Will COVID and systemic racism change schools forever?

'Frame it from the get-go as a long-term vision, rather than just calling them emergency measures'
By: | October 19, 2020
COVID could be a transformative period for social-emotional learning and dismantling systemic racism in K-12 schools, researchers say. (GettyImages/FatCamera)COVID could be a transformative period for social-emotional learning and dismantling systemic racism in K-12 schools, researchers say. (GettyImages/FatCamera)

Will COVID and the racial justice movement transform K-12 schools permanently or will these “twin pandemics” place only a speed bump in the way of education?

Researchers at the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Harvard University-based think that studies disruption, says there’s an invaluable opportunity for the latter in a new report, “Will Schools Change Forever?”

“It’s such a difficult year for school leaders that it’s a worthy goal just to want to survive,” says Chelsea Waite, an education research fellow who co-authored the study. “This report will be of most interest to folks who see this as an opportunity for making a deliberate change in how schools serve students and what experiences students have.”

The report guides administrators in making COVID-era innovation permanent.


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First, while investment in resources is crucial, those resources must power new practices that outperform existing approaches, Waite says.

For instance, if school leaders investing in, 1-to-1 ed-tech programs, laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots should also shift toward instructional models that thrive with online learning.

These approaches include mastery-based learning, allowing students to work at their own pace, and letting them craft their own projects, Waite says.

“Resources alone don’t change what schools can do,” she says. “If there’s something an administrator is seeing as a possible opportunity for lasting change during this moment, frame it from the get-go as a long-term vision, rather than just calling them emergency measures.”

Making anti-racism a part of education

School leaders looking to dismantle systemic racism in the wake of the shooting death of George Floyd are cutting ties with local police. However, replacing school resource officers will security guards or other personnel that perform a similar role won’t result in lasting change, Waite says.

Administrators can reform discipline by replacing more punitive measures with restorative justice.

In the classroom, professional development should include anti-bias training, and guidance for educators in focusing on students’ assets rather than deficits, Waite says.


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“I have spoken to some school leaders who see confronting racism as even more of a challenge than surviving the pandemic,” Waite says.

This era can also be a transformative moment for social-emotional learning. Educators teaching online are entering students’ homes virtually, she says.

“Some positive changes that could be embedded through this moment have to do with understanding better where students are coming from,” Waite says. “Empathy strengthens connections between families and school.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.


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