What We Learned in the Pandemic

The decision by the Commissioner of Education, Jeff Riley, to deny approval of remote learning days at the Curley K-8 School in Boston seems part of a determined plan by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to move forward at all costs, to leave behind for good the pandemic and all of its educational triage. I can certainly understand the impulse. After all, the last year or so has been traumatizing in all kinds of ways for everyone connected to schools – students, teachers, families, everyone. And, as Riley rightly notes, the traumas have often fallen heaviest on those already at the margins. In response, he seems singularly, rigidly focused on getting and keeping students in school buildings.


I support the return to in-person school, but such a dogged lack of flexibility ends up being more a punishment than a kindness. And, as Worcester School Committee Member and all-around observer of all things #MAedu Tracy Novick pointed out, Riley’s tunnel vision for a “return to normal” comes at the cost of system-wide learning.

Beginning in March 2020, thousands of educators, school leaders, community partners, and system leaders collectively and efficiently performed the educational equivalent of parallel parking an aircraft carrier. Within days, educators from all 1,840 of the Commonwealth’s schools transformed their and our conceptions of what teaching and learning looked like: orienting themselves to new remote learning platforms, rewriting lessons or crafting new remote learning activities, recording hundreds of asynchronous read-alouds, conducting relentless outreach to students and families. District staff took delivery of thousands of laptops and wireless hotspots and distributed them to families. Support staff coordinated the preparation and serving of thousands of free meals every day. If it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.


And yet, there has been no coordinated attempt by state leadership to understand just how it all happened. Documenting this effort is necessary for a number of reasons. For one, as many people have observed, the shift to online learning exposed yawning chasms in how resources are distributed across and within districts. Some districts and schools had considerably more money and hardware at their disposal. Shoring up these resource gaps, not with temporary infusions of funds but with a systemic and comprehensively funded overhaul of educational funding, is a matter of educational justice. In addition, the unprecedented shift to online learning represented an enormous expense of students’, educators’, and families’ creativity, resilience, and adaptability. The people who executed this shift are assets that have so far remained largely invisible. I think they ought to be counted, valued, and celebrated.


But the best thing that could emerge from a system-wide audit of the pandemic shift is a new way of “doing school.” Some suggestions for a new path forward are already emerging. Researchers Justin Reich and Jal Mehta engaged dozens of educators and their students in exercises to imagine a new future for schooling and shared their findings in a report last summer. DESE could and should take these stakeholders' perspectives and suggestions seriously. 


Whatever lies ahead, though, one thing is clear: a determination return to “the way things were” at all costs would, in fact, leave us more impoverished than we were two years ago, because it would showcase the fact that we have learned nothing.