Deani Van Pelt: Some schools thrived during the COVID-19 crisis. What can they teach us?

Human-scale education and community-situated schooling could be the keys to a crisis-proof future
Children wearing masks sit behind screened in cubicles at St. Barnabas Catholic School on Oct. 27, 2020. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

Remember the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic? In many ways, the world seemed to shut down in mid-March 2020—and schools shut down right along with it. Students languished. Teachers waited. Parents struggled. For months. Right?

Not so fast. Although this ennui may describe the pandemic-era education experience—or non-education experience—for some, a recent study shows that this was certainly not the case for all.

A survey of Ontario independent school principals found that despite the sudden closure of all school buildings, almost half of the schools surveyed did not miss a single day of instruction. In fact, on average, these schools missed less than four days of instruction during the transition to emergency remote learning.

In addition, the study found that for the remainder of the school year, students at these schools received and participated in twice the government’s recommended daily instructional time. Many students even thrived during this period, as student agency and self-directed learning increased.

These students were engaged in their learning. In many ways, their needs were met, at some level, throughout. Almost all of these schools offered special education services before the mandated closures and continued to do so—albeit in new forms—throughout this period. Of course, this is not to dismiss or downplay the very real and serious struggles of some students, or the many experiences, never to be regained, that COVID-19 stole from all students.

But even under the weight of burdensome constraints, the good news continued. Celebrations took place with weekly chapels that often attracted hundreds of community members, and the majority of schools ended the year with unique drive-by or virtual graduation and learning celebrations.

How did this happen?

It certainly can’t be explained by wealth or bulging revenues. Indeed, the opposite is the case. To constrain expenses, three-quarters of the schools surveyed laid off staff (with half laying off between 11 and 30 percent of all staff members). In addition, in order to continue serving enrolled families, 83 percent offered some financial relief to those in need.

No, this success is explained, at least in part, by the community surrounding the students and the heroic dedication of their teachers.

So which schools are we talking about here? Are they the fictitious institutions invoked in a recent national newspaper column in which John Robson declared pandemic education a failure and asked readers to imagine “private schools rather than public schools being ordered to cease in-person instruction in this pandemic. They would have, of course,“ Robson imagines with us. “But then they’d have worked hard … to make online learning better rather than working hard to justify its mediocrity, because they’d have been free to innovate …”

Indeed, the schools in this study expended little energy complaining. Many teachers cut short or cancelled March Break plans and worked hard right from the beginning of the pandemic to make online learning better. In line with Robson’s imaginings, these schools are independent. They are also typically small, rural, and not well-heeled, serving mostly middle-class families.

Educating about 10 percent of all of Ontario’s independent school students, three-quarters of them are elementary schools (grades JK–8), 13 percent are secondary schools (grades 9–12), and 12 percent are combined schools (JK–12). Their size is worth noting, too, as 94 percent have fewer than 400 students; in fact, three of every five have fewer than 200 students. The average annual operational cost to educate each student is about $9,000, most of which comes from the parents of those enrolled and the school community.

In times of plenty, but particularly in times of crisis, communities will surround, support, care for, and engage.

Some might conclude that as we restructure K–12 education to become more crisis-proof, the funding should follow the child, not the system. At least for the moment, I’d say let’s leave the funding question aside and just look at the structure that permitted such a quick and effective pivot from in-person, classroom-based instruction to entirely virtual remote schooling.

While the study is filled with many gems worthy of a thoughtful reader’s gaze, two features, in particular, glisten: human-scale education and community-situated schooling.

The size of these schools cannot be ignored. School designers—and I don’t just mean architects of physical space—must attend to school size. Let’s acquaint ourselves with the literature on human-scale education from the UK and the EU and build human-scale schools where each student, each teacher, each family is known and cared for. Paul Bennett’s The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools is a great place to begin.

Community also matters. When principals lead (and not merely administer) schools that operate autonomously but within and accountable to a local community, those schools become vibrant places of engagement and contribution. In times of plenty, but particularly in times of crisis, these communities will surround, support, care for, and engage.

Parents will work closely with teachers, and community members will roll up their sleeves, doing whatever it takes to ensure the school and the students thrive. Industrial-scaled schooling and distant “local-district” bureaucracies simply cannot compare—they’re structurally incapable and lack the tacit knowledge for such a response. Charles Glenn and Jan De Groof’s Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education provides fabulous fodder for thinking about the design of autonomous, accountable schools.

Utopian? Fictitious? No. Actual schools in Canada where real students thrived and real teachers excelled. During a global crisis. I’m not sure how it remains defensible to keep such opportunity from any of our students for even one more day.

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