Almost Back to Normal

We’re almost back to normal.

Last night, we biked a few miles to a local restaurant, ate dinner inside, and stopped for ice cream on the way home. I didn’t even take a mask, much less wear one. Most of the people we encountered were maskless as well, and the social distancing markers on the floor were more suggestions than mandates.

Right now, Ohio is seeing an average of 1.7 new cases per day per 100,000 people. Those numbers are on par with March, 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. Remember “flattening the curve?” The idea was to spread out infections to keep from overwhelming hospitals. We did that. We’re on the other side now, trending down. New cases aren’t going to stop any time soon, and there will be spikes, especially heading into summer. But we’re almost back to normal.

Photo credit: onderortel, Pixabay

We’ll probably be mothballing most of the temperature scanners at our school entrances. Maybe some of the plexiglass will come down. We’re starting to open things up and let visitors into the buildings. For the last couple weeks of school, students and staff members were not required to wear masks in the buildings. Our infection rates did not rise as a result. We have 11 weeks until school starts, and a lot can change in that amount of time. But right now, it looks like the start of the 21-22 school year will look more like 19-20 than last year.

When we all went home in March, 2020, we focused on essentials. Schools took all of the resources they had and adapted quickly to best meet the needs of their communities. We didn’t worry so much about covering all of the content, or completing all of the course projects. Teachers didn’t focus so much on defined work day and planning minutes and uninterrupted duty-free lunches. Administrators weren’t concerned about staff members taking care of personal or family needs during “school” time, or making sure that every employee was putting in all of the hours of work for which they were being paid. Schools did a lot of hand waving when it came to tracking “attendance.” The focus quickly became one of mutual care. Teachers took care of their students. Administrators took care of their staff members. The schools took care of the communities. And the communities took care of the schools. Everyone had a hands-on crash course on social and emotional care. And that immediately took precidence over any learning that may have been taking place.

On the technology side, I have never seen a faster, more complete adoption of instructional technology in my career. We were fortunate — in both of my school districts — to already have a robust technology program in place. Students without devices all had them assigned within a few days. Teachers had access to most of the tools they needed for remote instruction, and they had a pretty good idea of how to use them. Technology support personnel and instructional coaches jumped in with both feet, and helped the schools navigate these uncharted waters. In the heat of the crisis, everyone did what was necesary to get the job done.

There’s a certain camraderie that comes from experiences like this. I’ve heard stories, mostly from World War II, of soldiers developing particularly strong bonds from enduring horrific experiences together. They develop a closeness from working together and relying on one another to get through a tough situation. Maybe, ironically, sending our teachers and school leaders home may have brought them closer together.

I remember reflecting at the time that instruction had become irrevocably changed by the pandemic. Many teachers had finally made “time” the variable and “learning” the constant, which is impossible when all of the students are in the room for exactly 42 minutes every day. We blended learning like old pros, using tools like Google Classroom and SeeSaw to organize instructional resources and student work. Everyone became an expert in video conferencing overnight, and we quickly converged on tools that work well, leaving the ones that don’t meet our needs behind. Suddenly, everyone was doing all of the things we’ve been trying to get them to do for years. How could we ever go back?

In the winter, as I was getting carried away by the idea that school had been redfined in positive ways by this experience, I was reminded that we were still in a crisis. It was tone deaf of me to suggest that some of the innovations we applied to make remote learning work could be permanent solutions. Teachers, especially, have been running non-stop at full capacity for a year, and asking them to rethink what public education looks like in the post-pandemic world is pretty insensitive when we’re still in the midst of it. To borrow an analogy from a friend and colleague, we were pulling the rubber band pretty tight.

But we’re almost back to normal now.

If we let go of the rubber band, it’s going to snap back to its original state. It may go flying across the room. It might snap and hurt someone. A whole lot of potential energy will be released all at once. And in the end, it’s going to be lying there on the floor in exactly the same state it was in when all of this started.

Except now, when we talk about Zoom, it brings back memories of that horrible experience. Remember that time when the kids weren’t here and we had to do everything online? I used Screencastify to create little pieces of instruction to share with my students. Thank God I don’t have to do that again. They all used their 1:1 devices to complete this project, but there wasn’t any way to keep them from talking to each other. We made them turn their work in online, and I had to give students feedback in Google Docs instead of writing notes on their printed papers. I’m so glad to be getting back to normal.

I’ve already had multiple teachers request that we end the 1:1 program at some grade levels. We’re back in school now. We don’t need the devices anymore.

Those soldiers came back from the war changed by their experience. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of PTSD or suggest in any way that teachers sitting on laptops at their dining room tables have the same psychological burdens as those returning from Iraq or Vietnam or the Phillipines. I know that my grandfather, like many of his generation, never talked about the war, and rarely mentioned his experience in the service. My theory is that the people with the worst wartime experiences felt that it was better to leave that trauma on the battlefield rather than burdening those back home. Whether that’s true or not, those stories did not get told. And staying home for a few months is not the same thing.

But the idea that everything we know about how society and school work can change in an instant is traumatic in its own way. And if we’ve coupled the tools that we use to cope with that trauma with the crisis itself, it’s going to be very difficult to separate them again.

Maybe we need to be more careful about how we release the tension in that rubber band. Maybe instead of letting it all go at once and snapping it back to normal, we should slowly ease the tension out. As much as we’re excited to get back to normal, maybe taking it a little more slowly will help make 2022 better than 2019.

So we’re almost back to normal. But not quite. And maybe we should take our time getting there.