Rethinking schools post-pandemic

First grade teacher Jamie Greenwood looks at a large sheet of clear plastic that hangs from the ceiling in her classroom.

First grade teacher Jamie Greenwood looks at a large sheet of clear plastic that hangs from the ceiling in her classroom at Westvale Elementary School in West Jordan on Aug. 19, 2020. Now that the pandemic is over, how will schools adjust again?

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

In March 2020, when the nation’s schools suddenly closed, my kids were four and six. Gray, the six-year-old, was in kindergarten at an old-school Montessori. Blake, the four-year-old, was in preschool. In the early days of the pandemic, I experienced the five stages of school closure the same way as many others: Confusion. Concern. Anger. Frustration. Bargaining.

Like many parents, my initial reaction to the news was uncertainty. It’s easy to forget, but the battle lines mostly came later. In those early days, parents were terrified that our kids would be at risk and most of us were willing to take the need for school closures at face value.

But it made for a crazy stretch of months. Our dining room turned into a multi-station, quasi-Montessori school, replete with everything from number lines to window washing accoutrements. “School” became 30 minutes each morning of a teacher leading the kids in a couple of activities and reading a short story. Even for two over-educated parents with just two kids in a comfortable house, it was no picnic.

Plus, in the kind of far-from-scientific overreaction that many seem to have memory-holed, our local playgrounds were cordoned off with police tape, basketball hoops were rendered unplayable by blocks of wood, and social interaction was mostly limited to neighbors furtively waving from across the street. If Russian bots had sought a way to drive kids onto devices and to fray our social ties, they could have hardly done better than this.

Today, the whole experience feels like a fever dream. That may be doubly so for a long-ago high school teacher and education professor, like me, who spent the past two decades directing education policy at one of the nation’s best-known think tanks. I had a front-row seat as school closures morphed from a “we’re all in this together” mentality to an increasingly partisan clash.

This all came back to me in remarkably vivid fashion this spring as I started to talk about my new book, “The Great School Rethink.” I’ve been reminded just how much we’ve struggled to actually reimagine how schools use time, talent or technology, or partner with parents, even as they strive to overcome the devastating aftershocks of disruption.

False choices

In the spring of 2020, my colleague John Bailey and I had gathered a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen education leaders and reformers to sketch a widely-used “Blueprint for Back to School,” which addressed both public health challenges and the urgency of getting kids back into schools. By summer, “reopen schools” was former President Donald Trump’s rallying cry. In response, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten doubled down on union concerns about reopening, denouncing Trump’s demands that schools do so as reckless, callous and cruel.  

Well into 2021, debates about when schools should reopen (and then about vaccination and masking) were a big part of the national pandemic drama. Later, though, as schools spent $200 billion in federal emergency aid, devastating reports came in on academic outcomes and student well-being, and school leaders struggled to fill staff positions and deal with the fallout of parental frustration, the energy shifted.

We saw union bosses and superintendents who insisted it was unfair to say “schools weren’t open” when they were delivering asynchronous, virtual, part-time instruction a few hours a day or that it was unfair to “rush” schools into reopening, in January 2021, and that there was no such thing as learning loss. That seemed obviously nuts, and made it more than a little frustrating to watch educators argue for even more funding, or offer up a steady stream of excuses for why so many schools still weren’t open, why they couldn’t improve the quality of remote learning, and why they were intent on maintaining mask mandates for little kids.

Meanwhile, the same sorts of self-styled reformers who had once insisted that “No Child Left Behind,” the “Race to the Top” or the “Common Core” would transform American schooling again began to muse that schools needed some kind of expansive, expensive, amorphous “reset.” As a longtime skeptic of grand schemes and airy prose, all I could think was, “Here we go again.”

It all seemed to offer a series of false choices: Excuse bureaucratic ineptitude or endorse someone’s sweeping reform agenda. Excuse irresponsible union leadership or denounce public education in the most scathing terms.

While I heartily endorse universal school choice and want all parents to be able to make the kinds of educational choices that we made for our sons, I’m puzzled by the degree to which some school-choice advocates cheer performative screeds condemning “failing” public schools. After all, most Americans like their local schools. Even very real frustrations with how those schools handled the pandemic and the aftermath hasn’t really changed that. And this makes sense, because parents can both want more options and still like their local teachers and regard local schools as valued community institutions.

Finding middle ground

In many ways, the pandemic fights were a stark reminder that advocates, funders and education authorities of every stripe have spent recent decades urging parents to choose sides in debates where a sensible person is inclined to ask, “Why do I have to choose?”

During the pandemic, states suspended the annual tests that have irked so many teachers, and more than a few parents. But the result was that we had no real idea of how students were faring. When we finally started to see the results, it was a stark reminder that these results are useful. It turns out that most parents aren’t “anti-testing” — they’re against over-testing or what happens when schools start to feel like test-prep factories. Yet, somehow, in the decade following “No Child Left Behind,” there was constant pressure to take sides in some abstract debate.

As schools went remote, and then only gradually returned in-person, there were efforts to acknowledge the toll on students. This led many schools to suspend traditional grading, reduce workloads or adopt a variety of “equitable” grading practices (such as banning zeroes or doing away with deadlines). The problem is that kids are only human. If schools do away with deadlines or consequences, students will respond accordingly. In fact, it’s typically the least motivated students who tend to slack off the most, aggravating our “achievement gaps.” Yet, sensible efforts to balance empathy and expectations have been distorted into an academic parlor game by “grading for equity” ideologues who’ve no time to worry about practical consequences.

There’s no shortage of examples. Of late, these debates have played out most visibly in our culture clashes around gender. And yet, even there, it’s pretty clear that there’s copious middle ground. Most Americans think that schools shouldn’t be teaching kindergarteners about sex, allowing biological boys to play on girls’ high school teams, or hiding a child’s gender identity from their parents. But they support less disruptive accommodations and support efforts to protect children from bullying and harassment on the basis of gender.

What I’ve been most struck by in the wake of the pandemic is the reminder that education is ultimately an immensely practical endeavor. It’s about our kids and values, which makes it personal and contentious. But education also touches families in such an immediate way that, if we allow it to, it has the ability to cut through the abstractions and bring out the best in us.

That’s been in short supply of late. Here’s hoping we can do better.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Great School Rethink,” published by Harvard Education Press.