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“Rebooting” America’s Schools: Now and After the Pandemic

For years school districts developed elaborate safety plans to protect students from intruders or from those planning some form of violence. School districts also assisted local county health and emergency response departments with their planning by providing bed space and access to their facilities for shelter or to assist in the distribution of food. Some districts actually planned evacuations and conducted drills in the aftermath of Three Mile Island but few planned for an event such as the current pandemic.

Ordered to remain at home except for essential services, school districts, for the most part, found themselves in “uncharted waters” without immediate and practical options to keep the instructional program alive.  A few districts with significant technical capability were able to restore some semblance of instruction but even today, three weeks after a majority of school districts closed, some district leaders struggled to find viable solutions. One major urban district communicated to its instructional staff to voluntarily provide 90 minutes of “on-line” instruction per week in each subject area without further specifying key aspects such as student accountability or the mechanics of actually how to do it.

To be fair, the pandemic is an unprecedented historical event but at the same time, the technology to keep the instructional program going has been available for some time. It just was not considered a necessity or a priority. Prior to the pandemic, some progressive districts saw the power of technology by providing its grade level and subject-based curriculum on their websites along with recommended activities. These districts required that teachers post their lesson plans and provided parents access to their grade books to assist and support both students and parents. Obviously, during the pandemic, this level of technological investment has paid dividends.

During this crisis the value of technology has clearly been demonstrated but it has also illustrated the inequity that continues to exist in far too many school districts. Larger urban districts were reluctant to distribute computer tablets due to insufficient numbers of them in stock and state regulations prohibited distribution unless fairness and equity could be guaranteed. Some technology and cable companies tried to close the gap by providing free “laptop” computers or by providing access on the internet but too often, insufficient district infrastructure and non-existent advance planning for utilization presented obstacles.

At the moment there are huge unanswered questions of how to meet the required mandated hours and number of school days in a manner that is authentic and meaningful. Will students continue through the summer months to meet these requirements or due to the national emergency will the students be automatically promoted, graduated and admitted to their college of choice? Certainly, federal, state and local government will have to exercise some flexibility to resolve these questions but it should require documentation that the instruction program was completed in a substantive manner. Otherwise, it would be difficult in justifying missing a month or more of one’s education.

With tough choices come tough solutions but creativity in finding the solution should not be compromised.  Project Learning is one such solution because, ideally, it is multidisciplinary and requires the demonstration of multiple skills. Implemented with a defined structure that is rigorous and relevant, it might resolve many of the issues surrounding time and standards.

Students should research a teacher or committee approved project that integrates the fundamentals of Mathematics, Science, English, and Social Studies along with the arts. The research should be challenging and presented in written form. Certainly, the project can take many avenues to reach its intended goal which is a demonstration of sufficient knowledge in key subject areas. Such an exercise should also demonstrate a sufficient commitment of time and treatment of the selected topic.  Ideally, with the utilization of technology, these projects could be presented “on-line” but hopefully, in time, they could be presented “on-site” when and if schools reopen.

We have learned a great deal about the importance of our schools during the pandemic. We already knew the important role that schools provide with instruction, mental health programs and as a hub of community activity. We know how important it is to educate ALL children but the pandemic has also demonstrated the integral nature of technology in the delivery of instruction to those less fortunate and the necessity of having a structure that is sufficiently adaptable to react to the unknown.

There are many reasons why an interdisciplinary curriculum has eluded integration into the mainstream of the instructional process but this crisis has afforded an opportunity to resolve many of the long-standing issues that have been highlighted by the pandemic. Shuttered schools certainly raise issues regarding deficiencies associated with instructional time, curriculum relevance, instructional substance and equity but resolution of these issues is through the creative implementation of instructional approaches that cross over the boundaries of content, time and space. Flexibility with regulations surrounding time and distance can unleash a myriad of sustainable solutions capable of reinventing the delivery of curriculum and instruction.

Let’s Get After It! Let’s Reboot Now and Ignite Performance for the Future!

Dr. Vincent F. Cotter is co-founder of the Exemplary Schools Organization, Consultant, Superintendent of Schools, Professor, Principal and Author (“Performance is Key: Connecting the Links to Leadership and Excellence” and “Igniting School Performance”)

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