Finding Opportunity in Crisis: Five Ways the Pandemic Can Make Public Education Better

There is no doubt that March 14, 2020 has all of us in a world that is very different from the one we anticipated. The escalation of the national and provincial responses, in a time when everyone has a voice online and facts don’t always rise to the top, creates challenges we have yet to even recognize.

We have been using the term VUCA [Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous] to describe the world for a decade, and now we are living it.

I can’t help but believe, though, that unprecedented school closures and other responses to the pandemic can help us move the world in a different, better, direction.

1 – Thinking Differently About What School Can Be

Shifting our understanding about what school needs to look like in 2020 to ensure that ALL children have a successful trajectory in an exponentially changing world has been a painfully slow process. Changing hearts and minds about the purpose of school is leadership work that takes patience, resilience and focus.

Suddenly children have to learn from home, and we are forced to rethink what that could possibly look like. We now see that learning MUST be different, because it will be happening in many spaces and places with (and without) different tools and devices, different expertise on-site and beyond, and varying access to resources. Personalized learning at scale is our new normal. We MUST think differently about how children access content, how they engage in content, and how they demonstrate their learning.

In other words, we must be facilitating Universal Design for Learning at scale. If ever there was a time to ensure UDL principles were in place for all learners, that time is now.

All over the world, private and non-profit partners are opening up tools for free use by educators [Khan Academy, Nelson Canada, Zoom for starters]. Educators are sharing resources [ Math Home Supports (Ontario), JarrettLerner Activities ] but this is not new. Educators share resources online on social media all the time. Now is the time for all teachers to build their professional learning networks to ensure their children have access to the very best range of resources to meet their needs.

What better time than now, when children are learning at home, to build a positive parent-school relationship. Parents are now forced to be partners in learning, and we can support them in sharing with us the evidence of the learning children are doing at home. We can provide parents with activities they can do WITH their kids to learn together. We can support and build positive family relationships through our intentional work in empowering parents to embrace learning opportunities with their children. We can provide platforms and spaces for parents and children to demonstrate and celebrate the learning they have done together while schools are closed.

2 – Shifting Priorities

Up until today, giving children devices and ensuring all families had access to the basic infrastructure of 2020 [internet access] may have seemed too expensive. Today it is a social justice issue that requires leadership. While rural communities watch provincial leadership mandate online learning in times of crisis, it becomes so very clear that we have not made access to internet services a basic human right for all families.

A pandemic shifts priorities. We can’t turn our heads away from the children in our communities who are again disadvantaged when public education solutions are geared only to those who can afford it.

3 – Excellent Health is the Measure of Success

While the pandemic is our biggest concern, good health is our number one priority. We need a healthy community to minimize the impact of the pandemic on our ability to respond to those critically ill.

Public health authorities are telling people to get outside and exercise, away from others. Skiing, running, walking, playing in snowbanks! Fresh air, safe distances from others, and healthy attention to physical activity are important ways to stay well now, and always.

But as a school system, do we actively work to maximize wellness for staff and students? Hungry children can’t learn. Children on waiting lists for mental health services can’t learn. Exhausted high school students are vulnerable to infection. Overstressed educators and leaders are perfect hosts for viruses. Crowded classrooms are havens for the spread of infection. “More with less” government positions ensures all staff are at the limit of what they can do for kids in jobs where there is no clear line to mark the end of the work day.

This is the perfect time to stand up for wellness and well-becoming as the most important function of public education in Canada.

4 – Citizenship and Empathy

Closing schools is a strategy to flatten the curve, to keep the number of critical cases of COVID-19 below the capacity of the health care system to cope. This is about saving the lives of those most vulnerable to the virus. This is a community effort, to take action on behalf of others, to save the lives of the elderly. What better moment to teach children that their personal actions matter, that they can make an important difference in their communities, and that they can LEAD and MODEL appropriate actions for others.

5 – Transforming How We Build Educator Expertise

Educators must own their own learning. The practice of waiting for the public system to “provide training” is outdated and unsustainable. Teachers are professionals. Professionals continue to build expertise throughout their careers or they quickly become irrelevant.

This time without children in schools, and without the ability to gather in groups for learning, is the perfect opportunity for teachers to connect online, to build their professional learning networks, to understand that the power of the network is in the people you are connected to. Isolation during this crisis is the perfect catalyst for building stronger digital connections to others.

Connected learners need connected leaders. If you lead public education you must be learning from others online. The world is changing too fast to allow us the luxury of reinventing every style of wheel. Together, as a global PLN, we can elevate our response. Online connections give us a platform for changing public education for the good.

It will be different when we come back.

I know that public education leaders will grab tightly to this opportunity for change. We have a chance, now, to make a very big positive difference for our kids and the people in our systems. Closing schools is the very opportunity we need to make sure we come back with different thinking – thinking that is focused on changing life trajectories for every child in the system, and thinking that is focused on building empathetic citizens who see themselves in their communities and make intentional choices to improve lives.

Education leaders must grab this chance to intentionally interrupt thinking about what school can be. Let’s open our minds to what is possible once the world has been forever changed by this pandemic.


Willing to Be Disturbed

UDL Resource (British Columbia)

Personalized Learning at Scale – Harvard Graduate School of Education International Study:

My Island View – Do you have the backbone for a PLN?

Math Home Supports from Ontario

David Truss: Twitter for Professional Learning

Kahn Academy – Schedules for Home Learning

Nelson Canada

Learning for All (Ontario, 2013)

Khan Academy Schedules for School Closures

For Kids: The Coronavirus explained in a comic book

Coronavirus student guide from PBS

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