Pandemic lessons 5: Conclusion (for now)

In early March 2020, my fellow historian of education Jonathan Zimmerman wrote a piece encouraging colleges and universities to enthusiastically see emergency remote instruction as an opportunity: Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment (ungated version). Zimmerman’s piece amused me a little, because by using “experiment” in the title, he did not mean a rigorously-designed plan with data collection and analysis, but rather something like serendipitous discovery of what happened in the pandemic. I will leave it to the reader to assess whether our collective experience of emergency remote instruction was an experiment in either of those senses, in the sense of experimental theater, or in the sense of Victor Frankenstein’s creature. What is absolutely true is that the decision by many institutions to attempt all or almost all instruction by screen set up a cascading set of demands, which in turn absorbed the attention of several million educators and support staff. No school at any level had the capacity immediately to address these expanding and often new sets of needs. A few could reapportion effort and time to tackle them with the resources federal aid gave starting in the summer of 2020, with enough attention left over for tending to key relationships. For too many, devoting a pandemic level of attention to coordination of various tasks was overwhelming. Zimmerman’s hope of using the pandemic experience to learn a great deal about online learning was unlikely ever to happen.

In this series, I have made the argument that Zimmerman was unlikely to see his wish come true in large part because of the mismatch between schools’ connections with other social institutions, on the one hand, and the lack of experience effectively coordinating internally and externally, on the other. So much of American life revolves around schools at all levels, without schools’ necessarily having significant power to coordinate those connections, and often enough with insufficient coordination within school systems.1 To take one example, during the pandemic the deep connections around schooling meant that misinformation spread through education politics as much as anywhere else. In looking back, this understanding of how schools could be so connected without coordination should complicate our assessment of policies and people. The Biden administration was not always a sea change from Trump in terms of decision-making; unions were not as powerful as some would like to blame them for; urban charter schools were often in remote education more than nearby public schools. At all levels, schools could never turn on dime in the ways that would have been ideal, and that would be an unrealistic expectation, even for the wealthiest universities. But they could have done better.

Capacity limits are real, as we learned as a society when supply chains broke down. Those limits are also real in terms of organizational capacity, not only the hard capacity limits of funding and space and time but the fuzzier ones related to specific experience relevant to completing key tasks, strategic planning, and relationships. I have implicitly used this internal capacity as part of my argument about coordination: coordination includes being able to do things within the organization. And these limits to internal coordination are a substantial part of the reason why there was more visible attention paid to hygiene theater than indoor air quality, and why both intensive summer programs and high-intensity (“high-dosage”) tutoring have been at a relatively low scale. In December 2022, of the K-12 public schools responding to the School Pulse Panel survey, 37% said that they were offering high-dosage tutoring, and 10% of students were receiving it, data that confirms a more impressionistic probe of 12 districts by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press.2

But that set of internal capacity limits is matched by the limited capacity and authority of schools to coordinate much of what happens around them, even as connections have become tight and seemingly inevitable in the past several decades. Even at the level of information, school systems typically swim in an ocean of uncertainty, sometimes with regard to their own operations, somewhat more with regard to evolving professional knowledge, and greatly so outside system boundaries. And all of this is in an environment where we expect far more of school systems than they can ever deliver. What can schools do in response? Four ideas come to mind.

  1. Identify someone in leadership responsible for coordination in a broader sense. Not 20 isolated offices overseeing 31 kinds of partnerships, because that is how one Midwestern system I know has someone in charge of family engagement in a department of special education, separate from other offices of family engagement, separate from all other partnerships. Instead, there should be someone whose main job includes focusing on coordination as a strategic requirement of school systems at any level, and has the authority and responsibility to change extensive coordination plans that don’t advance important strategic ends, or that ignore relationships.
  2. Build relationships in two ways: praise other actions that help schools (e.g., “The 2021 increase in the federal child tax credit dramatically reduced child poverty in the U.S.”) and own up to specific responsibilities of schools. Academics for every level above early childhood, appropriate supports for child and youth development, and for higher education, broader community needs beyond degree programs.
  3. When necessary, take righteous stands in favor of students and the public interest. Not “children” in the abstract but the concrete needs of students your system is supposed to be educating. Not some of the students or the views of a faction of parents, but the broadest sense of students and the public interest.
  4. When someone talks about adding one more task to the plate of schooling at some level, talk publicly through a thought experiment: let’s pretend this task is in essence a request for some sort of interagency cooperation, involving everyone else who is also responsible for this important social goal. Who is the logical organization (or organizations) to be the lead agency (or sector)? If it’s schools, great, no problem, just give us the authority to be the lead agency. If not schools, we’ll gladly follow the lead of whoever should be the lead.

Three of these ideas are about public engagement around the acceptance of responsibilities for what schools truly are responsible for, giving credit to others who also take responsibility in the area, and having an open conversation about sharing those responsibilities. One of those ideas is about assigning leadership responsibility for thinking about coordination at a higher level.

A key reason to make coordination a leadership issue is to ensure that relationships stay at the center. That is much easier with smaller-scale partnership efforts — why there are isolated partnership offices in thousands of school systems — but how do we manage priorities at scale? For recent history, ask those who have tried to create networks of community schools, where those partnerships are explicitly a core. For the current moment, and maybe a few years into the future, ask those who are pushing or trying to create systems of high-dosage tutoring that reaches more than a tiny fragment of the students it might serve. But I cannot recommend a politically-robust, scaled-up set of full-service community schools run out of an isolated office (hello, New York City!). Someone must have responsibility for coordination.

I have two final topics to touch upon this morning: what my pondering may imply about research on the pandemic, and what this might raise as issues historians need to think about. First, pandemic research:

  • The early pandemic failure to provide detailed services for students with disabilities, students who are emerging multilingual children and youth, and homeless children: this seems to me a more critical area of research than the failures of remote education.
  • The decline of attendance at California State University, other regional state universities, and community colleges is a lesson about the fragility of habits–in this case, recently-expanded habits of working-class high school graduates going to college, when supported by educators with intense and persistent contact. This week, Kevin Gee, Heather Hough, and Belen Chavez made a similar point about regular attendance for K-12 students, and ended with this observation: “because the reasons for absences are multifaceted and involve challenges that schools, families, and communities face, the solutions to chronic absenteeism do not lie with schools alone—our school transportation systems, the public health system, and social welfare systems all matter.”
  • The default repertoire of school systems was an example of change that evolved in part because of constraints, political feasibility defined by the grammar of schooling (no differentiated return to in-person schooling), and in part because the demands of logistical coordination pushed out some otherwise-feasible options (heavier telephone use).
  • The pandemic dramaturgy of education is an important topic for future study in the politics of education, and for all researchers sensitive to how pandemic education discourse shifted. My sense is that even before the protests of summer 2020 there was significant diversity in the public voices of parents and communities in the first year of the pandemic. With later phases, the dominant voices became less diverse, more concentrated among more powerful parents. And during 2021, the professional right began to attempt control of the pandemic education discourse on the ground, and make connections at the national level with the Republican establishment, in significant part as an organized backlash against calls for racial justice. But this is my impressionistic understanding. Someone, tell me if I am right or wrong, and where!

Finally, for fellow historians of education, what I have called the great intertwining is not something we have focused on, and it seems an opportunity:

  • Connections have multiple social meanings and layers of responses — the penetration of new media among youth and schooling seems an obvious example, but far from the only one. The growing presence of law enforcement in schools deserves more attention as an indication of and feature of that intertwining.
  • The role of libertarian and neoliberal education policies have played a role in alienating schools from communities and other social institutions even and perhaps because of this period of greater connection.

Connecting those systemic structures with the education of individual students is the challenge many historians of education face. I have tried to do so here by linking the idea of coordination with what the bureaucratic version of coordination displaces. As my wife and I have lived through the pandemic, and I’ve tried to sort out which of my thoughts are historical perspective and which are contemporary ripples, she’s kept reminding me of the importance of relationships in education, especially in instruction and support services for the most vulnerable children. What the closure of in-person instruction three years ago disrupted were the close relationships those services depended on, and no amount of Zooming or grab-and-go lunches could repair those in significant ways. We continue to live with those consequences.


  1. Moderately careful readers may have noticed that I have not defined coordination in any entry of this series. That is fair: I came to thinking about coordination as a consequence of how schools were enmeshed in all sorts of relationships with no control, at the point the pandemic made those relationships critical: labor markets, politics of citizenship, and public health, not to mention with families and communities. My silent operational definition has been the capacity to assign time and resources to accomplish tasks in concert with other organizations and groups. []
  2. Also see a a further exploration of the School Pulse Panel data in a February 2023 article in Ed Week. []