The Opportunity of COVID-19: Public Schools Should Never Be the Same Again

There is no doubt about it. Our nation is dealing with an emergency the likes of which most of us never imagined. Regardless of our age, income, background, or station in life, COVID-19 has interrupted our lives and forced us to adapt to a new temporary normal. There is not a single facet of American society that has not been impacted in some way. Schools are no exception.

The immediate responsibility for school and school district leaders is clear. Education leaders and educators at every level of the system are working day and night to ensure that children are served. Yes, served academically, but also ensuring that the many additional ways that schools serve children and families are neither forgotten nor left behind. That means trying to find innovative ways to meet the food, health, counseling, and safety needs of so many children and families in communities across our nation. It is an incredibly daunting task, but educators and education leaders in every community are answering the call. Our children and families will forever be grateful for their efforts.

The United States of America will recover from COVID-19. Just as we have with every test and trial throughout our history, we will emerge even stronger. Our public health and health care systems will be better prepared and better resourced than ever before. And the innovation and genius of Americans in every industry and sector, in the long run, will rebuild the American economy in grand fashion. But what about our schools?

While many school leaders and educators are working tirelessly to meet the needs of students and family, and truthfully, doing much more than we have a right to ask of them, this pandemic has highlighted some of our public education system’s frailties and inequities. While most schools are now utilizing digital technology as one of their primary tools for delivering instruction to students at home, too few school districts and schools had the training and expertise necessary to effectively leverage the educational technology and digital resources available that could have a tremendous impact on the learning of home-bound students.

While some districts and schools had invested heavily in professional development for staff and digital resources for teaching and learning, other schools, often serving our most vulnerable learners, have significant deficiencies in technology infrastructure and training for school staff. The easy and incomplete response to those disparities is that districts serving lower-income students lack the resources necessary to invest in the technology infrastructure and training needed for 21st Century learning. Public investment in technology infrastructure and digital resources for schools is important and essential. Period. But the truth is disparities in resources explains some but not much of the disparities we see. In fact, we find forward-thinking districts and schools across the nation with varying resources who have made the necessary investments in training, infrastructure, and digital resources. Leadership matters tremendously.

Unfortunately, technology and digital resources have in many school districts been considered non-essential, only as a Plan B when fully in-person instruction is not available, or as necessary only for students who have fallen behind or need to make up course credit. Too many districts and schools have been slow to realize that just as digital technology has transformed what is possible and improved efficiency and effectiveness in virtually every industry and sector, digital instructional resources and tools have the ability to transform and improve learning for students. Yes, technology is helpful in times like now when students are unable to come to physical school buildings. But more importantly, digital instructional tools and resources allow educators to diagnose, intervene, and assess student learning in ways that we simply cannot without it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools into very uncomfortable spaces, and like they always do, educators have responded. This pandemic will likely have an impact on students’ learning for many years to come. But going forward, it would be a tragedy if after being forced to grow instructionally and technologically through this terrible situation, schools and districts fail to embrace the digital tools and resources available to them to deliver instruction effectively at a distance, and more importantly, to better meet the learning needs of children than we ever have before. Our students were born into and live in the digital age. We owe it to them for schools to catch up.

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