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Fully Reopening Schools is a Fully Bad Idea

(AP photo/Francisco Seco)

Hartford, CT — High-level strategists will often ask “How do we screw this up?” as a way of evaluating problems with a new proposal. Upon compiling responses, the next step is to develop a scheme that effectively avoids the obstacles that are recognized. I’m thinking of this process for building sustainable, strategic plans to Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, who  announced on June 25th that all public schools in Connecticut will fully reopen in the fall. His plan calls for impractical norms such as requiring students to keep masks on the entire school day, follow strict social distance rules, and prohibits things like gatherings in the cafeteria. This plan is stunning in its absurdity; it is as if the governor and his team answered “How do we screw this up?” but then stopped there and just made their thinking at that point the policy they shared with the public. 

The governor is understandably in a tight spot — Connecticut schools are a linch-pin in the state’s economic recovery. Parents who are surrogate teachers at home during virtual learning cannot also engage in work (or looking for work if they have already been laid off), so keeping children at home limits economic recovery. At the same time, the primary responsibility in a school is safety — physical and emotional safety is paramount in a school, for without it learning is impossible. Federal officials have repeatedly failed to lead a national response to the pandemic, so Lamont and his advisors are on their own to cobble together a pandemic response plan. However, even when weighing all these factors, the plan to fully reopen schools is short-sighted, impractical, and unsafe. 

This plan will effectively turn teachers into enforcers of rules, not educators. Real learning will not be possible as teachers harang students to wear their masks all day or to remain at least six feet away from each other (just pause for a moment to think about your own experience as a student and recall the number of times you were in a classroom where it was possible to be six feet away from every other person in that room). Even if additional teachers can be hired to reduce the size of groups of students, as the plan calls for, their daily tasks in this plan won’t be teaching and students won’t be learning with their masks up and separated from others. Teachers are often the last stop, the group who will sacrifice what is good for themselves in order not to let students get short shrift. This time, their collective selflessness can’t make up for a terrible policy decision. 

It is likely that a significant factor in this decision was the 12 week virtual learning experiment that occurred from March to June. By most (all?) accounts, student engagement during online learning was disappointing at best. It may be easy for the governor and others in similar positions to conclude that virtual learning can’t work, so schools need to reopened this Fall, at all costs. This conclusion though reveals a lack of understanding about online learning. When the ratio of students to teachers is significantly reduced (i.e.: 5 to 1 rather than 30+:1 typical in many public school classes) and the teachers serve as instigators or guides who support thinking rather than just sources of information, online learning is very effective and a powerful tool in supporting critical thinking skills, developing curiosity, and transferring understanding from one so-called subject to another. Trying to execute 3 months of online learning with no preparation or insufficient infrastructure isn’t sustainable. There is no way this method of school could succeed, and it should not be the thing the Governor is thinking about when he chooses to re-open schools in the Fall.  

Luckily, state officials need not develop alternative models out of thin air. Organizations like Global Online Academy have created online learning options and well-designed tools that can be adapted quickly by teachers and districts. GOA, and other similar organizations, already have in place the architecture for online learning that can help students receive the engagement they desire and teachers the tools they need to connect with students through an uncertain time. 

As the pandemic presents simultaneous economic, political, and emotional challenges that we have not encountered before, the pathway through these challenges cannot be based on business as usual. Governor Lamont’s plan does not demonstrate visionary leadership. Rather, it jeopardizes the health and safety of students and teachers by trying to return to a framework for education that is neither physically safe, logistically viable, nor pedagogically sound. 

The Governor and his advisors would do well to postpone the start of the school year for up to several weeks to enable teachers and administrators the time to collectively study successful online learning models and develop the plans to successfully implement them. With a viable virtual learning model in place, Connecticut schools have a chance to serve students and families across the state. To continue with his plan as it was stated last week will only offer continued disruption in the short term; in the long term, it may be a textbook example in the future of how to make an unprecedented situation even more screwed up.

The ’96 Draft

susan sterner kobe draft

Kobe Bryant, draft night Susan Sterner/AP

I listened to a podcast last week by a couple of basketball nuts who are missing the NBA games right now but won’t be deterred from talking about it fervently. With great excitement, they analyzed the 1996 NBA draft, and did a “redo” — they re-drafted the top 14 players based on how those players’ careers actually panned out. With the benefit of hindsight, the results are quite different. It’s fun to listen to stuff like this in this time as it doesn’t really matter, and there’s no doom-and-gloom. However, there’s something below the surface worth paying attention to as someone who cares about education. 

The ‘96 draft was noteworthy because of how badly the general managers of NBA teams at the time misevaluated the skills and projected contributions of the players in it. The podcasters point to Kobe Bryant — drafted 13th by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers — as an indicator of this GM shortsightedness. Over the next twenty years, Bryant would become one of the top players who ever played the game. Many who mourned Bryant’s death in January described him as transcendent. The 13th pick is usually for the caliber of player who is a starter for 5-6 years on your team — not a flashy spot, but consistent. Letting Bryant fall this far means that most of the general managers didn’t recognize what was in front of them. 

The context of that time matters. Bryant did not go to college and the year before, Kevin Garnett also made the leap from high school directly to the NBA. Basketball purists, which general managers typically are, were highly suspicious of Garnett and Bryant. To them, these young guys were “doing it wrong”: proper basketball players spent a few years in college to prove their worth before entering the NBA. Jumping straight to the NBA was shocking, even egotistical, and certainly disrespectful to the status quo. 

These front office experts couldn’t see past this blind spot of asking “who did these guys think they were?” to evaluate their talent objectively. Before these two skipped college, it had been twenty years since Moses Malone went right to the NBA from high school, so, for the GMs in the 90s almost none had working memory of this model for success. (Garnett wasn’t transcendent, but he became a top player for over a decade. He quickly gave the Timberwolves the legitimacy it lacked in the six years since the team was formed as an expansion franchise). 

In addition to not being able to evaluate Garnett and Bryant without bias, basketball officials at the time also couldn’t see that this was the start of a trend, not just a blip. In the time since, the NBA has been reshaped by a generation of younger, better prepared athletes who are ready to compete at the highest levels. We have the benefit of 24 years of examples to point to in order to recognize the gigantic shift in the league. Unfortunately, for those in positions of power in the NBA back then, the 12 GMs who didn’t select Kobe Bryant now look like total chumps.  

There are parallels in education. COVID has monumentally disrupted teaching and learning around the world. This is no blip — the impact will be long-lasting. However obvious the disruption is, it is not clear what we will learn from it or how we will decide to shape the future of education. Just as there was no model to shape the basketball executives’ thinking, so too do we lack an obvious model for education post-COVID. Education around the world is positioned for a big shift following the drastic measures imposed on us by closing schools and going to emergency remote learning so abruptly. 

Educators, students, schools are not just on a break from routines which we can all snap back into once we return to school houses around the world. Some of the true merits of learning together are emerging in ways that can’t be unseen. One of the widespread “aha” realizations is that learning is fundamentally social — we can’t expect to learn substantively without meaningful engagement and connection with one another. Similarly, there are parts of schooling that were strained before being expelled from our physical learning spaces. Some of what has been revealed: that grading virtual learning is quite different from previous forms of assessment, that solely focusing on content acquisition online isn’t sufficient if you want students to be engaged, that school rules which are purely about compliance quickly become obsolete. Additionally, questions about equity are visible in a new way, and they can’t be ignored.

Just as GMs needed a new perspective in the 1990s, our time requires those who can see and articulate a model of sustainable, equitable education. The stakes are much higher and the rewards are less glamorous than in hoops — can you imagine an educator being considered “transcendent” by the masses? Their internal motivation has to be strong enough to absorb the criticism that comes with attempting to go into uncharted space. There is no more important work though; our time craves those with the confidence to believe that they can make the leap away from what we once knew to be the status quo.