Jordan Drewe, age 10, works on his school work. He attends school in Fairfield.

It’s year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. While more than half of our state’s adults are now fully vaccinated, and conditions are improving for many, we still yearn for how things used to be – our “old normal.”

Understandably, families yearn for a full return to in-class learning for their kids. But should we really turn back the clock to a pre-2020 public education model?

I argue that instead, we must apply what we’ve learned about teaching children during the pandemic to creating a K-12 public education system that truly benefits everyone.

The pandemic has laid bare glaring inequities in public education. The “digital divide” became immediately evident not only among schools and districts but also within geographical areas of the state. Students of color and students living in poverty were most affected. While major steps have been taken to improve access to learning technology in our schools, far more needs to be done.

We must look beyond our walls to understand how the pandemic has and will continue to impact Connecticut’s communities, its workforce, and its economy in years ahead. We must re-think some of our approaches.

Questions to ponder:

  • How should public education adapt to shifts in job skill requirements and changes in the workplace?
  • What partnerships should K-12 schools adopt (or strengthen) that motivate students, accelerate learning and prepare them for post-secondary education and the future workplace?
  • How can we increase the use of micro-credentialing – mini-qualifications that demonstrate skills, knowledge and experience in a subject area or capability – to better serve Connecticut’s workforce needs?
  • How can we develop and offer more virtual programs – inter-district course offerings or virtual college courses – to provide opportunities for students who do well in virtual learning environments?
  • How can we emphasize adaptability, remote working, team building and communication skills in the science, technology and technical courses we offer?

What else have we learned (and re-learned)?

The immense benefit of collaboration among health departments, schools and towns. The importance of ongoing, accurate and timely communication with our communities and families. That students can’t learn if their basic needs – and those of their families –  are not met. Why quality continuous professional learning for teachers is not optional. How collective problem-solving with the Governor’s office, the legislature, the State Department of Education and school districts helped address multiple demands of the pandemic.

Our pre-pandemic “normal” didn’t benefit all communities and all students. Beyond educational equity, how do we ensure that all students, teachers, and staff members feel welcome, valued, supported and respected in an environment of diversity, equity and inclusion?

So I ask, do we really want to go back to our old concept of normal, abandoning all that we’ve learned from this turbulent year? As the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, I believe it would be hugely detrimental to Connecticut’s public school students to do so.

Without a doubt, we have made mistakes this past year. Some things didn’t work. Some things could have been done better. Yet there were breakthroughs in many areas – in classroom instruction, in delivering services to our most fragile students, in communication, in thinking beyond the way we have always done things.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Looking forward, I am not proposing throwing out the bathtub with the bathwater. I do hope we use what we’ve learned to improve and strengthen education for every child.

We have a moral obligation to address the inequities in our systems, in how we meet the needs of Black/African American, Latinx, English Language Learners, students with disabilities and students in poverty. We have a moral obligation to address systemic racism and to develop accelerated learning cultures, not based on student deficits or gaps, but on strengths and abilities, with higher content learning and greater expectations.

The pandemic has had one positive effect: People no longer take our public schools for granted. There’s a new understanding why we must evolve our approaches, keep our schools viable and stable and serve kids who need extra support, attention and encouragement.

We can’t think only in terms of today, or the summer, or September. Rather, let’s take the best from the last 12 months and turn that thinking into immediate and long-term opportunities to improve, advance and transform how we educate our students.

Our communities, our state, and our country deserve no less.

Fran Rabinowitz is executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.