COVID is more than a Virus; it is an Opportunity Knocking

For the last couple of weeks, I have been in virtual meetings at the state, national, and global levels about the impact of COVID on the education community and possible solutions to the problems caused by the virus. To their credit, educators across the world have dug in their heels, facing the problem squarely on and addressing the issue creatively. The issues being faced are similar, ranging from student engagement to the logistical issues of attendance and a lack of bandwidth. I am outside the classroom looking in, but over the last week, COVID has made a personal appearance in my life.

I had to travel out of state to Salt Lake City for medical attention. Unfortunately, Utah is experiencing a spike in COVID cases, forcing a shortage of ICU beds and sending the medical community scrambling. Two of my appointments were canceled; one changed to a virtual session in my hotel room and the other rescheduled. Despite the inconvenience, I was able to create a plan of treatment with my medical team before making my long drive home. During the drive, I was able to reflect upon my personal experience as well as the experiences shared in the scholastic meetings. I resolved to research any positive impact of the COVID pandemic on education.

The findings provide me with a level of hope for the future.

To explore these benefits, I asked a group of State Teachers of the Year and finalists from Nevada about their perceptions and measured those against a September 2020 report from the Brookings Institute.

Despite the political cloud created by schools not opening and some dissatisfaction with the education community, there has been a rise in the level of respect for teachers and the profession. This is noted by both entities but expressed differently. The Brookings report describes a newfound recognition of how essential schools are in society while teachers speak of community and personal engagement created by reaching into the homes of their learners. This has translated to high-quality parent conferences that have been more flexible and well attended.

While teachers describe being more socially comfortable, they also express coming to terms with being in the uncomfortable role of being a learner. They feel the vulnerabilities their students feel with the learning process. This has led to a deeper sense of empathy and a search for more effective pedagogy. The Brookings Institute termed this a “leapfrog moment” as all stakeholders moved forward.

Despite the social environment of a typical school, teaching can be the loneliest of jobs. True collaboration can be rare, making innovation difficult or cumbersome. Brookings says innovation has moved from the margins to the center of the education community as new strategies are identified and tested. The Nevada teachers describe an increase in peer support and communication. They describe the process of performing self-care while teachers support teachers. There is a true feeling of togetherness in this new environment as opposed to being independent contractors sharing a parking lot.

Brookings describes an acceleration in the recognition of education inequity. This inequity is not just the lack of digital technology or internet connections, it is also the learners’ ability to use the technology even if they do have it. What has been sold as digital tools to school districts hardly suits the needs required for highly technical design and science classes. Even if a digital connection is available, that connection can be unstable even in an urban setting, or the connection/technology might be shared within the family. The teachers recognize that although young learners may be digital natives, they are hardly digitally savvy. When it comes to using digital technology as a tool instead of a toy, these natives are foreigners.

Teachers recognize they can bring people into the classroom who were not available in the past. They are meeting that expanded community on their grounds instead of having them physically appear in the classroom. Brookings describes this as developing new education allies. There are actors in the community who would love to share their expertise with the learners, but these actors have their own schedules and responsibilities, making physically entering a classroom a burden as opposed to a pleasure.  New players in the form of concerned parents and welfare organizations are seeing the ability to do virtual visits as a boon to sharing ideas and developing a larger sense of community.

The genie is out of the bottle, making the opportunity for American education reform a reality.

The deadly inconvenience of the pandemic needs to be seen in a positive light as an opportunity to restructure education and change it to suit the ever-developing needs of learners, society, and the business community. At one time, schools were the social centers of the community. There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of districts, teachers, learners, and community members to make schools a place to harness new ideas regarding technology use, dissemination, and engagement. They must become a model of what it is to be a life-long learner with the ability to flex and grow with a changing society. The conclusion of the Brookings report puts it in perspective by stating, “We acknowledge that emerging from this global pandemic with a stronger public education system is an ambitious vision and one that will require both financial and human resources. But we argue that articulating such a vision is essential and that amid the myriad of decisions education leaders are making every day, it can guide the future.”

Our students deserve a public-school system that is sensitive to the needs created by a rapidly unfolding and uncertain future. It is time to look COVID in the eye and see it as an engine for change in the American education system. If the stakeholders of the community are unable to come together and provide a dynamic education system of exceptional quality, we will have failed to make the most out of this opportunity to build anew.

While working on this post, I received an email from PBS TeacherLine. After working as a national facilitator for the last decade-and-a-half, I was informed by the 20-year-old organization that they were going to fold camp as of January 1, 2020. The primary reason for closing was a lack of interest in taking online graduate-level courses. COVID was finally on my doorstep and I thought I could hear opportunity knocking.

John Tierney spent over three decades in the classroom as a social studies teacher.  In 2016 he was named Nevada State Teacher of the Year and in 2017 he became an NEA Global Fellow for China. He was a national facilitator for PBS TeacherIne and  currently serves as the chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council for Great Basin College and as a member of the Nevada State Superintendent's Teacher Advisory Cabinet. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa.

© 2017 NNSTOY, All Rights Reserved
Website by David Taylor Design | NJ Website Design Company