If Schools Can Build on the Flexibility and Creativity Driven By the Pandemic, Our Students Will Thrive

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Learning can and should happen anytime, anywhere. After what we’ve learned over the past 15 months, we have the chance to reinvent how, where and when we teach, using modern instructional tools. Just as instruction cannot be one-size-fits-all, neither should the medium or time at which it’s delivered. And it’s an important time to both reflect on these changes and pinpoint opportunities for the future.

The emergency adjustments schools made during the pandemic were unlike anything in history. What were once intimate learning environments went remote. Closely knit school communities were forced to come together at a distance. And virtually everything about the school that’s existed for the past half-century was turned upside down.

But within these once-in-a-generation challenges brought on by the pandemic were also major bright spots. Up and down the state, public charter schools leveraged their flexibility and creativity to meet the unique needs of every student and family, from distributing devices and hot spots to serving hot meals to delivering educational materials and care packages. Despite the seismic shifts, these schools actually improved their craft.

What educational shifts are worth building on to deliver not just better schools, but also more equitable outcomes across our state?

It starts with family engagement. The pandemic showed that no longer can we maintain a model premised on caregivers dropping off their children at a school building, having teachers be responsible for learning during the day, and having families be responsible for pickup once the day is over. We need to nurture genuine partnerships going forward.

Just to deliver instruction, our schools had to learn more about their students and families than ever before. Were caregivers essential workers? Could they afford internet access? Were they facing personal tragedy? Simultaneously, many parents had an increased line of sight into their child’s education and unprecedented communication with their teachers.

All of it meant that, in some cases, bonds between caregivers and schools grew stronger even while physically apart.

New academic possibilities

Then there’s the digital divide. Tens of millions of students across the nation lacked internet and the devices to access it at the start of the pandemic, and millions still do. But having scrambled last March to equip students across New Jersey to learn remotely, effectively closing the digital divide, we now are on the cusp of new academic possibilities.

Imagine transporting children in Newark or Camden to the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Barrier Reef — all because they now have a hot spot at home. Imagine the potential integration of new field trips and learning tools so that children can access knowledge even after traditional school hours. Students also no longer have to miss an instructional day just because they’re sick. With Zoom in schools’ toolkits, students can join from home or catch up via a recorded lesson.

Beyond physical devices, we must also remember how the pandemic underscored that schools do so much more than just educate children. They are anchors of their communities. They don’t just convey coursework. They are entry points for so many social services — meals, child care, health care and more.

During the pandemic, many charter school buildings served as food distribution centers for hungry families and COVID-19 testing sites to stop the spread of the coronavirus. At the height of the crisis, schools and teachers did frequent check-in calls with families, dropped off care packages at homes for students, and went door-to-door to deliver instructional materials for children who needed them most.

Every child deserves access to a safety net that gives her or him a fair shot to succeed. As a new school year begins, we must remember that and maintain the very structures that help deliver it.

What opportunities lie ahead?

Here’s the bottom line: Coming out of this tragic and difficult year, we must recognize the opportunities ahead. Charter schools across the state have shown that with flexibility and innovation, we can deliver a high-quality education for all students and truly reimagine the future of learning. Going back to the way things were across America simply isn’t enough, and we have a once-in-a-generation moment to change it.

We should commit to identifying those best practices learned over the last year and double down on them — all with a goal of boosting engagement in our school communities, personalizing learning for students, modernizing how and where we deliver knowledge, and extending and enhancing social supports.

Doing so can help change the trajectory of American education. But most importantly, our children deserve it.

T. J. Best is the director of government affairs at the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association. Danielle West-Augusting is the chief academic officer and director of Queen City Academy Charter School in Plainfield. This first appeared at NJ Spotlight.

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