In March we marked a milestone that all of us would have liked to avoid: two years of grappling with the challenges of educating students during a pandemic.
As we all know, public education will never be the same. As in-person instruction resumed and conditions allowed for masks to be removed, the daily life of a school is looking more “normal.”
But we also know that there are valuable lessons to be learned from this experience, and some changes are permanent — and beneficial.
Take online learning, for example. Experience has shown that it can help many children and serve as a valuable aid in education. There is no doubt that the pandemic jump-started the use of technology by many educators, who had to acquire skills and fluency quickly. Teachers will — and should — continue the increased use of technology in their instructional practices.
I think student mental health is another area that has been changed. Prior to the pandemic, educational leaders were certainly aware of an increase in student mental health issues. We have been talking about the need to educate the “whole child” for a long time. But I believe that the pandemic increased both the incidence of student mental health issues, and the awareness of them. I know from talking with other board members that districts are adding extra counselors, and starting initiatives like yoga, meditation and “Wellness Wednesday.” These are improvements that should persist.
Similiarly, our concerns about school security have broadened. Once upon a time, when we thought of school security, we meant physical security in our buildings. Discussions were about things like bulletproof glass and cameras in hallways. Those precautions are still important, but the pandemic and the increased use of technology has prompted districts to take a good look at cybersecurity. When our districts pivoted to online learning, there were increased worries (and incidences) of “Zoom-bombing,” ransomware, and fears about the theft of student information. The much-needed attention to digital security is a phenomenon that is here to stay. In fact, I know many organizations are finding their insurers are requiring certain cybersecurity steps be taken in order to qualify for insurance coverage.
The impact of the pandemic on students can’t be overstated. In my district, the president of the student body has said his main priority is to “bring back school spirit.” Students missed out on classes during COVID, of course, but they also missed celebrations, dances, homecomings, concerts and plays, extracurricular activities and athletic events. Those are the sorts of experiences that build a sense of joyful community in schools. To rekindle school spirit, our student body president is turning to some team-building activities that the students had in middle school, so their past experiences are showing them the way forward.
Ultimately, I am optimistic that school spirit will be in full bloom again, and that students will recover academically and emotionally. I am also optimistic that the beneficial byproducts of this awful pandemic will help us make our schools more effective than ever.