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What Schools Think About the Back-to-School Dilemma

By August 6, 2020

By: Jon Fee and Devi Thomas, Remote Workers and Parents of School-Aged Children

“Should they stay or should they go now?
If they go, there will be trouble
And if they stay it will be double (not necessarily)
So come on and let me know…”

You know the rest. This seems to be the conversation every parent, teacher, and student is having these days. It’s not an easy conversation. As the song goes, there are problems in every direction.

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing “the what.” What is it about going back to school or back to campus that we are trying to fix, help, replicate at home? Defining “the what” is not easy and it’s unique to every student. Teachers know this. Parents like us are learning.

School is the sum of its parts. Many parts are tangible. Many are not. A school also benefits from a vast network of other schools, sharing best practices and modern approaches.

Our education community at is giving us new insights into the nuances of the conversation every day with new dimensions that are worth more consideration. Because schools are so good at learning from each other, we thought we’d take their lead and share what we’re learning from some of our trailblazing partner schools that are leading through change.

Student wearing mask

There’s no playbook for a global pandemic.

First, what do the students say?

Zak Landrum, Director for the Center for Applied Technology at Westmont College, says student success starts by listening to the technology natives. “Invite student creativity into the process of whatever challenge it is that you’re facing,” Landrum says. “As we went remote, one of the big learnings has been watching our student team emerge with tools like Slack. They’re technology natives, so trust them to participate.”

Parents and teachers aside, students have an important perspective on how to learn. School districts and systems across the world ran plenty of stakeholder surveys, and we hope they included the student voice–no matter the age.

Darcy Van Patten, Executive Director of Digital Transformation at the University of Arizona, says empathy goes a long way. “When we needed to go remote, we were ready because we understood what students needed. A lot of what they needed was empathy; understanding of the kind of challenges they were facing in moving to remote learning.”

Second, flexibility and collaboration could mean better experiences.

The limitations caused by COVID-19 are resulting in unforeseen benefits for many, like greater flexibility and increased collaboration–we’ve seen this in our own workplace dynamics.

Flexibility can be a means to streamlined processes, says Mark Bazin, Chief Technology Officer for Cristo Rey Network, which comprises 37 K-12 Catholic college preparatory schools that serve 12,000 students in 24 states. “One of the biggest things we’ve learned is [the importance of] being flexible enough with what we’re doing to allow for variability,” Bazin says. “But [it’s] also one of the biggest wins for us as well—how we’ve gone from things that were 37 different ways, to now one way, while still allowing for lots of flexibility.”

Similarly, schools that were planning on reopening this fall are creating a new blueprint–some in just two months–on how virtual learning can give students the education they need to advance. For example, the University of Kentucky has created an impressively comprehensive playbook detailing how the Commonwealth’s flagship institution will get its 50,000 students, faculty, and staff back on campus safely this year. Like most of us, schools have no experience in making these decisions–this is their first pandemic, too–but that’s not stopping them from leading through change.

When it comes to working with education colleagues through a screen, Debbie Williams, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Arizona State University, recommends embracing change to address everyone’s needs. “Embrace your fear, and embrace the idea that it doesn’t have to be just your project. But we had a lot of stakeholders, and everyone was equally committed to success.”

Administrators, teachers, and staff are struggling with micro decisions for a macro challenge: What about PE? What about masks on campus? How will guidance counseling work if we can’t intervene early enough? Will students graduate with what they need for high school, college, a job, a career, and to face the world today?

“There’s no such thing as a bad question,” says Florence Parodi, an IT Director at the University of Miami. “It‘s all about the people. There’s so much that we can share with each other. Connecting with people is the most important piece of the puzzle.”

Third, students are people first.

“For students, even limited human contact gives them the courage to work more boldly in the digital world,” says Marlene Tromp, President of Boise State University.

Truer words have never been spoken. As parents who see this in our own kids’ behavior as they grow into adults before our eyes, we know first-hand that children are motivated by a sense of belonging–not just with family, but with friends. Students share a common experience with their peers and a similar motivation to learn together and from one another–something that Canadian teen, Liv McNeil, portrayed so powerfully in her viral short film, Numb.

This social aspect is perhaps the most unmeasurable of all the factors when considering reopening schools, and arguably the most important. We are learning that the psychological benefits of a full support system in a robust community is essential to learning.

Whether back at school or learning from home, community is integral.

Whether back at school or learning from home, community is integral.

Lastly, teamwork makes the dream work.

So many of us want the same thing for our littles, our teenagers, our future leaders: Learning environments that are equitable, safe, and connected from anywhere. Working through the challenges facing our schools today is not a competition. After all, schools are part of a much larger system–one that is embedded in our neighborhoods, communities, and cities. We need all of our schools to be successful, equitable, and productive to win.

Arizona State University President, Michael Crow, said, “To build more resilient institutions, higher ed needs a lot more cooperation between colleges and universities, where they can share assets (like courses) and have relationships to take advantage of each other’s strengths. Then, we need more partnerships with the private sector in terms of technology enhancement and capability.”

Whether those partnerships are forged between institutions or built among neighbors, teamwork is the common denominator to ensuring no student is left behind. And with the uncertainty around the resumption of traditional in-class learning, people are getting creative–and defining a whole new meaning for teamwork–in their own backyards (literally and figuratively).

Many of us have taken to “pod dating” by sizing up our neighbors on hygiene, curriculum preferences, and student compatibility. We are learning about one another in a whole different way and making new classrooms right out our front doors. We are learning to be flexible and open to new ideas because if we all just give a little, we will gain a lot more. We are learning we are in this together. Who said the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child was dead? In this new era of education by committee, it’s the only thing we’re really sure of.

If there’s been one constant throughout the course of this pandemic, it’s speed. Life as we knew it quite literally morphed overnight and we’ve been forced to change, adapt, and grow faster than ever before–especially in the education sector. There is no playbook for a global pandemic, and every school’s reopening journey will look different. There’s a lot we don’t know right now, but one thing we’re sure of is how thankful we are to the innovative leaders and trailblazing schools that are supporting each other through the uncertainty.