Crisis and Possibility: Hope for the Future of Schools Following the Pandemic

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hope for schoolsBack in 2010, when I was serving as a lower school principal at Schechter Westchester (now the Leffell School), I participated in writing a strategic plan for what the school could become. Giving ourselves ten years from 2010 to bring our ambitious goals to fruition, we called the plan “Vision 2020.” 

A global pandemic was most definitely not figured into the plan. 

I moved on from Schechter Westchester, later serving as founding director of a micro-school, essentially a mixed-age pod. This was several years before anyone used the term pod to describe small groups of learners, and when only very few used the term micro-school.

We envisioned growing to become a network of micro-schools, and believed the model we were creating had the potential to prepare children for success in the rapidly changing world they were inheriting. Even we, who believed the world was changing quickly and that schools needed to do so as well, never imagined how fast the world and schools would be forced to change. Yet, both the world and schools have changed dramatically, and not by choice. 

As the 2020 academic year begins, families are scrambling, figuring out how to juggle work, childcare, and actively supporting children’s learning. New vocabulary about schools permeates our conversations: hybrid, remote, micro-schools, and pods.

According to a New York Times poll in August, only one in seven parents said their children would be returning to school full time this fall. Four out of five parents said they would have no in-person help educating and caring for their children, whether from relatives, neighbors, nannies, or tutors.

Educators are doing incredible work, adapting to teaching virtually and in hybrid models with children in school part-time. Still, parents have been called upon to be far more engaged in the day to day of children’s learning and care than they have for generations. For most, with the noteworthy exception of those who embrace homeschooling as an ideal, this situation has not by any means been the first choice. Never easy to be a full-time working parent; it has now become exponentially more challenging.

Perhaps once the virus is controlled, whether by a vaccine, effective medication, herd immunity, or some combination, all will go back to how it was. Or perhaps, from the crisis, something new might emerge. Running Discovery Village, a Reggio-inspired childcare center and preschool in Tarrytown, which has been open throughout the pandemic, I keep having the sensation that education is facing a “founding moment,” the emergence of something new.

It feels potentially as momentous as the founding of the Reggio-inspired educational approach that has long inspired me.

In the days immediately following the end of World War II, the Reggio-Emilia region of northern Italy lay in ruins. With a very active resistance movement against fascism, the area had not only suffered bombing directed against Italy but had also endured attacks against the resistance.

Amidst the devastation, a group of parents banded together to set the foundation for their children’s future. Using the rubble from bombed out buildings, on land donated by a local farmer, and with funding from a tank and three horses left behind after the war, they built a preschool. Their goal was not only to secure childcare in the present, as necessary as that was for them to be able to tackle the innumerable challenges of rebuilding their lives after the war. They wanted to create a preschool that would prepare their children to stand strong against oppression, injustice, and inequity that might arise in the future.

They were joined by educator Loris Malaguzzi, who dedicated the rest of his life to developing the child-centered, highly creative educational approach now known globally as Reggio-inspired.

While Reggio-inspired learning is typically hailed for its innovative educational practices, there is another message from Reggio that may resonate with parents in today’s challenging environment. From crisis, there can come creativity, and from challenge, there can come possibility. This is not only for those with ample resources, as the Reggio story models. It is for everyone. With resourcefulness and love, there is hope and possibility. 

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The mom of two children who are now in their twenties, Shira is the CEO and founder of Discovery Village, a premier childcare center and preschool in Tarrytown, N.Y. Known for her expertise in educational leadership, project based learning, and character education, Shira is co-author of the book The Coach Approach to School Leadership: Leading Teacher's to Higher Levels of Effectiveness. She served for twenty years as elementary school principal of schools throughout New Jersey, Westchester, and New York City. Shira holds a Ph.D in Education and serves as an adjunct faculty member and dissertation advisor for doctoral students at Northeastern University's graduate school of education.