOT of time dealing with the pandemic. But we’re much closer to “normal” than many of the other schools in the area. The infection numbers simply haven’t justified sending everyone home. In that respect, we’re definitely in the minority.
In Ohio, school workers are classified as Phase 1B, and COVID-19 vaccinations are supposed to be available starting in February. One of the requirements for a school’s employees to be eligible to receive the vaccine is a commitment to return to full in-person instruction starting March 1. That’s enough of an incentive to force most superintendents to bring everyone back.
By the one-year anniversary of The Great Disruption, then, we’ll all be back in school. It’s hard to say that things will be back to normal exactly. We’ll sill be adjusting schedules and trying to spread people out. We’ll be enforcing social distancing protocols. We’ll still be limiting large gatherings. But the days when scores of students are logging in to school via Zoom may be numbered.
We can return to teaching content to groups of students with everyone in the same room. We can go back to giving tests and quizzes without worrying about whether kids are cheating. We will know if students are off task or even if they’re in class at all. We can complete worksheets and homework and activities and just have the students turn it in, right there in the classroom. We don’t have to scan documents or take pictures of work or submit things through Google Classroom or email or whatever. We can go back to school as school was meant to be.
Students belong in the classroom. The best place for students is in school.
Families can return to normal. We can have the dining room table back for eating dinner. Parents can go back to work without having to also monitor school. We can return to using our home Internet connections for Netflix and Youtube instead of Zoom and Google Meet. And, at long last, we can put the tape back over our webcams.
Ultimately, we’re going to write this year off. With everyone back in school, there’s no reason why we can’t give the state tests this spring. But they won’t mean anything. We’ll know where students are with respect to the content standards in reading, math, and (to a lesser extent) science and social studies. We won’t be able to measure growth, though, because we don’t have data for last year. We are already well aware that we didn’t cover a lot of the content on the list this year. So there will be no place to go next year but up.
Coming out of this pandemic, students not have the knowledge and skills that they would have had if COVID had not happened. But it’s a lot like a yellow flag in NASCAR. The pandemic affects everyone. We all fell in line behind the pace car. When the green flag comes back out, our students will not be worse off, compared to everyone else, than they were going in to the crisis. Maybe ACT and AP scores will dip for a year or two. But because that affects everyone, it’s not going to impact students’ ability to get into good colleges or compete for scholarships. They’re going to be fine.
Nostalgia is crafty. We forget that we weren’t very happy in 2019. Schools were struggling with student achievement, literacy rates, dropouts, social/emotional support, substance abuse, poverty, absenteeism, student discipline, and adequate yearly progress. We were struggling to meet the goals of “college and career ready.” We were trying to provide lots of diverse opportunities for students, but maintaining relevance in an affordable way was elusive. We wanted to address critical elements of learning, like teamwork, collaboration and communication, critical thinking, personalization of learning, and real world engagement. But we were largely spinning our wheels. We had adopted a lot of shiny new technology, but we were mostly using it to replicate the things we did in the past.
The good old days weren’t always good. We only look back fondly on our school days because we don’t remember how bad they really were. And I’m betting that most of those fond memories have little to do with what you learned in the classroom. School is a work in progress. We’re always striving to form a more perfect union. We have to keep innovating. We have to keep learning from our experiences. We have to keep working to transform school into a relevant, worthwhile experience for every child. That’s difficult, purposeful work, and it will probably look very different from what we used to regard as “normal.”
Someday, we’ll be able to laugh about this crazy year. We’ll tell stories about how we coped during the pandemic. We’ll bore future generations with tall tales of the year of the plague. But hopefully, we won’t do that from the front of a classroom that’s indistinguishable from the ones we were students in.
I hope, in our race back to normal, that we don’t miss the opportunity to learn from this experience.