Brett W. McFadden: Our high schools after COVID-19 — Are there silver linings?
Let’s step away from gloom, doom and dark clouds – albeit for a brief period.
In this month’s column, I want to reflect on some possible silver linings: how improved education models might function in a post-pandemic world in general, and in our community specifically.
Despite alarming increases in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in our nation, state, and local county, there are some hopeful signs on the horizon.
Drug companies Moderna, Pfizer, and now AstraZeneca (in partnership with Oxford University) have announced the successful development of COVID-19 vaccines with up to 95% efficacy. On top of that, Pfizer is seeking “emergency use” approval from the Federal Drug Administration in order to release its vaccine in early spring 2021. Finally, a home-administered COVID-19 test that can provide results within 30 minutes is expected next spring, available by prescription for less than $50.
New studies show people who tested positive for COVID-19 may have antibodies that last longer than originally believed, and those antibodies may provide up to a year of immunity.
Those harbingers indicate the 2021-22 school year may usher in a “new normal” in public education. With a possible transition starting sooner than expected, we will need to take stock in the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that we will not return to our former normal. As such, we must recommit our efforts to ensuring the district is a modern public organization that is nimble and better prepared for the future.
Pre-pandemic, the Nevada Joint Union High School district had already deployed technology proficiently. During my career, I’ve worked in other districts, plus consulted with more than 220 school districts throughout the state. NJUHSD was much farther along than most in terms of using technology in the classroom and throughout the organization.
At the early stages of the pandemic, NJUHSD quickly adopted one common learning management system called Schoology. The use of diverse learning systems had limited the effectiveness with which the district interacted with students, teachers and parents. COVID-19 forced us to adopt one uniform learning management system. We had to do an enormous amount of training to get all staff adept at using Schoology. We accomplished in two months what might have taken a year or more under normal circumstances.
Another result of the coronavirus pandemic is a streamlined curriculum. With limited in-person instruction, COVID-19 forced us to focus even more on essential learning standards and outcomes. We continue to fine-tune our curriculum to ensure students achieve mastery of essential standards.
We recognize that distance education has significant limitations and should not be the primary way to deliver education, but it can be one of the tools in our tool box. We have configured schedules and instructional methods to best serve the changing needs of students. We understand we are educating students for careers that don’t even exist yet.
Experts with keen insight on global employment and education trends know the skills people possess today are becoming obsolete faster and faster. Our students can expect to change jobs and professions multiple times in their lifetimes. Their career paths will no longer follow a simple “learn-to-work” trajectory, but a journey of “work-learn-work-learn-work-learn,” according to the book “The Adaptation Advantage.”
“Learning is the new pension,” says author Heather McGowan “It’s how you create your future value every day.”
Going forward, educators’ most critical role will be to equip young people with the curiosity and passion to be lifelong learners. A structural shift in education philosophy is underway. We are finally moving away from focusing almost exclusively on degrees earned, to that of skills developed. Everyone will still need to be competent in the core subjects of reading, writing and math. But the self-motivation to be lifelong learners and take ownership over their education will be paramount for today’s students.
COVID-19 has helped us to embrace this new reality facing students. The pandemic has also changed the way we engage with district staff and our community at-large.
Professional development programs for our teachers have been improved with the use of video and audio teleconferencing. For example, in the past, a teacher might have missed an important professional development session to handle a child or parental-care emergency at home. No longer. The way our district now implements teleconferencing platforms affords an additional layer of flexibility for staff.
Meetings of the high school board of trustees used to be sleepy little affairs, with a dozen attendees comprised mainly of staff. One had to attend in person, or read meeting minutes afterwards to learn about board discussions and decisions. Now, meetings are streamed live and recorded. Even during meetings with somewhat mundane agendas, 50 or 60 people typically attend via Zoom.
Our teleconferenced public town halls have become equally vibrant. Our largest was attended with over 500 students, parents, and community members. No longer do people interested in the district’s business have to leave the comfort of their homes, drive to a school site, and sit in a theater. With live streaming, parents and other stakeholders can arrive home after work, enjoy dinner, and then pop into a virtual town hall meeting via computer or smart phone.
We’ve seen a ten-fold increase in community engagement and participation. The important work of NJUHSD is now more transparent, accessible, and hopefully, more accountable.
We’ve learned that change is inevitable and we can adjust to it. We’re making radical decisions and modifications on a weekly basis that used to take months. Assistant Superintendent Dan Frisella said it best: “During COVID-19, a month is like dog years.”
I believe NJUHSD has handled challenges presented by the pandemic with not just professionalism, but grace and innovation.
As leaders of this public agency, it is not only our responsibility to guide the high school district through this crisis, but to also position ourselves so we can quickly recover and flourish. The district appreciates the patience and support of our community, and we welcome increased public participation that bodes well for the continued success of NJUHSD.
We’re a tight-knit community and we share ideas, air differences and address problems with respect and civility. The pandemic will pass, but we’re always going to remember how we were treated and how we treated each other.
Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 29 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.
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