In a crisis being precise matters because every action comes with profound implications, for both the immediate crisis and for everything that follows. That’s why government must be clear about its plan for safely reopening B.C. schools.
B.C. is in a public health crisis. But that does not mean that we must also be in a public education crisis. We risk experiencing both crises at once – depending on the decisions we make in response to one real crisis (due to COVID-19) that could cause another potential crisis (in public education).
The COVID-19 public health crisis is not a crisis simply because of a virus, but rather it’s a crisis due to a lack of preparation. In a sense, this is nobody’s fault. Public health systems can’t be at full alert for every kind of health emergency imaginable. We simply can’t afford infinite preparation for infinite possibility.
In another sense, there are lessons to be learned in terms of our general preparation for COVID-19. These lessons connect to tragic losses in human life – because we weren’t prepared. We will find fault in what we failed to do through decades of past inaction and in the early stages of this pandemic. Learning from these lessons will help us be better prepared for the next new virus or public health emergency.
Because public health is not my area of expertise, I leave the public health lessons to others. I depend on their expertise, although we should all expect transparency and accountability when it comes to understanding what could be done better. Now our attention must focus on avoiding a public education crisis, which we must do quickly if we are to be prepared for the safe reopening of B.C. schools this fall.
As we look for approaches for adapting the provision of public education during COVID-19 we should focus on what makes public education truly work, avoiding half-measures, unrelated trends and fads, and any other pitfalls that could lead to a public education crisis – caused by our response to the pandemic.
The First Stages of the COVID-19 Crisis Called for Truly Emergency Measures
In the early days of the pandemic public education rightly shut down in support of public health. B.C. teachers and schools immediately launched into “emergency remote teaching” and demonstrated our considerable commitment to being connected with every student. But make no mistake about it: This was a partial shut down of public education.
Many (many, many) students were shut out and, as a result of this, had no access to education during the emergency phase of the crisis. Public-schools did this because the crisis called for it. Teachers, stretched beyond what most thought was possible, immediately reached out (by all available means) to provide continuity for as many students as possible.
While most would agree that all of this effort resulted in limited educational gains for most students, it was worth it because it kept many students engaged in their school communities and it supported public health officials at the time.
Now the crisis of unpreparedness is over. With the public health measures currently in place, including contact tracing, testing, treatment, increased hospital capacity, the provision of enough PPE, and other measures, it’s time for public education to adapt to the realities of COVID-19 – while fully continuing to provide all students with equitable public education. If we, the teaching profession, fail to do this then it’s our crisis now.
What Approach Will Work Best in the New COVID-19 Normal?
Teaching approaches are usually the domain of teachers and teaching pundits only, with the public generally not paying attention to the latest trends and fads of our sector. That’s one reason why few people, outside of certain education circles, really know the meaning of terms like “blended” “hybrid”, and “dual-track”.
What everyone should know is this:
- The above approaches work for some contexts but not for others.
- There are champions of each approach (and detractors too).
- Each approach comes with certain strengths (and weaknesses).
Also, beyond education punditry, few follow the related debates to these approaches, such as debates over corporatization of public-schooling, teacher automation, and digitization of teaching and learning.
One reason why these debates rarely reach a general audience is because the public is mostly focused on the existing approach. That current approach (the public-school model of public education) is centred on the following:
- Students in schools (where in-person instruction is the main focus).
- Students are assigned to teachers and classes (or courses).
- Adaptations and accommodations are provided to students – based on equity and need.
- Learning is supported through a school community.
- Teachers apply a range of teaching approaches (based on what is suitable for the context of their class and school).
For the vast majority of B.C. students and families, education takes place in the classrooms of the neighbourhood school and is centred on in-person student-teacher relationships. This approach is guided by teaching professionals who exercise professional autonomy in support of each student’s learning. Within this approach are appropriate uses of technology and devices, based on subject area and instructional content, age of students, and priorities of the school and classroom.
But not everyone agrees with the public-school model of public education. For a number of reasons, there are some proponents of massive changes in how students attend school and engage in their education. In place of public-schools there are calls for alternative models, that would replace schools with virtual communities or that would deskill teachers and use automated instruction in their place.
One alternative model would combine in-person teaching with computer-assisted learning. In this model students have a mix of platforms available and learn through a range of technologies. Another alternative model removes students and teachers from the classroom entirely, relying on digital communication, automated instruction, and “virtual” community. These models and approaches generate a lot of buzz at times (especially in education circles) but usually remain either on the fringes or in the realm of half measures (in large part due to lack of funding to implement the alternative model or a lack of buy-in by teachers and students).
Many of the proposed alternative platforms are also not adopted because teachers don’t find them useful or efficient. It’s hard to compete with the efficiency of classroom-based teaching and learning, where students and teachers are in the same room and the main motivation is the relationship itself. Public-schools are resilient, efficient, and effective. That’s why they remain a cornerstone of the public education system to this day.
We Must Continue to Address the Challenges and Shortcomings of Public Education, Even During COVID-19
There are many challenges in our schools. And there are many areas where public education is not living up to its promise of equity and fairness for all students. This must change. But that does not mean that the public education model itself should be replaced by something altogether different.
Public education provides safe and accessible spaces for students. It brings people from a community together. It provides adaptations and accommodations for students who need them. Public education has public oversight and accountability built in. It has teachers who practice professional autonomy to serve student needs and interests. Public education focuses on literacy, numeracy, understanding, critical thinking, community, and citizenship.
But now is not the right time to experiment with the overall system itself. Right now, our job is preventing a public health crisis from causing a public education crisis. The system we have now (based on in-person teaching and learning, relationships between students and teachers, and teachers’ professional autonomy) is the system that we must utilize in the immediate crisis before us – now.
No matter their merits in ordinary times, hybrid, blended, dual-track, whatever-you-call-them approaches won’t simply scale up to meeting the needs that public education already provided before COVID-19, certainly not in the two months we have between now and the start of the next school year.
Rather than adopt a new model, we should adapt the existing (pre-pandemic) model to the realities of COVID-19. First and foremost, schools and classrooms must be safe for students and educators alike. We can do this by adapting schools to the pandemic and by following the directions provided by public health agencies. We can also do this by making sure that students, families, and educators feel safe, such as by providing masks and face shields, changing routines, and reducing densities.
Once schools are safe, and feel safe, then we must provide individual accommodations for those who need them. Adaptations and accommodations are already part of the school system, so we can do this with existing systems (but more resources will be required). Finally, with schools reopen safely and accommodations in place, then we can focus on in-person and relationship-based teaching and learning.
Our schools are resilient communities already focused on meeting individual needs of students. Schools already know how to prioritize safety. Schools already know how to put the student first and foremost in teaching and learning. Teachers already know how to teach curriculum based on what works for their students. For some, this will be blended. For others, it will be hybrid. And for others still, it will be none-of-the-above. Teaching is a creative and responsive professional practice and there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to pedagogy.
In conclusion, avoiding a public education crisis now is as simple as 1-2-3: First, recognize teachers’ autonomy. Second, adapt schools to COVID-19. Third, provide students with accommodations – based on need.