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During the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic of 2009-2010, I was a classroom teacher just beginning my doctoral journey. I remember the concern escalating as several schools shut their doors for days or weeks to disinfect shared spaces and slow the spread of a flu for which we were not prepared. Though several school systems around me shut down, my school system was not significantly affected. However, I remember wondering what that would do to education as a whole. How would we handle a large-scale epidemic, or worse, a pandemic, that required widespread, long-term school closings?
The seismic shift caused by COVID-19 and necessary social distancing measures creates significant challenges. As of March 30, 2020, it is estimated that 89.5% of all students worldwide, just over 1.5 billion students, have been displaced from school due to this crisis (UNESCO, 2020). That’s 188 countries that have closed schools. Though the United States has not yet taken the step of a nationwide closure, several states including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Virginia and Vermont have closed school buildings for the rest of the school year at the time of this writing (Strauss, 2020). In addition, several more states have declared that school buildings are closed with no published end date: among those are California, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The exponential growth of the virus with no known cure has left us with no other choice than to starve it (Wolfson & Wilson, 2020). Hence, the increasing prevalence of closed schools.
As an assistant principal at a middle school in a small Texas town, the picture looks a little different for us. We are currently under a statewide shelter in place order until May 1st. We have been directed by the governor, as have all Texas schools, to provide instruction to the best of our ability until we return. It is not hard to see that educational technology is the answer. The hard part is determining exactly what the question is.
Various school districts have implemented this order to differing degrees. My previous school district is doing their best to recreate school, with synchronous meetings among classes, extensive use of LMS systems, students following their regular schedule for classes, and grading done as usual: the whole 9 yards. Other school districts have taken the opposite approach, simply checking in with students, perhaps providing a paper packets to those students who request them, but largely hitting the pause button until school resumes.
My school and my school system are fortunate to be in a better place in this crisis. Our students already had 1:1 Chromebooks. Our teachers were already well-versed in the use of Google Classroom, Flipgrid, Quizlet, Kahoot, and the countless other educational technology applications teachers use to educate students. The bigger question is what we should do with that technology and that knowledge. The space between hitting the pause button and continuing on with school is a mighty chasm. Deciding what school in this emergency situation should look like is a decision that leaders have to make with the knowledge that educational technology provides the answers they seek.
Make no mistake, what we are seeing is not the best that distance learning and educational technology can offer. What we are seeing is triage—emergency education. And our educators are doing an admirable job in the blink of an eye and with a shoestring budget. But this crisis makes clear that we have the answers we seek as long as we spend the time and effort necessary to illuminate the correct questions.
Strauss, V. (2020, April 3). Growing list of states say they are closing schools for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/31/california-inches-closer-joining-list-states-expected-keep-schools-closed-2019-20-school-year/
UNESCO (2020, March 30). COVID-19 educational disruption and response. UNESCO. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse
Wolfson, E. & Wilson, C. (2020, April 3). Is the U.S. 'Flattening the Curve?' Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5809038/coronavirus-flatten-curve/