Paul Darvasi

Avashia’s concerns speak to the widely reported phenomenon that the fracture lines of inequity that have long plagued US schools became alarmingly pronounced during COVID, as vulnerable groups were disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. Economic disparities widened while in-person school support systems in poorer schools – ranging from counseling to community support and food programs – disappeared when classes moved online, with direct consequences to mental health, racial achievement gaps and inaccessiblity due to technological limitations.

In many cases, already underfunded schools were left to try and support struggling students and families whose situations – due to evictions, job loss, overcrowding, mental health issues or illness – deteriorated during the pandemic. But family support from schools is significantly constrained by a scarcity of resources.

“The pandemic really highlighted how easy it is to fall for vulnerable families and how fragile our safety nets are, and so schools were left to do a lot of sewing up of the safety nets, which is a tremendous amount of human capital,” said Avashia. “In our school, we would fundraise to get that cash to them from our pockets because there wasn’t a structural way to do that. Our mechanisms for supporting families have to be a lot more robust and they have to be able to respond to the needs of families.”

Stability at home is a vital precondition for successful learning, and the pandemic underscored the urgency to better equip schools to support economically challenged families. A return to normal and/or intensified learning schemes would only further disenfranchise the most vulnerable sectors of society. But how can meaningful changes be enacted? According to Reich, the pandemic revealed how much things actually can change. 

“There are lots of things in our school system that previously looked totally fixed and completely immovable that now everybody realizes are contingent and changeable,” he said.

“A Pragmatic Strategy for Gradual Reinvention”

The authors view the learning loss and “back to normal” narratives as symptomatic of governance where policymakers issue broad directives without consulting those who are most directly affected by their decisions.

“The disconnect between the local level and the policy level has never felt more intense to me than it has been,” said Avashia. “It’s like erasing your lived experience. It’s not responding to it. It’s not allowing schools to meet kids where they’re at or support them. We’re all being subjected to such intense institutional violence because the people making the decision have no willingness and no clue as to what it’s like to be young in school today.” 

Also, the authors argue that blanket policies are ineffective at addressing a mosaic of highly localized needs and circumstances, a reality made apparent by the sheer variety of divergent experiences shared by the report’s respondents. The myriad of views, opinions and experiences is not lost on school leaders, as many of those interviewed openly wondered how they might bring their fragmented communities on the same page. 

In lieu of top-down centralized policy, such as one-size-fits-all learning loss remediation programs, the authors recommend leveraging their user-centred design charrettes. This approach enlists relevant stakeholders, including students, educators, families and school leaders to help articulate, identify and solve issues that directly address their unique needs and circumstances. Charrettes require a very small investment of time, energy and resources, but can yield powerful dividends. 

The perspectives of stakeholders at school. (From “Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID” by Justin Reich and Jal Mehta)

The charrettes run by the researchers for the report included an “amplify, hospice and create” activity, where participating stakeholders were asked to consider what pandemic learning experiences they would keep and grow (amplify), what experiences should be retired (hospice) and the “create” activity asked participants to chart a tangible courses for implementation. 

“It’s important to delve a little bit into different people’s perspectives,” said Mehta. “To that end, the amplify, hospice and create activity is quite doable. It only takes 75 – 90 minutes, and all you really need is a meeting where you put people into manageable sized groups. If you’re doing it with the whole faculty or a wide group of faculty and students, you probably want to do it in groups of eight to ten.”

The design charrettes yielded a number of actionable initiatives that might help improve future schools. Some of these include implementing Zoom-style chat features in regular classes because they encouraged shy students to participate, continuing to hold parent-teacher conferences online, emphasizing depth over breadth by scheduling fewer but longer classes, increasing engagement through personalized learning programs, shifting from punitive to restorative disciplinary action, and building-in more time and space to reflect and connect.

“If you’re remote, you can run a charrette with Google Document or Google Slides,” said Mehta. Each group gets a slide with amplify, hospice and create. After an hour, have people look across the slides to see what things popped up again and again to decide what to move forward. Schools are just resuming, so while it’s still fresh, while everybody still remembers what happened last year, I think that this exercise would be really powerful.” 

A helpful toolkit in the appendix provides support material to effectively interview teachers and students, and guidelines to run a charrette with an amplify, hospice and create focus. These initiatives are contextualized by an acknowledgement that everybody is tired, and that change will not happen overnight. The upcoming year should be seen as an opportunity for reflection and recovery, and the charrettes can be used to support what the report terms a “pragmatic strategy for gradual reinvention.”

The Possibility of Making the Impossible, Possible 

Also, the charrettes asked participants to think about metaphors that capture the future of schools, such as “school as temple” or “school as family reunions.” These conceptual frames can act as big picture “tentpoles” to help guide and synchronize the efforts of the learning community.   

“A lot of the early planning documents for this last pandemic year were organized as checklists. That was kind of like the dominant rhetorical structure of policy advice to schools. And we thought: you cannot communicate one hundred and seventy three point checklists to families,” said Reich. “It is better to communicate one, two, or maybe three big ideas about what the response to the pandemic might look like and let people organize themselves around those big ideas, so that a high school biology teacher and a first grade teacher can both find themselves in those ideas. We went to metaphors this time.”

Unlike a contained checklist of bullet points, metaphors are generative and open a structured mental space to think creatively about practicable possibilities for building better schools. 

The common thread that runs through all these voices, proposals, aspirations and visions for the pandemic-informed future of school is a resounding call for more humane schools. And, it is important to remember that, rather than being at odds with academic success and learning, an emotionally healthy and community-focused learning environment will only heighten engagement and make lessons learned more meaningful and consequential. 

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