by Curtis Weathers —
The sudden and unprecedented shuttering of our nation’s school buildings due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced educators to face the most jarring and rapid change of perhaps any profession in history. Within a moment’s notice, teachers were asked to leave their classrooms indefinitely and, without adequate time and preparation, create an entirely new virtual learning environment for their students.
It was not just the move from the classrooms to the world of virtual learning that was so jarring. This interruption challenged basic norms about instruction, attendance, testing, funding, the role of technology, and, above all, the human connections that hold it all together.
In the blink of an eye, the pandemic turned normalcy on its head and was abruptly and completely upended indefinitely.
Thankfully, after what feels like a lifetime, we are beginning to emerge from the ravages of Covid 19 and are slowly and cautiously returning to some semblance of normalcy. Educators, support staff, and some students are getting vaccinated, and more and more school buildings are once again opening their classroom doors for in-person learning.
But as our education systems navigate these unprecedented challenges, experts argue whether returning to pre-pandemic normalcy is the direction our schools should be headed in.
Many of these experts, however, agree that we are faced with an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine and reshape how we provide high-quality education to our children.
What we did before the pandemic is not the “normal” we should be looking to return to, nor is it the normal our teachers, administrators, students, and parents want either.
For years now, our nation’s education community has pursued technological innovations to improve teaching and learning in the classroom at a snail’s pace. Our academic institutions’ slow tempo of change, with its centuries-old lecture-based approaches to teaching, entrenched institutional biases, and outmoded classrooms, is lamentable.
In light of what we are experiencing with this pandemic, to return to that level of normalcy would be criminal. Normality, or what we remember as normal, should be properly and ceremoniously put to rest.
For educational leaders and innovators, this is a rare opportunity. We cannot just box up all the technology and innovations we have been introduced to and return to chalkboard teaching and learning in our classrooms.
The role of teachers has rapidly evolved, becoming in many ways more difficult and complex than when in-person learning took place before the pandemic. Teachers from kindergarten to college have had to quickly reimagine human connections and interactions to facilitate learning.
“Crazy,” “frustrating,” and “exhausting” are words many educators have used to describe teaching during this pandemic. These teachers had to become technology wizards, Zoom screen DJs, cheerleaders, and counselors all at the same time.
No one could have anticipated the stress levels they have had to endure, and nothing in their training prepared them for what has taken place.
But this is a chance to think entirely out of the box going forward. The pandemic has given educational thinkers and planners permission to explore new and exciting ways to deliver high-quality educational services outside traditional norms.
Long-standing assumptions about when, where, and how instruction must occur have shifted in ways that make it impossible to simply return to “normal.”
People’s perception of remote learning has been permanently altered, especially as it relates to regular classroom instruction, professional development, parent conferences, tutoring, and how schools provide various ancillary services.
In order to build back stronger education leaders must apply the technological skills they are learning and integrate them into our normal educational processes.
It is absolutely critical that we empower teachers and invest in the necessary skills development and capacity building to exploit the full potential of virtual and blended learning going forward. We cannot let this opportunity pass without making significant improvements to our current educational infrastructure.
So instead of returning to normal, we should be thoughtfully and purposely designing and creating our “new normal.”
Forward-looking districts are using this moment to develop new and creative possibilities, such as expanding access to services like tutoring, mentoring, counseling, and enrichment.
Some families, left with few options, have charted new paths by forming pods, joining micro-schools, and taking a much more significant role in ensuring that their children have access to adequate instruction and social-emotional support.
While these changes have certainly caused a degree of inconvenience, they have also prompted new examples of educational innovation.
There are examples from around the world of companies, consortiums, and collaboratives of all stripes coming together in innovative ways to bring high-quality creative experiences to children and adults at every level.
This pandemic is showing us how adaptable and resilient educational systems, policymakers, teachers, students, and families can be.
But what excites me the most is knowing that the use of information technology in education is now being accelerated and that virtual learning will be elevated from a “casual” to a “significant” new normal in our educational systems.
So welcome to a whole new world of educational innovation and anxious anticipation of what the “new normal” will look like. I cannot wait to see what will emerge.
Take care, everyone, continue wearing your masks, and stay safe.