Pandemic lessons 4: Coordination

In March 2020, all of the educators I know suddenly began working extraordinarily hard in a context they had never lived through. Several million educators did, at every level from those who work with infants to doctoral education. Three years later, it is possible to see both the effort and the gaps. The argument building in the past few blog entries is about the larger patterns of institutional erosion, default repertoires, and the pandemic dramaturgy, and the way that schools can be both highly connected with the rest of society and also miss important aspects of coordination. That missing habit of coordination is a significant part of the gap between all of the effort at pandemic education, on the one hand, and the ways in which students and families (and educators!) were ill-served as a whole, on the other.

That missing habit showed in several ways: Internally, the missing habit of coordination required that school systems suddenly devote disproportionate attention on a high level of coordination for important infrastructure tasks, from providing meal services to hotspots. In doing so, the greater level of coordination moved focus away from the relationships at the heart of education to logistics, which should be driven by those relationships. This internal distraction from relationships had consequences for the attempted delivery of remote instruction and the guarantee of an appropriate education for students with disabilities and for emerging multilingual learners. In addition to the internal consequences, the missing habit of coordination created significant barriers to effective relationships with both families and the larger culture.

While observing what happened with education systems, we can and should point fingers as well at all of the figures outside education who failed at coordination: the failure to use and coordinate resources, whether using the Defense Production Act for PPE or the failures of CDC to coordinate with OSHA in 2021 or with state supervisors of congregate care facilities since early 2020. One could write another blog series on the failure to use communication tools already developed for public-health purposes, such as the concept that health science is a matter of evolving understanding, or the concept of harm reduction; or the early and persistent failure to include scientists and and public health experts from minoritized communities on various task forces, including representation from disability communities. But I am keeping focus here on what has happened in education because it is education, and here the issue is where schools are weak coordinators.

Failure to deploy emergency remote instruction effectively

I do not know any educator, parent, or student who thinks that emergency remote instruction from spring 2020 has been an effective way to teach academic content on the same level as in-person instruction.1 I do not know of any published research that has provided evidence of that claim, either. As someone who has taught online in graduate programs and supervised a broad range of online programs in my college at Arizona State University, I stand behind our work in online programs. And I also know that teaching graduate students remotely is very different from doing the same with undergraduate students, and the evidence from virtual charter schools is that it becomes much more difficult at younger ages.2 And planned online education with students who chose that mode is different yet again from emergency remote education.

It would be good to recognize that pandemic emergency remote education was not successful in teaching academics, and also important to understand why not. In February 2020, the majority of educators had little training in teaching online in any context, let alone in a pandemic. Thousands of districts had no established infrastructure obviously well-matched for supporting remote education. Millions of families had cell phones but no broadband. And as the economy was crashing in March 2020, the leadership of every school had to worry instantly about their financial viability.

As elementary and secondary schools and also colleges and universities struggled to address the pandemic in late spring 2020 and then plan over the summer for fall, each of those issues drew attention. For any that a system addressed, the coordination required was significant, and demanded focus. In my college, we began the pandemic with a critical mass of faculty who already had experience in teaching online, which allowed our assistant dean for digital learning to remind us all of the difference between programs planned to be online and emergency remote education, and to help the faculty who did not have experience in online education think about pedagogy for the fall.

In my role as an administrator, I was also part of a specific effort to address relationships we knew would be stressed: more than a dozen members of the college in different roles drafted and circulated language we could all use to address the difference between attendance and participation, supportive language on mental health needs of students, conversations with faculty about the fundamental expectations they had, how we could emphasize the humanity of everyone in a course.

We still got it wrong too often.

But at a large public university that had plenty of experience with teaching online, we could carve out time to ensure that infrastructure efforts did not distract us from critical decisions in teaching. What worries me about the focus on coordinating education logistics in 2020 was the attention it demanded and the way that attention distracted from other issues: Relationships. Technology choices that were not even considered (like telephones).

This observation is not a claim of incompetence on the part of education leaders in different systems. It is a claim about why a default repertoire developed, and what omissions that repertoire required. Under pressure, school systems without the deep habit of coordination needed far more attention paid to the friction that happens whenever one begins a new collaborative effort. In my professional experience, online formal education is harder with students at younger education, and the attention required by a commitment to broadband platforms displaced time to think of issues such as … if you guarantee broadband access and equipment and a platform for live online instruction, will students turn on their cameras and participate?

An important caveat here: the research I have read that makes causal claims that remote instruction harmed K-12 academic achievement is not quite right in framing the issue. The research is technically solid from my perspective (e.g., Goldhaber et al., 2022; Kogan, 2022). The challenge is that while they see remote instruction as the key issue they are analyzing, I think it is impossible to disentangle the effect of remote instruction from the other cascading consequences of a system’s decision on mode and relative devotion of resources and making some choices easier or harder for families: that decision to go or stay remote or hybrid or shaping options for families affects peers, families, and an individual student’s wellness.3 But only family/community data is typically available with an indicator one can use to try to isolate the causal effects of instructional mode. It would be more accurate to say that they estimated the effects of a local policy decision, and while a large part of that flowed through the remote instruction itself, that’s far from the only way that a school system decision or administrative practices affected families and students.

Failure to plan for education of the most vulnerable

As I mentioned in the first blog post of this series, special education services have comprised a notable weakness of K-12 education since the start of the pandemic. Two key features of special education services made them especially frail once the pandemic hit. First, for students who are eligible for individualized education programming (IEPs), the individualized nature of services have required a different magnitude of coordination since the 1975 passage of the first federal guidelines for special education. While several court decisions have provided some guardrails around the expectations of goals for students with disabilities, the bulk of federal guidelines are about process, not content, and certainly not making IEPs automatically conform with school routines. Second, the openness of the IEP process has always depended not only on programming for individual students but the relationships among everyone following through on an IEP. When the pandemic hit, both individualized programming and the relationships among (often itinerant) educators and with families came well below the coordination efforts of infrastructure: broadband, hotspots, equipment, platform, and, yes, meal programs. Or, rather, a district could focus on the infrastructure coordination and see visible success.

What became clear for many families is that in special education, visibility of their needs only happened in a brick-and-mortar context. That also became true for homeless children, as schools lost track in 2020 of a quarter of children eligible to be served by federally-funded programs.4 And also with emergent multilingual learners: one of my friends in Florida complained bitterly about Florida’s inability or unwillingness to craft a plan in the pandemic. What ties these issues together is not just the vulnerability of the children involved but also the way that pre-pandemic programming relied on local relationships and the type of coordination that became a lower priority in March 2020.5

Inconsistent listening to families

If extraordinary attention to coordination of infrastructure led to problems inside school systems, with remote instruction and with education of the most vulnerable K-12 students, that also led to challenges in the external relationships of schools at all levels. Looking back at the 2020-21 school year and the early summer of 2021 — which included the worst wave of the original COVID-19 virus in the winter, as well as the introduction of vaccines for adults (and children 16 and up), what is striking is the persistent variation in K-12 parental preferences on teaching mode — there was little consensus among parents about where students should be learning. Below is a summary of parental preference surveys over more than seven months conducted by the USC Understanding Coronavirus in America project:

Display of time series, parental preferences for K-12 teaching mode, November 2020 through June 2021. In November, a plurality preferred remote options. By March, a plurality (and sometimes majority) preferred in-person options, but never more than 70%.

These views also varied dramatically by race and income. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, according to parents who responded to the Education Next poll, most of them had choices within their districts of whether they could send their children to school in-person, remote, or in a hybrid structure.6 The result was relative satisfaction among many parents with COVID arrangements: for the parents in the Education Next poll who expected their children to be in a different school the next year (19% of parent respondents), only 3% were changing schools because they were dissatisfied with the current school’s response to COVID. Polls consistently confirmed that many parents were at least reasonably satisfied with the options available to their children through 2020 and 2021 in terms of in-person, remote, or hybrid teaching, evidence that local schools often paid attention to parental preferences of the local majority, even if only to say, “We have several options and you can pick yours.” Well, options within the default repertoire.

And yet that baseline moderate satisfaction did not translate into greatly effective relationships. K-12 schools still lost enrollment, as did many colleges, especially the colleges that are more closely tied to local relationships (community colleges, the California State system campuses). Unlike others, I do not interpret the loss of enrollment as evidence of a deepening cynicism about higher education–many students were equally skeptical of the value of higher education as enrollment was climbing a decade or so ago! Rather, some of the drop in college enrollment (especially community colleges) is because a great job market has drawn more adults into full-time jobs and away from college. And also, in some measure, the pandemic has broken the relationship between the end of high school and college enrollment. That relationship has always been frail — as a former student taught me in his dissertation work, many working-class high school students who would be first-generation students apply for, are admitted, and pay a deposit to the college they said they would attend, and then fail to matriculate. Once they graduate high school, in his experience, many lose access to the advisors and other high school staff who could help them with the bureaucratic details of enrolling in college, from reserving a dorm room to submitting immunization records and navigating enrollment when sections are closed.7

The pandemic broke that relationship further for many students, at a point before high school graduation.

A failure to represent schools as community institutions

The position of schools as weak coordinators has much broader implications. Despite occasional debates about schools’ encroachment on other institutions, the way we talk about education often fails to understand schools as community institutions. The last four decades may have intensified this tendency with human-capital rhetoric, which sees schools’ primary role as generating economic potential in the future for both society and for families and individual students. But the broader politics of education ignores the more complicated roles within education, and arguing for a more complicated understanding is often like swimming upstream.

The most obvious example in the past few years has been the framing of COVID mitigation in education as a decision by school and college and university administrators and governing boards, separate from public health authorities. A few years ago I had an exchange with an administrator who explained that in his state (I think Maryland), both local public schools and charter schools followed the lead of county public health administrators. Yet the national discourse about education in the pandemic focused on the decisions of local school boards, or individual colleges and universities, with extensive coverage devoted to contentious school board meetings over masking mandates and other mitigation issues.

I am not saying that if school governing bodies had deferred all such decision-making to local public health officials, there would not have been contentious confrontations — public health officials have also been the target of vicious and often public attacks! But it is notable that the public framing of mitigation decisions devolved to the historical default: schools are isolated and on their own. That isolation fed the pandemic education dramaturgy of mostly rhetorical and political (but sometimes physical) attacks on school authorities, and growing reportage of heated board meetings in 2021 that turned from criticism of COVID mitigation to the professional right’s culture war against teaching about racism in American history.

One corollary of this narrowed assumption is the long-term appeal of parenting advice, which speaks to the individual and family concerns of parents. Over the past three years, the controversial public role of economist Emily Oster has attracted both praise and criticism, as she made sometimes-exaggerated claims about the risks of COVID, claims about lower risk that certainly soothed the anxieties of tens of thousands of readers. But Oster’s self-anointed role as parent-whisperer was a continuation of the history of parental advice rather than something that sprang out of the pandemic.8 As with the sudden success of Benjamin Spock’s 1946 book, Baby and Child Care, Oster’s general message is one of reassurance to parents, that they can be competent and confident in parenting.

The history of parenting advice is one that has emphasized a private vision of childhood and youth, in contrast to the social context in which children develop. That private assumption in the parenting advice history is not inevitable: there are alternatives, such as the Othermothering tradition in Black communities. The consequences for education of looking at childrearing from a different perspective? Consider this May 2020 column in Medium by several of my colleagues, in which they act as friendly critics of schools, calling for different and better relationships.

Is this a fair critique?

Many of my colleagues and friends in education administration at various levels would disagree with me, probably vehemently. Child care, preschools, elementary and secondary schools, and colleges and universities have been doing their best in the past three years! And many other types of public institutions and private companies have had challenges in coordinating decisions at least as problematic as schools. To some extent, they would be correct in this criticism: schools are part of society, and the difficulties schools have had in coordinating decisions are not isolated to schools. But schools often are unique in being expected to solve social problems without the authority or resources, and managing those expectations requires coordination that schools have rarely managed well over the centuries. If you work in an organization that does not have a great history of competence in an area, and the times call for extraordinary competence in that area, you will be working harder than necessary to accomplish any goal.

And now we have our answer on why K-12 schools were able to feed millions of children a short time into the pandemic even as they failed to provide any level of special education services commensurate with the success in feeding children. Schools could and did focus effort on the coordination tasks necessary for lunches. Providing meals-to-go required maintaining relationships that already existed, and one critical bureaucratic decision (the federal waiver allowing families to pick up meals). Parallel success in providing special education services would have required a level of commitment and attention to many new types of coordination far beyond that needed to feed children, and coordination that required much more nuanced decisions about relationships.

Are there lessons for the future? That’s the focus of the final entry in this series.


  1. The 2021 Education Next poll conducted in June of 2021 made clear that there are important racial and ethnic differences in parental judgments of remote schooling and other mitigation efforts: a majority of Black and Hispanic parents reported positive effects of COVID mitigation in general on academic knowledge and skills — a contrast with White parents, where fewer than 30% thought there were positive academic effects. []
  2. That pattern is confounded by the nature of for-profit virtual charter schools that dominate virtual K-12 education. []
  3. In the associated causal diagram, multiple arrows would flow from the district authority’s decision through all of these pathways to student achievement… and without adjusting for all but remote instruction, there would be multiple open backdoor paths. []
  4. See Ed Week‘s follow-up article from 2022 for recent efforts to recontact and re-enroll many of those chldren. []
  5. One could extend this out-of-sight, out-of-mind perspective to supervision of special education services in charter schools in many states — See this 2018 Ed Week article, or a set of findings from the Arizona ACLU, or the book on the same topic by Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner. The broader issue is beyond local public schools vs. charter schools: it is instead what type of visibility and attention is required to ensure appropriate education. []
  6. This survey of parents is similar to the way schools reported mode options to the School Pulse Panel. []
  7. His dissertation project was a program designed to change the summer-melt dynamic. []
  8. Her August 2021 book was the third in a series of parenting advice volumes claiming to be uniquely data-based. I suspect Benjamin Spock and T. Terry Brazleton would have been amused by the implication that their advice wasn’t. []