We Have a Moral Obligation to Not Return to Normal

Without question, this is an unprecedented time for education. Due to the pandemic and resulting school closures, educators across the nation have been faced with the challenge of distance learning on a massive scale. We are also already looking ahead to how schools can eventually reopen—and what that “new normal” might look like. Navigating countless challenges for ensuring the safety and well-being of both students and staff is of course the first priority, but educators are realizing that the pandemic has also been a powerful magnifier of so many other issues we have long yearned to effectively address for our students. We have had to reexamine traditional assessment and grading practices, revisit student engagement strategies, reprioritize key curriculum concepts, and even rethink the value of spending so much time on standardized testing. 

We have also been reminded of the great importance of social and emotional learning, the enormous impact of trauma on learning, and most definitely, the tremendous inequities still present in our society and education system. The success of our schools is inextricably correlated with the cultural norms and values of our communities and society at large, and so we must seek to collectively address such issues by fully engaging our communities. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that education is an integral and instrumental part of a larger effort. Most recently, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, captured on video in broad daylight, has filled us with devastating grief and outrage. The protests and vigils across the nation serve to vehemently underscore the critical urgency with which all societal institutions and organizations must take actions that result in systemic change. It is clear that neither our education systems nor our nation can succeed in achieving all of our longest-held and most aspirational goals until we collectively confront the deep and troubling history of racism and inequity that has existed too long.  

Children getting on school bus

As educators, our challenge is great. It is imperative, however, that together, we rise to the occasion. After so much disruption, suffering, and loss of life, we have a moral obligation to not just return to “normal”—but rather, to ensure we are on a path to return stronger, more effective, and more equitable for all students. While the task ahead can seem daunting, we can rely on our collective strengths to navigate the challenges. Accordingly, it’s critical that educators themselves are empowered to lead as we move forward. The expertise and experience of our nation’s teachers are essential as we seek to reform our education systems. It’s important as well that we engage and empower student voices throughout the process. And as we look ahead, how can we use what we have learned during this challenging time to collectively reimagine the future in ways that benefit all? Together we can explore how best to support schools in implementing more student-centered instructional approaches that promote student agency and choice, how to better integrate social-emotional learning within all areas of a child’s education, how to reimagine the existing structure of the traditional school day to incorporate more flexibility and project-based collaboration, how to better enhance curriculum with real-world connection, and how to adopt new methods of assessing and reporting student progress with an increased focus on the competencies, skills, and mindsets we know are most valuable for our students’ future in the 21st century.

We are at a pivotal moment in our history. Leaders of all institutions and organizations must use their positions to speak out on the need for truly transformational change. Even more importantly, their words must then be followed by substantive action to dismantle systemic inequities. We must have the courage to examine our own biases and traditional practices, and we must be willing to move past any discomfort in exploring issues such as race, privilege, and racial injustice. Leaders in education will need to support their school communities to do this work and must empower the voices of both teachers and students in order to listen and learn from their experiences—and to create a shared and inspiring vision for the future. Such transformational change requires a collaborative, sustained, and deep dive to thoroughly reexamine existing norms and to reimagine the way our education systems can work. But we can do this. Let’s aspire to ensure we look back one day with “2020 hindsight” and know that was the year when a new and transformational vision started being realized for all.

Returning to “normal” or settling for marginal improvements would be to neglect our professional and moral obligation. We can join with our colleagues and our communities to envision and implement a new normal, which embraces the future by renewing our commitment not only to core values of education—but also to bedrock principles and the collective vision of our democracy. We owe this to our students and their future. We owe it to George Floyd and to all those whose lives have been lost. We owe it to our nation. Together, let’s support each other as we work toward these goals.


Additional Readings

In the Pegasus Springs Education Collective’s Twitter feed (@pegasus_springs) and in the “Essential Reading” section of our monthly email newsletter, we curate articles and documents from other writers and organizations that offer ideas, perspectives, and guidance for school communities.

For instance, a recent Aspen Institute “Recovery and Renewal” publication called this a “moment of reckoning for public education—and America” and suggests key principles for “Advancing Public Education Post-Crisis.” In addition, a recent CASEL Guide reminds us of the many ways “that social and emotional learning (SEL) will be critical to re-engaging students, supporting adults, rebuilding relationships, and creating a foundation for academic learning.” In an ASCD piece, Dena Simmons writes that “COVID-19 is our equity check, reminding us of who we could be if we valued equity as much as we say we do.” In “The Long Lasting Hardware Every Visionary District Needs to Invest In” (Education Reimagined), Marc Isseks explains, “It’s gut-check time in our schools and our education system writ large . . . If you’re ready to be a leader of future greatness, rather than a manager of past practice, the time to act is now.” And Getting Smart offers “How to Reopen Schools: A 10-point Plan Putting Equity at the Center.” 

As always, these and other reading selections are intended to prompt thought and are opportunities for discussion, learning, and reflection. Such opportunities for in-depth, reflective thought are always important—but now perhaps, more than ever. As the Getting Smart plan explains, “It’s clear that we cannot plan for a normal school year. But it’s also clear that we have an opportunity to create a new and better normal if we consider the needs of all learners in re-entry.”