COVID-19, Disruption, and Public Education

In March, when Governor Scott directed all schools to close and provide remote instruction for the remainder of the school year, my heart sunk.  I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of this directive.  As a public school administrator for the past twenty years, I have never encountered a situation that required our society and schools to immediately change the ways we educate and support students and families in such a rapid manner.  

This pandemic is like no other disruption I have encountered in my professional career.  The depth of its impact has been profound. Like previous other economic or technological disruptions, COVID-19 required rapid innovation and re-imagining of all processes and procedures.  

One historic disruption was the attack on September 11, 2001 of the World Trade Center. This horrific event had a widespread impact on our collective conscience, forced an immediate need to change, and served as a powerful reminder that we are a community.  I remember this event like it happened yesterday and have never forgotten the impact. It changed the way we travel, our safety procedures, and significantly impacted military service members, their families, and first responders. Many of us have a direct connection to this event, and I know many individuals from our community that proudly served our country in its aftermath.

Another significant disruption during my career was the invention of cellular devices. The evolution of the internet began this disruption, but widespread availability of cellular phones and mobile devices rapidly impacted our society, economy, and educational systems.  This disruption rapidly altered the landscape of education, teaching & learning practices, and educational systems in a blink of an eye. These innovations continue today and served as the backbone of our ability to transition to remote leaning.

It is now September and we have reopened school using a hybrid instructional model to support a safe and smart start to the school year.  As I reflected this summer about the past months and the impacts of COVID-19 on our community, I am struck by several commonalities these disruptions share. 

All three of these global disruptions highlighted both positive societal impacts and challenges. The most profound challenges were the increased marginalization of the most vulnerable members of our community.  Families that lack reliable broadband access, mobile devices and food security were most adversely impacted.  Families grappling with mental health challenges and addiction shared that access to their support systems was full of barriers. These are not new issues in Vermont, but this experience has exacerbated the inequities in our state.

At the same time, I witnessed so many positive responses and actions during this pandemic.  Our staff responded immediately and embraced a digital learning environment, learning new ways to provide content, and utilizing great creativity to teach and make connections with students and families. We quickly mobilized and delivered daily meals and technology devices to families in need.  Our nurses and local pastor coordinated food drives and staffed our food shelf to provide nutrition to anyone in need. I was also inspired by the strong sense of community.  So many individuals from our town reached out with offers of financial support, food donations, and gratitude for our efforts to respond during this time.  

Like any major disruption, public schools are adapting and will continue change. I am grateful for the ongoing support, the difficult lessons learned, and an increased sense of community. I am hopeful that we can continue to embrace and implement meaningful innovations that improve outcomes for our students and families as this once in a lifetime event comes to an end.  Be well. 

Thomas Walsh is currently the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @educatamount

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