It’s Not 2019

Celebrating the First Day of the 2021–22 School Year at Design Tech High School; Photo by Taliyah H.

Going back to school has been more difficult than we had hoped it would be. Last year at this time, we had all hoped that by October 2021 the pandemic would be well behind us, and we’d be able to move forward together in a better direction. Unfortunately that was not the reality for schools as we welcomed students back to campus. In many places the situation is even worse in 2021 than it was in 2020. Despite this reality, many leaders and policy makers are acting as if we were back in 2019.

While still navigating the challenges of COVID, schools have lost much of the flexibility from policy makers that helped them get through a year of distance learning. These factors, combined with ongoing staffing shortages, have understandably created an environment where we have lost most of the experimental mindset we all had to adopt to get through last year. We have to remember that the pandemic exposed the reality that most schools are not designed to respond to the needs of the students when the needs change. It is as if we only know one way of doing things. Individual educators may try their best, but the system does not flex easily; we all saw that last year. Even though the rebuild instinct is strong; we cannot just rush back to rebuilding the system we had in place in 2019.

We need to use human-centered design to rethink how schools should operate and what we expect from students. We have been very fortunate at Design Tech to be part of a community that understands this. Last year our students only missed one day of class time, as we pivoted to distance learning 48 hours after the first shelter-in-place order. Our students and staff have a mindset that supports adapting to changing needs and learning as we go.

This fall we’ve been able to see the impact of this shared belief. We have so much to be grateful for at our school. While most of the recent news headlines about schools have focused on battles over mask wearing and vaccines, our students have been featured in the news trying to make a difference. These bright spots have lead us on an exploration of our student successes, particularly those in our innovation diploma program. Sometimes we’ve gotten so busy doing the work that we’ve neglected to pause and examine our results for both our strengths and our weaknesses.

Over the next few weeks we are going to share some of our student successes and what we consider to be the school’s role in our student’s success. It is a big cognitive lift, but we are hoping that as school leaders struggle through the realities of the daily operations of a school during a pandemic, in a country where we can’t even agree on whether or not to wear a mask, that we also think about how we can change what school looks like to better meet the needs of students both now and in their uncertain futures. We don’t have all the answers, but we know that we should not rush to get right back to where we were in 2019.

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