Capitalizing on the Catastrophe: Emerging from the Pandemic to Serve All Students Better

By Dr. Jennifer Edic Bryant

As I reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education, I can’t help but be reminded of a story told by columnist Peter Hammill. He shares about a coastal village in Puerto Rico with small, humble dwellings built from wooden boards and nails. Located in a hurricane zone, the village is invariably hit by storms frequently. The village’s structures are torn apart by the hurricane and washed out to sea. One would think that the villagers would have quickly resolved to move away from the coastline and build their community in an area safer from the storms that arrive each year. But instead, the village community has grown accustomed to the storms and finds that if they wait patiently after the storm subsides, their wood washes up onto the beach, where they then collect it and begin to rebuild. In their rebuilding, the villagers use the destruction of their homes as an opportunity to build differently. To create something better than existed before the storm. The villagers collect the same pieces of wood their homes were constructed from before, but instead of rebuilding their village the same way, they use their creativity and talents to rebuild their structures in better and stronger ways.

This story makes me wonder, how are we in education looking to rebuild in newer and better ways post-COVID-19 pandemic? How has the COVID-19 catastrophe illuminated areas of need in education? And where might we find positive outcomes from our experience with school closures and distance learning? The pandemic can and should be a catalyst for lasting change and growth. I propose three ways that we in education can capitalize on the catastrophe.

First, we must recognize the tremendous capacity we have to make big changes. We made significant changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; we saw how it more brightly illuminated the inequities in our systems and schools. Schools responded and shifted quickly and often in big ways. For example, we rapidly addressed the digital divide and ensured all students had access to technology and the internet. As we returned to in-person learning, districts continued to address connectivity/technology access issues and implement new, different, and better policies and practices. These big changes can help us create more equitable learning opportunities for students and continue the pandemic-induced shift from old structures and systems to providing all students the education they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Second, we must continue the strong partnerships that were developed between our schools and parents, families, and students. We needed each other desperately during the COVID-19 pandemic as we continued to educate children in a manner never seen before. It took all three groups working together to support student engagement and learning during the physical closure of schools. Districts and schools will be more effective if we continue cultivating relationships and partnerships between our community and our schools. Creating more avenues for authentic engagement in achievement and decision-making will better reach the shared goal of ensuring every child learns and grows to their full potential.

Finally, we must be more determined to use data (information, feedback, input…these are sometimes the terms we feel more comfortable using) to drive learning and student progress forward. Students returned to us from distance learning in many different places academically, socially, and emotionally. It is critical that we know exactly where every student is in their education progress so we can plan effective and efficient learning opportunities. We must continue to build capacity in our educators to use data to drive instruction and achievement. Data is meaningless by itself. The power of data is what we are doing with it. In an upcoming blog, I’ll share some of my learnings and insights around data use and how we can maximize its use in our schools.