A few weeks ago, I participated in a webinar with K-12 students, parents and teachers about how online learning is going. You might be surprised to hear that the news was not all bad. The students, in particular, had some good things to say about their virtual experience: They liked that teachers were focusing more on everyone’s mental health and wellbeing, and less on grades. They liked that the standardized tests for the year had been cancelled.
The gift of a crisis is that it reveals to us what really matters. And this particular crisis has revealed what matters in education, and what doesn’t. At a time when we are trying to do the best we can with limited resources, the things that aren’t critical have fallen away out of necessity. If the test was really important, we’d be holding on to it.
This pandemic may be unprecedented in its nature and scale. But the problems it has exposed are not.
Here are the things we have learned are actually the most important. First of all, children cannot learn without access to adequate food. For many students, school was previously their only source of breakfast and lunch, and school districts around the country set up food pickups for families who need it during remote learning. Access to technology, we have learned, is also critical. Millions of children don’t have reliable access to the internet on a computer or tablet that can be used for schoolwork. Millions lack broadband. Internet providers and businesses have in some cases stepped up to help. Without these basic needs met, learning cannot take place—and that was true before the pandemic.
A focus on social and emotional wellbeing, previously considered a nice add-on to the school day, is now understood to be critical. When children are scared and grieving, when their lives are in a state of upheaval—as many children’s lives were even before the pandemic—it’s very difficult for them to learn what a simile is, or how to add fractions. And if the adults are not doing well socially and emotionally, the children cannot do well either.
All of us can benefit from strengthening our skills to express what we are feeling and manage our emotions in a healthy way. Effective social and emotional learning in the classroom, though, cannot occur in a vacuum. It has to apply an equity lens to ensure the wellbeing of all children—particularly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, low-income, and other historically marginalized students, many of whom have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
The interconnectedness of schools and families has been laid bare this past year, and we now understand how significant that partnership is. Whether it’s figuring out how the school day will be structured or simply making sure everyone has the right Zoom links, we learned that educating our children requires a collective effort. Parents, teachers, school and district administrators, community members, and local politicians and business owners have had to depend on each other and work together. When we did not give each other grace, neglected transparent communication, or used blame and shame, the work could not get done and our children suffered. When we allowed and forgave mistakes, participated in collective brainstorming, and pooled our resources, we could work as a team to create a tapestry of support for them.
As it turns out, many of the things that educators and community members have spent years advocating for are not just “nice to have.” They are essential to the health and wellbeing of all of us, especially our children. More counselors and translators, more technology resources, more family engagement coordinators, more support from businesses to provide hardware, hotspots, meals, and other essential items. More equitable distribution of these resources. Had these things been in place prior to the pandemic, remote learning might have been a bit less painful. We learned that we cannot pay lip service to centering equity and anti-racism, because when a crisis hits, we are left with gaping holes that privilege some and disadvantage others.
Above all, 2020 has taught us the wisdom in the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, and in the Chinese proverb that a child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark. We’ve realized just how much we need each other. That’s what truly matters.
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.