Cap Times Idea Fest: COVID-19 is a chance to reimagine education, panelists say

October 14, 2020   |   By Ben Farrell, Special to the Cap Times

From The Cap Times

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, residents of Dane County, like all Americans, have been forced to rethink how they carry out even their most routine daily tasks. Nowhere has the transition from pre- to post-pandemic existence been felt more acutely than in schools. Since schools went online due to COVID-19 in March, parents, students and teachers have been left to improvise in an environment nobody saw coming. At a recent Cap Times Idea Fest session, education reporter Scott Girard led a panel discussion with three Dane County educators to consider a question looming in the minds of many: How will the next few months shape the future of education, even after pandemic restrictions are lifted?

Panelists Gloria Ladson-Billings, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor who taught for 26 years and is now the National Academy of Education president; Carlton Jenkins, the newly hired Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent, and Mary Lee McKenzie, an educator at Clark Community School in Middleton shared their insights on how the crisis can — and perhaps should — lead to a drastic reimagining of what education looks like. Even in the pre-pandemic landscape, educational equity, and how best to provide it, have been a massive issue in Madison. According to the 2013 Race to Equity Report, Dane County has one of the largest achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers in the nation. This theme of progress toward a more equitable vision of education underscored the entire discussion.

From the outset of the conversation, one major point became clear: nothing of the past seven months has been easy, for students or for teachers. McKenzie described in stark terms the unique nature of the transition to online schooling.
“There’s nothing about this where I’ve been like, ‘Oh, this really makes my life easy,’” she said. “At the same time, the amount of growth and learning we’ve been able to do as a staff has been incredible.”

McKenzie also mentioned that while this experience has been taxing for both students and teachers, her school district is positioning itself to make “some bigger changes down the road.”

Jenkins, who was superintendent of the Robbinsdale Area School District in Minnesota before taking the helm of Madison schools in July, sees potential for improving education through strengthening ties with the community. Jenkins stressed the need for an open dialogue between families and schools. “We need to do a better job of trying to engage not only the children, but the families,” he said. “This went from just totally child-centered to the whole family, whole community. COVID-19 made us pause and say, ‘Let’s check on the socioemotional well being, the mental health aspect.’” Jenkins also emphasized that these changes of perspective are applicable to life beyond the pandemic.

“The hierarchy that we’ve known must be flipped upon its head right now. That has not even worked during the traditional, (in-person school) for all children ,” he said. “We’re working on having additional communication for students who have been most marginalized prior to COVID and now during COVID.”

Ladson-Billings agreed with the other panelists, and went into greater detail about what these pedagogical adjustments could look like. “I think that we’re having a totally different relationship with our IT departments,” she said. “They’ve moved to the center, which is the way it should’ve been… I think we’re learning a lot of how to improve education as a result of this.”

Later on in the conversation, Ladson-Billings brought up the idea of an educational “hard reset,” as one does with a faulty smartphone. “When they give you that phone back, all your contacts are going to be gone, all your pictures are going to be gone,” she said. “You’re going to have a phone like it was when it came from the factory.” That said, Ladson-Billings isn’t advocating a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” “Normal, for the kids I’m most concerned about, was a disaster,” she said. “Normal was they weren’t reading. Normal was they were being suspended at a disproportionate rate… Normal was they were being expelled.”

Quoting novelist Arundhati Roy, she cast the pandemic as a “portal” through which the currently broken American educational system might travel to find repair. She also cited former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s famous statement that you should “never allow a good crisis to go to waste.”

“We’ve got a good crisis here,” she said, “We need to take advantage of it.”

McKenzie, echoing those sentiments, expressed her support for a rehaul in the structure of education in Dane County. “This is a massive shift, to shift away from what we’ve been doing, to what we can do,” she said.