Final thoughts on the year of the pandemic

This guest post is by Michael O’Hara, a principal at Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada

Opportunity & dissent a pandemic world
The COVID-19 pandemic is tragic but can be very instructive if we choose to accept what has changed. The pandemic has shown the fury and force of nature moving like a series of unstoppable hurricanes leaving devastation in its wake.  We should not be content to just pick up the pieces. Sir Winston Churchill is credited with first saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This was apparently uttered by him during the mid-1940s as the end of World War II approached. After the deadliest conflict in human history one of the world’s great leaders saw opportunity where lesser men saw only despair. Churchill understood and applied what I refer to as “renaming the problem and calling it the solution.” Elegant. . . . simple . . . .and very effective.  

Move forward, not back
There are critical lessons educators should learn from this period in history and apply in their field. The first and most important lesson is . . . there is no going back.

During much of the late 20th and the 21st century, schools have continued to run in much the same manner as they have for over 100 years. We follow a largely agrarian calendar despite most people residing in cities. The education system has also blithely gone about adding a large assortment of non-educational tasks to teachers’ responsibilities in an ill-fated attempt to be all things to all people. Which of those we should we retain so that we can move forward into more relevant and robust 21st century schools is an important conversation. People and programs are an investment, not a cost.

Our predictable & often plodding educational past
The New Deal implemented by Roosevelt in the 1930s put people back to work, saved capitalism, and restored faith in the American economic system. It also revived a sense of hope. With a recession finishing less than ten years ago and now a widespread virus, we have a chance to apply the “Roosevelt Principle” once more. For the first time in memory, the Canadian federal government gave provinces two billion dollars for education, an opportunity not to be missed.

Technology has moved forward and produced amazing tools but the educational sector has been a reluctant participant until forced to change. We are “late to the dance” with small budgets buying only proven technologies long after many organizations adopt them. With millions of the world’s students at home for online learning overnight in spring of 2020, schools had to make changes quickly. On-line learning is a tool that should be developed. Instead of working to return to the “old normal,” schools and systems should embrace and build on technology so that online learning can become as robust and relevant as possible. More than one type of educational delivery is wise and now . . . essential.

Resistance is futile!
We can predict that some students may remain online or at home for some time. To prevent schools from losing students to other providers of online learning, we should act urgently to develop online education to include the world of what I term “virtual curriculum.” Simply put, virtual curriculum is nimble, evolves from circumstance, and can be developed and implemented quickly so those who need it stay within their school’s orbit.

Here is an example.  We selected a teacher trained in effective models of early literacy intervention to provide online instruction. A curriculum congruent to what the school division is doing was selected, initially employing only two subject areas. The academic level was determined through numerous online “meets” with the teacher and student. An additional teacher who is a designated Success Coach also met the parent and student on-line to work on areas everyone agreed was holding up progress. While early in the process, this approach is showing great promise. The student is planned for at their current level of achievement individually empowering the parent and involved teachers while respecting their privacy and need to program at home. We review the progress each quarter of the school year.

Run with your strengths
When students found themselves online literally overnight, we had to make some quick decisions to ensure we did not lose more of the school year than absolutely necessary. Our school uses the Cogito alternative academic program. It is well designed and very popular requiring students to go on-line each night to do specific homework after doing the day’s work at school.

To reduce down time, Cogito teachers found their students on-line by using the evening homework portal with which they were familiar. It worked well and also helped them develop new skills they will use for both online and in person instruction. It became a valuable professional development activity. This has led to innovative ideas from teachers they now use in their virtual classrooms. Teachers require support and tools to help them move forward in a new world.

Government funds can be used for purposes that go beyond meeting immediate pandemic requirements. As classrooms remain emptier than in past, schools could renovate to include suites of smaller, more private rooms equipped with robust technology, allowing teachers to provide on-line or smaller in-person instruction. We should begin examining how classrooms can be modified to quickly become two rooms responding to in person and on-line enrollment changes. Schools can also look at evolving companies to develop or combine technologies to aid in program delivery.

Schools have not been good at eliminating tasks that are not educational. However unpopular this statement may be, we need to consider that if the activity does not help teaching, why is it being done?

Beginning in March 2020 in Alberta, teachers worked alone in classrooms or at home. Doors no longer needed to be open to welcome students. This gave us time to think about the jobs we do. When students started returning, parents’ entry to the building was restricted and we no longer had enough students to run a patrol group. We planned supervision that was in the school yard only and began insisting that bylaw enforcement be more present and willing to issue fines if needed. Our community partners needed to do their job so we could focus on teaching. We were all inside the school’s fenced area welcoming people and accepted the additional job of supporting families programming from home. This reduced the possibility of confrontation in the community reducing tensions when everyone was already stressed.

Now that parents need an appointment to come into schools, most parents pay fees online or by phone, saving administrative time. We are encouraging parents to continue paying fees online as we see more students return. We will ask parents to play a role in traffic safety by forming a group to assist arriving students that is more self-directed and not placing students and staff at undue risk. If it is important to the community, this is an opportunity to have them play a role that frees teachers to do what they are educated to do … to teach.

Let us not waste this crisis.

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