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.

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  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. []

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.

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Pandemic lessons 3: History

In the prior entry of this series, I described three large patterns in pandemic-era education in the U.S. since early 2020: institutional erosion, the quick development of a default repertoire of system-level responses, and the wrapping of education politics inside a COVID dramaturgy. What in the history of American education can provide context for these patterns? Institutional erosion and the educational dimension of pandemic dramaturgy are clearly about connections between schools and the rest of society, and one could argue that there has been a growing intertwining of schooling and the rest of American life, which has left schools at all levels more connected to families and society but still weak institutionally in several ways — connected, but not coordinated in ways that would have made pandemic education different.

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Pandemic lessons 2: Phenomena

Well over a million Americans dead. Formal schooling disrupted for months, and in many cases several years. Mental health challenges and the emergence of a virulent culture war aimed at multiple levels of education. This has been the pandemic experience for millions of children, college students, and their families. Future historians will have a longer-term perspective on the visceral experience of generations touched by the pandemic. But we also do not need to wait to have a little bit of perspective, both on the experiences of millions of Americans and also education systems. This blog post is the second in a series on pandemic education, and focuses on those systems.

At a broad level, American education has experienced at least three large patterns since the start of 2020: institutional erosion in terms of both enrollment and institutional stability, the quick evolution of a default reportoire of institutional responses during the pandemic, and the evolution of a pandemic dramaturgy (or a significant part of the pandemic dramaturgy that became associated with schooling). These patterns should not obscure the existence of many individual or local efforts excluded from this description. But when I ask, how will historians look at education in the COVID-19 pandemic, they will see idiosyncratic responses and also these very large-scale patterns.

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Pandemic lessons 1: Explanandum

For three years, from January 2020 to December 2022, the United States fed its most vulnerable school-age children better than it educated them. This isn’t hard to see: after the pandemic began closing schools in early 2022, schools gained permission and figured out how to shift from in-school feeding to grab-and-go meals. In contrast, there have been large questions about both the extent of promised and required special education services that schools failed to provide, and the ways that students with disabilities have been more vulnerable to the damages of the pandemic than nondisabled peers.

But this set of stories is not just about this comparison, between a successful pandemic pivot and substantial failures. This set of stories raises a larger question about what happened with education since the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. For me, as an historian, I have wrestled with what is that larger question, what needs to be explained.

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