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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Don't call it a lost year
Let's learn from the pandemic to be better for kids
By Ben Churchill | September | October 2021
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At the end of the 2020-21 school year, a board member shared with me a quote by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami:
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain.
“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”
The last school year was not the year anyone imagined. It was difficult and painful; we missed out on many important things. But I don’t think we should call it a lost year or a wasted year.
Instead of focusing only on what we missed out on or lost, let’s also focus on what we learned and gained — and we continue to learn a lot as we come through the pandemic storm.
As educators and leaders, we have an obligation to our students to learn and grow from every experience. As we reflect on what might come next in post-pandemic schools and schooling, here are five recommendations for improving schools now and in the future based on what we’ve learned over the past year.
Let’s remember the importance of mental and emotional health — and not just for students
As a superintendent, I heard a great deal last year about students being disconnected — from their peers, from their teachers, from their sports and clubs, and the larger school community — as a result of school closures. Perhaps related to that disconnect was an increase in general stressors on students’ emotional health, as well as a higher incidence of serious mental health concerns. Our experiences last year highlighted the absolute importance of schools when it comes to the mental and emotional well-being of students.
And this applies to staff, too. Our teachers were at the receiving end of a lot of awful rhetoric last year, locally and nationally. I watched them struggle through the development of new skills (think distance learning, hybrid learning, synchronous and asynchronous instruction, new technology) all while navigating the impact of a global pandemic on their loved ones at home and their loved ones in the classroom. We saw again and again that teachers, principals and school staff are resourceful, flexible, creative and resilient. And we saw that mental and emotional health struggles are real for adults in school, too.
The mental and emotional health and well-being of our staff is critical to the mental and emotional health and well-being, and ultimately the success, of our students. We need to care for the people that care for our kids. One thing that’s really hit home for me throughout the pandemic is that academic growth and achievement are most possible when students and staff are safe, connected and emotionally healthy. Let’s carry this forward post-pandemic, too.
Let’s get comfortable with being uncomfortable
In our school district (and in districts across the country), educators are engaging in meaningful yet difficult discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re wrestling with racism and white supremacy, the marginalization of LGBTQ+ students and colleagues, the increasing number and intensity of services needed for students with IEPs, and much more. We saw that the pandemic disproportionately impacted some individuals and families more than others — including communities of color, families who couldn’t afford childcare, first responders, low-income workers and women who were forced to leave the workforce — and we’re struggling to bridge the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our classrooms.
Those conversations are often uncomfortable. But the impact of those discussions — not only on our historically disenfranchised student and family groups but on all of our students and staff — can change lives for the better.
So, let’s learn to be comfortable with uncomfortable discussions. For many educators, it might be easier and less disruptive to focus the energies of this year on post-pandemic recovery — to get back to “business as usual” — and to put equity work on the back burner. But that would be a mistake.
We must ensure that every single one of our students feels connected to school and to their future as productive citizens. In our district, we’re learning about and discussing unconscious bias, we’re engaging with voices unlike our own, and we’re listening to students and staff discuss their lived experiences. So much has happened over the past year to allow us to recognize the strengths of our diverse communities. Let’s continue this work. Let’s seek out diverse perspectives, let’s listen, let’s co-conspire, and let’s make our schools (and the world) a better place for everyone.
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Let’s double down on local community partnerships
Throughout the pandemic, our district was fortunate to have many excellent community partners with whom to collaborate and problem solve as we reacted to a rapidly changing public health situation. We started seeing #strongertogether as more than a hashtag — it became a general operating principle. We developed and/or expanded collaborative relationships with our knowledgeable (and previously unknown) public health officials at the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, with our outstanding San Diego County Office of Education staff, and with incredibly accessible experts at the University of California San Diego and at Rady’s Children’s Hospital.
Throughout the pandemic, we also collaborated more closely than ever with a wide variety of local stakeholders to solve new problems. In one example, parent volunteers from our PTAs worked with local businesses to establish a Grocery Gifts program to assist food-insecure families in our district. In other examples, our Carlsbad Educational Foundation and the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce partnered with schools to bridge gaps as they became apparent.
If we learned anything last year, it’s that schools are at the heart of communities across our country. Schools are about much more than teaching and learning; they’re everything from feeding kids to accessing mental health services to providing safe spaces while parents work.
In order to continue to offer such a wide variety of services, we need to maintain the partnerships we developed during the pandemic, and to find ways to expand and develop even more partnerships post-pandemic. By prioritizing local community partnerships as a mechanism to drive innovation in our schools, we’ll continue to solve problems collaboratively for the benefit of our students.
We saw again and again that teachers, principals and school staff are resourceful, flexible, creative and resilient. And we saw that mental and emotional health struggles are real for adults in school, too.
Let’s be intentional about technology use in schools
Like most school districts in California at the beginning of the pandemic, we unexpectedly found ourselves implementing a number of untested technology solutions to continue teaching and learning in a virtual or distance format. Despite having a comprehensive and proactive instructional technology plan at the time — including the deployment of one-to-one devices for all students — much of our equipment was insufficient for the requirements of pandemic-era online teaching and learning, like video conferencing and the use of more robust mobile applications. The training required for maximizing the use of new instructional technology was time-consuming. Many teachers reported feeling like they were learning to fly the plane after it had already taken off.
Technology fatigue set in
Now that we’re back to pre-pandemic teaching and learning in a brick-and-mortar setting, it’s understandable that many teachers, students and parents would like to do away with Chromebooks and technology-enhanced teaching and learning entirely. But we’d be missing a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the technology skills our students and staff have developed.
Let’s resist the urge to abandon technology, especially if we’re doing so as a result of fatigue. Because of the steep learning curve we were forced into, we now know so much about the effective use of technology for teaching and learning, when incorporated appropriately. Let’s use what we learned, and let’s be smart about it.
Our students and staff, whether we liked it or not, got a crash course in digital citizenship and online literacy last year. Let’s build on what we learned and continue to create opportunities for students to learn appropriate online behavior. Our students and staff also became aware of the possibilities for online collaboration and teamwork, and we should continue to develop the use of those skills in our students, as these will be critical workplace skills in the future.
That said, we must also continue to invest in our teachers’ training and development in the use of new technologies. Ongoing training and support, and the commitment to allocate time and resources to that support, are essential for keeping our skills fresh and our knowledge relevant, so that we’ll be better prepared for the next (unexpected) disruption.
Let’s continue to communicate, communicate, communicate
I’ve learned all too well that if there is not enough information publicly available about a topic of interest, some people will begin to create and share their own narratives. When it came to running a school district in the midst of a pandemic, timely communication to families and staff meant the difference between broad community support for what you were doing, or hundreds of emails and calls condemning a perceived lack of preparedness, common sense, or both.
We don’t have a public information officer position in our district, so districtwide communication responsibilities ultimately fall on my shoulders. Over the course of the pandemic, that meant developing, coordinating and sharing communications with families and staff on a weekly, daily and sometimes even hourly basis. It was a lot of work.
But it was some of the most important work I did as superintendent, and I’ll continue to make communication a top priority as a result. I don’t think it is possible to over-communicate.
Now that we’re back to a more “normal” school year, it’s imperative that we share the good news of what’s happening in our schools. We can do this by crowdsourcing our storytelling. School and district leaders have an easy and accessible way to widely share the wonderful things happening in schools: social media is an indispensable tool for sharing the good news about public education, and that good news can be amplified by encouraging all members of our school communities to contribute to the positive narrative.
By intentionally using a wide variety of media sources and strategies to share news and events with the community, school and district leaders can respond to diverse community interests and needs while keeping everyone in the loop on priorities and initiatives. It’s not easy — but it’s necessary in a post-pandemic world.
A storm unlike any other
To paraphrase Haruki Murakami, none of us today are the same person who walked into the COVID-19 storm. Our schools are not the same, either; let’s continue to work together to make sure that the long-term changes to our system are to the benefit of our students, staff and community.
Ben Churchill is the superintendent of the Carlsbad Unified School District.
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