Learning loss is the baby elephant in the room. It’s an issue that is currently small enough to briefly acknowledge, deprioritize, or ignore completely. Yet this elephant will continue to grow as the size and scale of learning loss due to the pandemic is better understood. The vaccine has returned a sense of hope that life will get back to “normal.” But educators must recognize that a return to “normal” will only reinforce the widening opportunity gap and systems that support institutionalized racism. Instead, structural changes will need to be made if learning loss is to truly be addressed. This conversation is critical as schools transition from virtual learning to in-person (and maybe back) this year, and begin planning for the summer and 2021-22 school year.
From North Carolina to California to Alaska, public schools around the United States are planning to preserve a virtual school option for students after the pandemic is over. The constant drumbeat of getting all students back to school as quickly as possible does not tell the whole story of learning in the pandemic. Singing the praises of virtual learning was not something many students, educators, and families would see themselves humming along to twelve months ago. But from the early and draining days, there has been a rhythm and stability that has flourished in expected and unexpected ways.
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I got started with this tradition of predictions in 2010 after reading Disrupting Class, a book by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn. In their book, they predicted that by 2019, 50% of all high school courses will be online in some blended learning model. That was a pretty bold prediction in 2008 when the book was published, but their model for cycles of innovation seems pretty accurate now that we have hindsight. Even as of May 2019, there were people pointing out the failure of this prediction. Now at the end of 2020, I’d estimate that +95% of all K-12 students took some form of an online class, and most likely this trend will continue into 2021.
This Fall, Education Elements hosted our first ever virtual Distance Learning Road Race. The rationale was simple - we wanted to create a space to promote mental and physical wellness, model best practices for virtual community building, and give back to our partners and community. Admittedly, the ‘race’ was more of a running challenge, encouraging participants to commit to running a final distance of their choosing and engage with us over six weeks of challenges between September to November.
A known unknown is a question we are certain exists, but whose answer we are confident we cannot answer. This paradox pretty accurately sums up how many educators entered into this school year. We knew we might return to distance learning and we knew that no one could say whether that would happen, and if so, when. As COVID infection rates and hospitalizations rise across the country, the unknown answer becomes clearer; for some of us, returning to distance learning for some amount of time will happen. AND there is good reason to assume that distance learning will be significantly better today than it was last year. This is not a new experience for educators, students, and families. Our understanding of best practices, expectations, and support systems put us in a good position to ensure learning continues regardless of the physical distance between students and teachers.
Fenestration, in architecture, is the way windows, doors, and openings are placed and arranged on a building. In medicine, fenestration refers to a new opening in the body made through surgery. There is another meaning of the word and it is used to describe openings in the leaves of plants. Where I live in South Florida, there are a number of plants with leaf fenestrations, perhaps the most common of which is the monstera deliciosa. Some of you might have it next to you, as it has become a very popular houseplant. Here in the subtropics, it is planted in many people’s landscapes including my own. Some people believe that the leaves have formed holes to help the plant survive the strong winds of tropical storms and hurricanes, a common occurrence in this part of the world. Others think the leaf fenestrations exist to let sunlight filter through to “understory” leaves so that they can grow and thrive (in its natural habitat, the jungle, monstera grows like a vine up very tall trees). Each of these is a theory to explain the adaptations, but no one knows for sure. Right now, in our reality of unknowns, students, teachers, and school communities across the country are adapting too–so that the sunlight of new ideas and concepts reach every learner and the turbulent wind of changing pandemic conditions, stress, and anxiety do not prevent learners from growing and thriving.