The Pandemic And Cultural Scripts Of School-Family Relationships

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Sherman Dorn, director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

In the last recession, the federal government used the desperation of states as a lever (or maybe a fiscal piston) to push changes in state-level policy. Money and flexibility on NCLBs mandates came with requirements. That last wave of school reform brought the Common Core State Standards, attacks on teachers and their unions, two giant state testing consortiums, and attempts to tie teacher careers to student test scores. 

That prior reform wave did not help schools prepare for a pandemic or its aftermath.

And yet it looks like we have yet another cycle of schools-must-change rhetoric. There is now a little industry devoted to hot-takes about how this is the end of X as we know it,” and there are plenty of entries in education, such as those from Conor WilliamsDavid Mansouri, and Diane Ravitch -- as well as political calls for an education rethink” from federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

From politicians especially, this rhetoric leaves me with the impression that they are trying to cover wishful thinking of different sorts with the facade of deep thought.

As an historian, I hesitate to put such a strong spin on events. I have struggled with what the history of epidemics and school closures may suggest. There are some things we know about school closures in 1918, or the use of radio schooling” in polio waves in the U.S. But my thoughts about children and their school experiences this year have been broader, focused less on the specifics of school operations or epidemics in themselves than on the experience of broad social disruptions. 

It may be useful to compare the major issues related to children and family life tied to the 1918 influenza pandemic with those coming from the Civil War and Reconstruction. Both epidemics and wars have been highly disruptive to family life, in multiple dimensions: how concrete family circumstances changed, how disruptions changed Americans’ way of thinking about themselves and the future, and how people saw responses to those disruptions--as temporary emergency measures or as opportunities for long-term change. 

In the Civil War, hundreds of families found their lives upended by the scale of death and chaos during the war--but it was far from entirely destructive. In American history, the biggest sudden change in family fortunes came with the Civil War and the end of slavery--the most important positive change in American history for ordinary people, and one that immediately reshaped the lives of hundreds of thousands of families with children. The war also dramatically changed the definition of the country and its future, and education played a significant role in that debate over America’s future. From early in the Civil War, abolitionists saw education as one of the key ways they could prove the value of emancipation--and they imagined and then implemented education for all ages, for multiple generations of freedmen. The development of public school systems in the South was one of the most important social developments after the Civil War; as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out, Southern state constitutions rewritten during Reconstruction included public schooling as a positive right guaranteed by states. This ideal was abandoned in the racist retrenchment in the last few decades of the century, but as Hilary Green explains, the era after the Civil War had great potential for redefining our educational obligations to citizens. 

In contrast, the primary impact of the 1918 pandemic was demographic: it killed millions of people and, compared with other viruses, it disproportionately attacked young adults--i.e., parents of young children. While many public schools closed during local wavessometimes before and sometimes during the visible peak, it neither changed Americans’ way of thinking about themselves or the future, nor did any response become embedded as a major feature of education. The 1918 pandemic came in the midst of (the highly divisive) American involvement in World War I, and was quickly followed by a sharp depression in 1919 and the Palmer Raids on leftist activists—in short, it was a major part of several years of great turmoil, but with little lasting impact on how we talked about the country or childrens place within it. Later attempts at emergency instruction through radio-school programs did not last, a telling story about the cultural script of schooling and the interwar attempts at educational broadcasting.

These contrasts are about big issues: who lives, who is free, and what short-term changes become embedded in our notion of the country and citizenship. These larger questions show how small many of the end of X” arguments are. I suspect that in 20 years, the least important question in the lives of families will turn out to be whether 13-year-olds are engaged in more hybrid instruction after the pandemic. Yes, this type of issue is important in an operational sense to school districts. But its not a fundamental social change for historians. 

Instead, I suspect the bigger question is whether and how the pandemic and economic turmoil reshapes the relationship between schools and families. This goes beyond the type of surface-level relationships that Ann Ishimaru criticized in Just Schools, and even the more caring approach that Daniel Liou described recently. Many families have few resources to stay connected--so many children have no education at the moment through no fault of their own or their families. Parents who have just lost their jobs are desperately fearful now, and likely desperate over the summer. Formal academics are going to compete in parents’ minds with nutrition, health care, and shelter. And two of those are sometimes partially provided by schools.

To many families, a return to something like normal” would be welcome--parents and children are desperately missing so many functions that schools play in the lives of families, with academic learning as only one role among many. And yet, there is something schools have not explored, even as they have placed a far greater burden on families. For millions of families, normal” is not enough.

As Carrie Sampson, Lok-Tze Wong, Alexandria Estrella, Dawn Demps, and Claudia Cervantes-Soon observed last month, families have had their childrens education upended--but without schools’ rethinking their relationship with families. As they wrote, In this major crisis, schools have literally moved into our living rooms, kitchens, and cars. And yet, we believe that many schools throughout the U.S. have missed this prime opportunity to meaningfully engage families.” These comments reflect the experience of mothers who have moved heaven and earth to maintain school connections for their children--who had that opportunity and saw missteps by both public and private schools. 

As they write, there are opportunities for schools to learn from the past several months, not just about how to deliver” academic instruction, but where expertise and support may lie. As we enter an uncertain summer, millions of families have experienced the impoverished side of our current models of school-family relationships--whether that is the paternalism observed by Ishimaru, the sometime take-it-or-leave-it construction of school choice, or the occasional fictive school community that excludes so many. The relationships between schools and families have often been fractious, and the pandemic is leaving parents with both enormous sympathy with teachers and also distrust of the capacity of schools.  

The way to address this distrust is not through some five-point plan, the same top-down approach that the federal government tried in the last recession. Some of those efforts stuck, some didnt, and it all had an argument with what I think of as the Borg fallacy (resistance is futile”). That tone in 2009-2011 did not help any of the attempted changes in policy and practice survive a decade. 

It is time for a different approach, even while we set school-family relationships as an essential challenge to be tackled. I recommend looking to our current period of emergency education as a basis for asking what if? Ron Beghetto talks about this as possibilities thinking. A few examples tied to that relationship between schools and families:

  • What if we acknowledged that no educator today has a good handle on how to educate children in a pandemic?
  • What if we then asked families their suggestions for how to set the right expectations when schools are closed?
  • What if we applied those ideas beyond the current emergency—to snow days, to summers?
  • What if schools and families collaborated on the basis of those experiences to look at expectations more broadly?

There is no cookie-cutter plan that results from asking these questions. Answering them requires a commitment to uncertainty in that future relationship. There are resources for schools and families to begin these conversations. For example, for much of this century the Family Leadership Design Collaborative has worked in communities to promote difficult and productive conversations about school-family and school-community relationships. I know that the future of those relationships is the biggest long-term uncertainty we face in education. 

Issues Areas

The pandemic has thrown our deep-rooted educational systems completely out of gear. As a primary school teacher, it pains to see empty classrooms and eerily silent playgrounds. I am missing my students-but look at what they are missing. Schooling is a vital part of their lives. You can conduct classes online, but you can never bring the school atmosphere inside your home.