YEAR-AHEAD SERIES, DAY 11: Duluth schools / COVID a chance to rethink education

This may sound odd considering the heartbreaking struggle of so many students, families, and staff members. As both a parent and an educator, I empathize deeply with the challenges and pain resulting from the pandemic. Yet I am filled with a profound sense of promise that the future of teaching and learning will be better than the pre-pandemic schooling we knew.

Last year exposed many hard truths that were always before us in education but never fully acknowledged. These inequities were obscured by a lack of voice, fear of change, and inadequate resources. Despite monumental efforts, education has remained the same for generations. COVID-19 did not create the inequities, but it made them far too evident to avoid.

Education, as we have known it, has been broken to pieces. As a society, we have a choice: resume what was or boldly create what should be. Through our struggles, we have learned so much about what truly matters and what we can do to make a difference.

It is our deepest responsibility not to forget what we have seen, heard, and felt. We must take these lessons learned, distill them to their most essential, and apply them to our future.

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People and relationships are our most important resources. No lesson is more clear. Yet our systems often neglect this. Modern American education was constructed from an industrial model. Too often, we looked at children as production-line units rather than the complex individuals they are.

As we welcome our students back, we must remember that each one has experienced hardship and loss. We need to support them in processing their experiences and help them grow. We all have a deep sense of urgency to “catch them up” in any way possible. We must treat them as whole beings in doing so, inspiring a love of learning, rather than pumping them full of dry remediation that will only push them into deeper disengagement.

Our teachers and staff are excited to have students safely return to our schools. We have witnessed countless acts of creativity, generosity, and dedication over these past months as they have tried to reach out and support children and their families. Reaching out and seeking to engage learners through new technology has been intellectually exhausting. Helping students and parents process their learning challenges and frustration has been heavy, emotional work. The compassion and appreciation we have for our educators must be remembered. Education and educators must be supported with the resources they will need to accomplish the mission before them.

As we have come to a deeper appreciation of our students’ and teachers’ needs, our understanding of the vital importance of families in supporting learning has grown. Parents and other supportive adults have sat side-by-side with children, supporting, encouraging, empathizing, and processing. We know we have had to ask again and again for patience and grace. We appreciate beyond measure all that families have done, and we need to remember this as we move forward. We must seek to engage families in new, meaningful, and inclusive ways that further enrich this vital relationship.

The beauty of these hard-won understandings, along with the opportunity for a renewal of education, are precisely what fill our hearts with the strength and courage to do what must be done: construct a better path and a brighter future for each of our children.

John Magas is superintendent of the Duluth school district. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune at the invitation of the Opinion page.

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