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Opinion: A tidal wave is sweeping over our educational system

My mom is an inspiring, lifelong educator who has taught in Colorado, internationally and now leads a community-designed school in California. 

As she approaches the end of her career in education, I cannot imagine a tougher challenge than the one all educators face at this moment. Each week we connect, her context has changed and she has to prepare her teachers for a new scenario.

It’s a herculean challenge, and I know more than anyone my mom is up to the task. Yet I am often left wondering: how big is this wave of change rushing across every school system in our nation?

Landon Mascareñaz

How long can we ask educators and families to shoulder this crisis? And how can we support educators and families build the authentic relationships needed to survive this moment?

The past few weeks have brought wave after wave of challenging and problematic news in our education system, both here in Colorado and across the nation. 

As districts across the metro area push back their start of school and prepare for an online fall, families and educators feel a tidal wave of uncertainty rushing across our education system.  

Back in March, I wrote a piece about the crisis we were facing in education and this country. The events of the past four months have both confirmed the initial suspicion that we were dealing with a new dynamic, larger and more powerful than we’ve yet experienced.

Unfortunately, too many educators and families expected a return to normal that is unlikely to arrive. And now, as the return of school is upon us, the wave shows no sign of slowing down.

As an educator working across the education landscape in Colorado and speaking to colleagues across the country, I feel enormous anxiety for this wall of water rushing against our education system.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

And as tens of thousands of families scramble across Colorado to make back-up plans as schools shift plans weekly, it’s clear that what we used to think was certain is no more

The swell of disruption from COVID is immense: enrollment declines in public K-12 and higher education, families exiting the system for homeschool “pods” or collaboratives, private schools swelling with enrollment because they promise in-person instruction, districts and schools making decisions so rapidly that families cannot keep up, students exhausted from dealing with so many changes and of course, challenges with remote instruction and shocking disparities in access to online resources.

In Colorado, at least 60,000 students still live in homes with no internet connection.

Many families are struggling with a system that can’t offer predictability in their lives. Many are wondering if they have to choose between their jobs and the safety or education of their child. Students who were about to enter college are reconsidering whether to attend at all.

If education cannot offer safety or certainty, who can blame them? For all of our lifetimes, and for those of our parents and grandparents,starting the school year has been analogous to the sun rising each day in the east. 

As that falters, a pattern is emerging. The systems that are the most closed, the most resistant to change — these systems are the ones that, like a valiant worker plugging the holes of the dam, quickly run out of fingers to stop the breach.  

Yet there is another set of systems that have opened themselves up to this challenge and instead of trying to plug every hole, have determined to ride the wave.  

These districts, abandoning perfection and reactionism, are instead opening themselves to the power of the relationships, networks and potential of their families and communities. 

Instead of resisting the change, they are opening their schools and plans to the community and families they serve, helping others ride the water rushing around them. And through their work, something new may emerge during this crisis.

At the Colorado Education Initiative, we’ve worked with a group of over 10 districts to form the Strategic Reopening Collaborative. This initiative, combined with the launch of our Reconnected Learning online hub, are systemic efforts to highlight and support responsive, relationship-centered educators who are leaning in to directly respond and adjust to this crisis.  

In Alamosa, schools and educators are committing to meeting 1:1 with every family and all students. The lift is enormous, the amount of information gained tremendous and impact of regenerated relationships could have profound effects for the future of the community. 

Data from conversations like these and the potential to create transformative relationships will allow the district to reimagine education in the San Luis Valley.  

In the metro area, the small district of Sheridan has seen its fair share of challenges during the pandemic. With families impacted by COVID and mental health struggles, the district is making a significant community-focused investment in trauma response, a full range of mental health services and mindfulness practices.

The high school and alternative school are redesigning class schedules, creating more time for relationship building and connection.

Greeley-Evans, located north of Denver, is embracing open dialogue on the topics of race, equity and justice. As districts and leaders have tried to “manage” questions of racial inequities, Greeley-Evans instead is building teams that can lead authentic conversations forward to rethink education through community-driven equity dialogue.

These districts are opening up, leaning into the waves of change. Open systems leverage relationships to see what is actually happening in communities and therefore, can nimbly and flexibly navigate to address crises and reimagine with those they serve.

In contrast, whether in policing or education, closed systems have always been the most mistrusted by the communities they served, loaded with biases and now are unable to respond adaptively to the crisis of the moment.

Let us be extremely sober about the challenges that we face. Recently, The National Equity Project described this moment as a “critical incident” in a conversation, and I agree.

We cannot predict the future of our education system, let alone what tomorrow will hold during this moment. We should stop acting like we can.

What would it mean to instead embrace the uncertainty, the wave and this moment? What would this ask of educators, families and policy makers?

First, we should notice the patterns of who is failing to meet this moment. Smaller, nimble, open systems do not guarantee success but are more likely to commit to the relationship and adaptation that this moment requires.

If you happen to be in a large or closed education system, be bold and get closer to the community you serve. Let relationships lead you in this moment.

Second, we must name new closed systems as they emerge and produce new inequities. Whether this is the affluent aggregating their wealth into new home school pods or traditional schools failing to ensure kids of color can access online learning, we cannot look away or fail to act to prevent inequities accelerating.

Schools and districts ought to support families to thrive in this moment and if not, we should accept that they may exit out of frustration. 

Third, we must also hold accountable leaders who throw up their hands and say the school or district can’t figure it out or doesn’t have the capacity to hold back the water. 

Reports of school districts launching their re-entry strategies without families or educators in the loop should trouble all of us and will guarantee further deterioration of trust. We must demand openness, investing in relationships and community-driven solutions.

Lastly, openness must also mean openness to new ideas. We should be prepared to hold judgment on new innovations that surprise us. We will likely see an explosion of community or educator innovations emerge during this time, as families attempt to find some raft to climb onto.

For example, homeschool pods may be bad if they are solely the purview of affluent families, but what reasonable policy maker would begrudge an educator or low-income family assembling an education solution that works for them in this crisis?

Would they truly want that family to lose their job to provide childcare or sacrifice the education of their child? If systems were truly open, they would work closer with families that need options and work to ensure equity of access to resources.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

This will not be an easy time. This wave is now here. It likely will wash over much of what we’ve known, across all sectors in society. Instead of building new walls, our education system must learn from those who are boldly committing to the communities they serve and driving forward with open relationships.  

When the waters recede we may find ourselves in a new world, discovering something about ourselves and how we work together in this moment of crisis.

And instead of fearing the wave, we may look back as grateful as it showed us how much liberation was possible when we opened up to the possibilities of the future. 


Landon Mascareñaz is vice president for community partnership at the Colorado Education Initiative and a state board member for the Colorado Community College system.


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