Pandemic as Fuel for Transformation

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: August 29th 2020

One of the most significant challenges to transformation in education is those for whom the traditional system has worked reasonably well. When you look at the graduates who cross the stage, when the valedictorians speak, when parents proudly put a bumper sticker on their car that says my student is an honours student at Jordan Tinney High, why would we change? Plenty of people in highly connected places know that our system works just fine and their children receive a quality education and a bright future. As we watch the pandemic unfold, COVID may be changing all that by increasing the concerns for safety and shaking our faith in systems. Those very people with the bumper stickers are not just asking, they are advocating loudly and publicly for something different. How cool is that?

In our consultations for returning to school in the fall, I have spoken to many people. One person made the penny drop for me as I was explaining what we were doing, all the measures that we put in place to make school safe for students. “Jordan, I completely trust your models. I think you’ve done a great job and it looks well thought out and well organized. It’s really well done. But yeah, I don’t think we’ll go.” As he said those words, the realization struck me that he really trusted our work, he really trusted Surrey Schools. What he didn’t trust was that this was the time and place, in the middle of a pandemic to send his children back to school. I didn’t need to say another word, I needed to grapple with the fact that we have a large number of people in our society who are faced with choosing health over public education and they are choosing health. The real question for us shifts then from how do we design the safest system in the world, to how do we meet the needs for those who are unwilling (or unable) to send their children to school in the midst of a pandemic?

In the midst of all this, our surveys of the public are returning. What is clear is that there is an appetite for something different, not just a return to your neighbourhood school, not homeschooling, not distributed learning from some central authority, but something different. There is a loud ask to transform our system to provide something that allows people to be connected to their neighbourhood (or current) school, that gives some flexibility of face to face time and time at home, and includes being supported by online tools and learning structures. Most importantly, that ask is coming from all sides including those who would normally do well in our system. That ask just feels a little different than anything in the past. How do we try to step outside our larger commitment to our current structures and guidance and really attempt to listen and understand?

I cannot recall a time when there has been a greater challenge to the faith in our public system. Just imagine the pressures on families of pitting health vs education. I also cannot recall a time when there has been such a public voice of support. The ask is for us to be creative, thoughtful, and bold in developing models that meet the needs of our public in a broader way. Perhaps it isn’t that our public system is being challenged in its integrity or value, its that our system is being challenged to step up, to develop further options to meet the needs of all people as the pandemic continues to descend upon us. The only real question then, I guess, is how do we intend to respond?

The public has given us license. How do we then act to develop something that is responsive, sustainable, high quality and can meet the unique shifting sands of a pandemic? Across the education spectrum, I look forward to seeing what transformative opportunities emerge from the ashes of COVID. In amongst all the tragedy, there may be opportunity and transformation for something truly unique and powerful. I look forward to seeing what people create and what is possible. We have been trying to achieve a broader sense of transformation for decades. Our goal should be the most powerful, flexible and responsive public education system in the world. A system for all children even in the midst of global crisis. Maybe it’s out there. Maybe the time is now.