COVID-19 Should Help Us End Education Excuses

COVID-19 Should Help Us End Education Excuses
Mark Felix /The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP

COVID-19 has upended a lot of our preconceived notions about what we can and can’t do.

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“We can’t work from home,” but many of us now do.

“We can’t wear masks in public,” but many of us now do.

“Kids can’t learn remotely,” but many of our kids now are. And some of them are successfully learning remotely — even in some of our poorest of neighborhoods.

It’s amazing how much we can accomplish when we have to.

Improving public education was, for years, a daily obsession of mine. I served as Mayor of Baltimore and then as Governor of Maryland. We made Maryland public schools the number one public schools in America for five years in a row — in the middle of the last Great Recession. We had never achieved that distinction before or since, and yet — even with that sustained accomplishment — we were always slogging through preconceived notions about the limits of public education when it came to the success of teaching kids from poor families.

Perhaps the tragic urgency of COVID-19 will burst that stubborn bubble of excuses.

Ever since the COVID-19 curtain came down on school as we know it, many public schools with can-do leadership have been breaking free of convention to embrace the art and practice of necessity. They have provided students access to Wi-Fi and devices, and found creative ways to keep students and families engaged.

If you think you can or think you can’t, you are probably right.

Expectations become behavior.

At some public schools, success — in the face of this crisis — has become the expectation. Every kid is given a laptop computer. Every teacher is told that they have to, must, and can, learn to teach children remotely — and school leadership will help them. Every parent is told their cell phone numbers are needed so that — together — parents and teachers can make sure their children are online learning and not online gaming.

The pillars of success before the crisis are the same pillars for successful schools as we trudge through this crisis: 1) frequent and high-quality professional development grounded in data, 2) rigorous standards-aligned instruction that includes 1:1 technology and intervention and tutoring, and, 3) whole child and whole family support that includes after school programming, health and nutrition services, and family engagement programming.

On the first day of online learning, some of these schools reported that 70% of students showed up — online for class! — and stayed. Effective leaders of successful schools quickly figured out which students were online and then worked to remove those barriers whether it was lack of WIFI connection, lack of a passcode, or lack of some adult oversight at home. Some schools made themselves food distribution hubs so neighborhood families could get some meaningful help to feed children who were now going without school breakfast and school lunch. In exchange for the help with groceries, parents or guardians had to provide their cell phone numbers. For the first time in memory, these schools were now entrusted with every parent’s cell phone number — a thing that had been thought impossible to obtain before COVID-19. Some schools created automatic texts that went out to parents and guardians from teachers to let them know when their children were and were not online. And the learning continues.

So, has every public school done this?

No, not every public school has done this yet. Not every school has the flexibility or the business partners to do this yet. But every school could, and the ones that have are delivering for our kids. And it’s not because of some new whiz-bang online learning app. It’s not because of a magic new technology — although technology and the internet certainly make the adaptation possible.

It is about leadership — persistent, adaptive, and resilient leadership.

Progress is a choice. We can embrace new technologies for new ways of learning. We can collaborate. We can trust. If we choose to see this pandemic as something that is happening to us, we become victims. But if we choose to see it as something that is happening for us, then we can burst the bubble of low expectations.

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