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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Back to School: Rethinking Education After the Pandemic

old fashioned school desk with inkwell and quill

old fashioned school desk with inkwell and quill

Kathy Almazol and Patty Tennant

Kathy Almazol, a long-time elementary school teacher and administrator, is on the Advisory Board of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Patty Tennant is the retired principal of Saint Francis High School. Views are their own.

The question of return to work and return to school is a topic in every newspaper, at every dinner table, and in the minds of every student and parent. School may never again be the same. Will it employ a split-week approach, will it be a part-day model, will it still take four years to get out of high school, college, will dorm living be possible—everything will have to be considered.

What’s Next?

The next iteration of educational opportunities for students must be a thoughtful, inclusive community-wide venture. Wouldn’t it make sense for communities to develop local “think tanks” to study the models together and slowly and cautiously begin to introduce the ones that work best for the communities? However, as we anticipate this Think Tank, some decisions need to be made in order to define a plan that will begin to address the needs of students and parents as our society goes back to work.

Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Port Washington school district, noted in his recent article in Newsday, “Now is the time for our school leaders to generate a new compelling philosophy of education and an innovative architecture for a just and humane school system. We must refocus our energy on a foundation built on a sense of purpose, forging relationships and maximizing the potential and talents of all children. Let’s take advantage of the possibility that our nation’s attention can shift 180 degrees, from obsessing over test scores and accountability to an entirely different paradigm of physical, mental, and emotional well-being for students and staff.” He continues, “It is our collective responsibility to foster engaging and meaningful environments when educating our children in the new era of a post pandemic education. Now is this the time to revolutionize this antiquated system built on old structures and ideologies.”

No Small Task

We must begin the process of opening the schools that will take into consideration the diverse communities of families and students that exist in our cities and states. The idea that we can reopen schools—in July or even the first semester—as if all is safe for our children and educators, is truly a fantasy of politicians and dreamers. Our school buildings are not designed for social distancing nor are our curriculum and graduation outcomes, with their emphasis on collaborative learning, team building and global citizenship, designed for remote learning. However, we do think that we have learned from the pandemic that we live vulnerable lives, that we need to reset our priorities in education, that we need to rethink what we want our students to know and learn, and that we are all one, global community.

Parent and Community Concerns

We queried parents and educators regarding the ethical issues they are confronted with as they consider the transition from stay-at-home to back-to-work and school and summarized their concerns below:

  • Participation—How can we encourage closer partnership and scheduling cooperation between schools, both public and private, and employers so that low-income working parents can earn their living and their children can attend school on a modified schedule? We worry that white collar workers can negotiate flex time with their employers but that others may not be able to do so without greater advocacy and support. In what way will partnerships produce the most good and the least harm to the community?
  • Safety—How can schools open effectively, no matter creative scheduling, without assuring parents that their children are safe at school? Whether it be half days, alternative days, moving teachers/not students, or delivering lunches to the classroom, there are significant challenges to every model. No model is remotely feasible without a way to test students on a regular basis and deliver the resources to sanitize the classrooms and bathrooms, eliminate traffic in the hallways and monitor parents and visitors to the school. How can we provide a safe environment that treats our communities equally or proportionately?
  • Equity—We are more aware than ever of just how big the divide is between the haves and have-nots. Currently we are faced with families without internet and devices, and we will be faced with families who must choose between work and child care. Those who must leave the home to work cannot afford to supervise their children at home or pay for care because they need to work to put food on the table. School schedules that have students in half-day routines or alternative day routines will weigh heavily on working families. Can schools provide day care? Can campuses accommodate these needs? This decision must consider serving the community as a whole, not just some members.
  • Mental health—Will we be able to address the psychological issues facing our students who need the routine of school and the safety of the school environment? Are we prepared to help students deal with their fears of the pandemic, of the uncertainty of the new reality, of the worry of food and shelter insecurities of their families? Do we have systems and resources in place to help vulnerable students and families? Where will we find these professionals and how do we pay for them?
  • Communication—How do we communicate to our families and our communities that schools will be different and why? How do we assure parents that their children’s school experience will be different, at least at first, and why these accommodations are necessary? How do we send a positive and hopeful message when people will see the sacrifices they and their children will be making? And how do we communicate to our educators that their new reality—responding to the community as a whole, not just to some members—will alter their own lives, affect their families and involve sacrifice, too. 

Local, community-based “think tanks” could bring value to our new educational model. Let’s not forget we sent the students home with only a draft outline of distance learning, and we have managed fairly well. Fairly well isn’t good enough for the next step. We must not let the students and parents down. Let’s work together, take time, get the health situation under control and build a strong, flexible academic program that will lead our students to a successful school future.



May 6, 2020