The difficult, fluid, consequential, incredibly uncomfortable path to going ‘back to school’

When it comes to sending students back to school during a pandemic, it’s proven impossible to have all the right answers.
students walking toward a computer screen

The variables are almost innumerable in figuring out what’s best for students, educators and parents alike as we start a new school year during a pandemic. But like a rock jamming a giant system, the impact of this health crisis — as well as the reawakened awareness of racial inequities — has stopped us in our tracks, providing time to reevaluate and reflect on what needs to change in education for good.

The back-to-school vocabulary list looks a bit different this year.
Distance learning
Virtual classrooms
Emergency orders
Digital literacy
Meal pickup sites
Social-emotional development
Public health guidelines

When it comes to sending students back to school during a pandemic, it’s proven impossible to have all the right answers. As some institutions — the University of Wisconsin–Madison among them — decided to welcome students back for some face-to-face instruction, Public Health Madison & Dane County made the decision easy for Dane County districts with an emergency order that forced all county schools for students grades 3-12 to begin the school year virtually.

Teachers have become “essential workers,” many students have had to navigate digital coursework with limited peer interaction and a lot of screen time, and parents have had to juggle careers, caretaking and at-home schooling.

All the while, the persistence of racial inequality in education systems comes to the forefront as classes resume after a volatile and eye-opening summer marked by increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Gloria Ladson-Billings validates an undeniable reality: This has been one of the most challenging times in education.

But it’s not the first time we’ve experienced incredible challenges, notes Ladson-Billings, a world-renowned figure in American pedagogy, professor emerita of UW–Madison and the president of the National Academy of Education.

“I’m a child of the 1960s,” Ladson-Billings says. “I attended school at a time when they were talking about school desegregation. There was violence in the community as people tried to desegregate those schools and public accommodations.”

But the current obstacles presented in education are probably the most wide-reaching in terms of who’s involved and who’s affected, she says.

Her National Academy of Education colleagues are trying to synthesize as much information as possible about post-COVID-19 learning, and there’s at least one clear takeaway: “Not one thing is going to work for every district or every school,” Ladson-Billings says. “[You have to] look at the demographics of your school … [needs] shift based on the schools and where they’re located.”

Here in Madison, opportunities are plentiful to come out of this stronger, according to Carlton Jenkins, the newly appointed superintendent of MMSD.

Jenkins — who not only begins his tutelage during a turbulent time, but is also Madison’s first Black superintendent in its 164-year history — was optimistic on his second day on the job in August. “We’re asking that our parents and our community work with us as we’re driven at this particular point to make sure that we turn online learning into a place of academic excellence,” Jenkins says. “We know that we have serious gaps.”

And not just achievement gaps, he says, but a gap between excellence and non-excellence for all students. “There’s truly been a loss of learning, but over time, our students will catch up,” Jenkins says.

Right now, the focus seems to be on further intertwining education and community, and promoting understanding and respect for other people’s experiences and points of view — what Jenkins calls basic human decency.

Many people are affected by the back-to-school plan, so we reached out to myriad stakeholders — teachers, a parent and a student — to ask what it’s been like, what they’ve learned and what their vision is for a path forward.

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