Shifting from Challenge to Possibility

Devin Vodicka

This was originally posted to on July 5, 2020.

There are no shortage of challenges in our current context. COVID-19 positive tests are growing at a rapid clip and we are setting new records on a daily basis.  Experts are indicating that we are at least twelve months away from any type of vaccine.  The destabilizing effects on our economy are still in their infancy and we already have seen record unemployment rates and stock market declines.  Some families are advocating for in-person schooling.  Some families are indicating that they intend to keep their children home.  Some families have “no idea what to do.”  Many teachers and educational staff members are apprehensive about coming back into uncertain conditions that may elevate their own health risk or create risk for their loved ones.  

The clock keeps ticking.  Depending on where you live, school should be re-starting for the 2020-21 year in a matter of weeks.  School communities are responding as fast as they can to these unprecedented conditions.  Plans are being generated to create hybrid options with creative schedules that take into account transportation, facility, and sanitation constraints.  Most plans that I have seen include some in-person programming, hybrid programming for most students, and some virtual school program that relies on distance learning.  

Informed by the best information that we have available, we must also recognize that the drivers of our traditional education system are so unstable that it is hard to know if funding will be secure through the year (remember mid-year cuts during the recession?). It is also hard to know how many students will actually participate in various options and how many staff members will be available.  While I am seeing systems try to set “pivot points” where students and staff might flex from one model to another, it is very difficult to know if these well-intended plans will require significant in-flight modifications.

Add to this the fact that exposure to COVID-19 will trigger immediate quarantine periods that will likely compel large numbers of students to be removed from the physical campus for stretches of time (see here for one of the first such stories in a school system).  The combination of these factors makes me believe the most prudent approach right now is to presume that ALL students will at some point be back in a virtual school model.  As a result, emphasis and urgency should be placed on the development, implementation, and continuous improvement of these virtual schools and distance learning opportunities.  A strong virtual school option will also improve the hybrid experience that I suspect most students will experience.  

About a year ago I was asked to summarize the keys to districtwide transformation.  While that was pre-COVID-19, when I review my thoughts from that time they seem particularly relevant for school leaders as they engage in the urgent work of creating meaningful distance learning options.  In the article, I reference three keys with several key strategies for each.  Here I’ll share the first of those keys with updated recommendations given where we are today. 

Preconditions for Change

Listen to your learners: My colleague Katie Martin has done an incredible job synthesizing input from educators to identify what has been working over the past few months.  While I suspect that the themes are likely the same from the perspective of the students, ask them and validate to be sure.  If you need a protocol, use the After Action Review and then keep using a daily check-in checklist once the school year starts.  

Meaningfully engage all stakeholders: In addition to getting input from students and educators, parents must be meaningfully involved in the development and implementation of new plans.  Leaders should also be asking who else could be helpful now? Early education providers, afterschool programs, wraparound services, medical services, higher education institutions, local service groups, and many, many others should be in close conversation with school leaders to share insights and to collaborate (For inspiration, check out the collective impact model).  

Shift from challenge to possibility: This one requires ongoing discipline.  Keep asking “How might we …?” and “What is possible here?”  Now, perhaps more than ever, it will take the ingenuity of many contributors to best serve our students. Using a human-centered, equity-oriented design thinking protocol is an excellent approach when leaders are unsure about how to proceed.  

The way forward is together and we must be grounded and guided by our students.  Together, we can navigate through these complex and trying times.  Together, we can determine what is possible here.  As challenging as it may seem, I continue to be optimistic about our collective potential.  

Please check out Learner-Centered Leadership

“In Learner-Centered Leadership, Vodicka offers a deeply researched and urgent blueprint for orienting education about the strengths, interests, and needs of individual learners.  He makes a compelling argument for the wisdom of giving students the resources to draw their own learning paths and the power of reimagining schools as centers for the intellectual and social development of lifelong learners prepared for a rapidly changing world.” 

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