Nearly one year ago, Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic. And while we are very much still in it, it is already clear that this disruption will alter the fabric of public education as we know it.
Many public schools have been shuttered as educators have been asked (in many cases little more more than the scant resources to which they are accustomed) to shift the locus of learning from the physical to the virtual.
School districts in locked-down parts of the world adopted their own response to the crisis, each one informed by advice from politicians and, at times, from public health experts.
While they all differed in flavour, they shared in common a vague and urgent directive that all learning, somehow, must now happen remotely.
This Great Pivot in modern public education has been a relatively swift one, if you consider that its policymakers are not exactly known for adaptability. Public education is something of a barge: it carries a lot, but it is a cumbersome thing. It can alter course if it must, though when it does, it takes a long time to slow the inertia of the way things have always been done.
But shift it did. Overnight, the notion of the ‘classroom’ was blown open, as school boards grappled with the need to reach and teach millions of children in districts in various degrees of lockdown. Never have schools confronted a crisis of this nature and magnitude.
Naturally, roadblocks arose. Wifi became a lifeline. Teachers called on publishers to grant emergency access to digital textbooks. Also, there was the matter of some students seeming to vanish.
Gone were the extra-curriculars, like sports and clubs (which no longer sound like ‘extra,’ but rather, the very stuff that make up the spirit of school). Sports and clubs. Breakfast programs. After-school tutoring.
And gone were little moments of connection which suddenly seemed paramount to human connection. One week, connection was a fist bump in the hall. The next, it was a box on a Zoom call: muted mic, video off. A toneless email. Silence.
The sudden separation — this disconnection — was, for teachers and students alike, at best, jarring experience.
At worst, it spelled a quiet trauma beginning to unfold, whose effects may be felt long after we are out of this. The ‘we’ here includes students, parents, teachers, and anyone with a stake in public education — which is, frankly, all of us.
Still, this period of change has not been entirely bereft of victories and reasons for hope. For one, educators have been able to provide many students with something that seems like a distant notion: normalcy.
Continuity of learning, and an attempt to replicate the routines to which young people have grown accustomed — attendance, lessons, homework — has given many young people a kind of structure at a time when very little feels in our control. At a time of rapid social flux, when all our places of gathering have been closed, school goes on. It has been a case study in resilience.
Still, virtual learning is, at best, a shadow of a shadow of ‘the real thing.’ What has become obvious is that the spirit of a so-called 21st century education rests not its access to the latest tools new technologies, but on its ability to facilitate and foster rich, in-person, interaction between human beings.
Are we paying attention to this fact? Face-to-face human connection is, we are discovering, at the nexus of the learning experience, and it cannot be properly and fully replicated by any amount of digital innovation.
If remote learning has taught us anything, it is in the way it has opened our eyes to the social inequities that have existed in our public education systems for decades. A virtual education has not isolated students, but rather, has shed light on those students who were at risk of isolation to begin with: students in precarious living situations, with parents working several jobs and living below the poverty line, are simply unable to be as readily equipped for remote learning as their more privileged peers.
Many school boards have sought to address this gap by funneling scarce resources toward ensuring these students have the tools they need. But putting tech in the hands of students who lack the conditions for optimal learning — secure wifi, a room of their own, proximity to libraries, access to a caring adult — is to view technology as a panacea. It is not.
Despite a proliferation of devices, young people are harder to reach than ever. And they are struggling.
Reports from psychologists confirm what educators are observing as the pandemic wears on: that school disruptions are wreaking havoc on young people’s mental health, and that we have an unprecedented crisis on our hands.
In America, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among young people. KidsHelpPhone, Canada’s crisis line for youth, reports that the number of young people seeking help with a crisis has risen steadily in 2020. The data does not lie, and it is showing us that students are feeling sad, afraid, and alone.
The kids, it seems, are not alright.
Though it has been almost a year since the Great Pivot, and while educators and students have adapted to new ways of learning, another more urgent need is becoming apparent.
Faced with this new reality, educators are once again called on to pivot once more, to shift away from curriculum delivery as the primary objective of education toward an emphasis on the mental well-being of all students.
This pivot is arguably greater because the challenge is profound, and the stakes are high. And it must be taken seriously: ‘mental health’ must be more than a phrase spoken by leaders without the resources to back it up. More than a concern of the social workers who for too long have had to carry the burden of this task for an entire school community.
A commitment to mental health must inform the design and emphasis of entire school systems across the district for the next several years. And it must, like the first pivot, happen quickly. We must be nimble, because as with every other aspect of the pandemic, time is no time to lose.
The first Great Pivot was made to preserve the system. This next one must be made to save lives. Failure to make mental health the current top priority would spell catastrophe, and its ripples would be felt for years to come.
The pandemic marks a watershed moment for public education. There is much at risk: a generation of students asked to navigate a disruption of routine and continuity of learning; faith in the system’s ability to ensure that no students are left to ‘fall through the cracks.’
Yet at the same it it marks a time of great potential. In years to come, we may look back on this time and recognize it as a catalyst for change in the way nurture the minds of our young people. The time we asked ourselves the questions that matter. Not to tell them to listen up, but to show up, and tell them we’re listening.