When it comes to public education, the covid-19 crisis is shining a spotlight on the deep inequities that exist in American society, and many hope there will be a new focus on alleviating them when the crisis abates.

But this post is a look into the past and how it speaks to the future of public education, penned by education historians Ann Marie Ryan and Charles Tocci who write:

After covid-19, our collective pursuit of a new normal for public education will be freighted with important decisions about what we want schools to do for our communities and how equitably we wish to fund these endeavors.
The pandemic has provided us a new vantage on the value of neighborhood public schools and we will soon have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the goal of ensuring students are fully supported at all times.

Ryan is professor and department chair of interdisciplinary learning and teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Tocci is assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago. They, along with Loyola associate professor of curriculum studies Seungho Moon, are the authors of the new book “The Curriculum Foundations Reader.”

By Ann Marie Ryan and Charles Tocci

“Homeschooling,” or more accurately “school at home,” has become the rule, rather than the exception during the covid-19 pandemic. While this certainly feels unprecedented, the history of American public schooling shows us it’s not.

Diseases have shuttered entire school systems, and educators have found creative means to continue the work of teaching and learning, via radio decades before, and now moving lessons on to Google Classroom. And just as past crises have reshaped our schools, so too will covid-19.

But the changes won’t be limited to teaching practices and the use of technology for learning because our past clearly shows that the social and educational missions of public schools are intricately entwined. Over the course of the 20th century, schools were redesigned to serve as place-based and responsive social institutions for communities, and our present struggles to educate students in the middle of a global pandemic mirror formative moments in our school system’s history.

It is important to note at the outset that not all families are experiencing “school at home” similarly, just as they do not experience school in the same way. Significant social inequities have caused many students to be without home access to the Internet or a device appropriate for schoolwork. Others live in unstable housing situations or have caregivers that cannot work from home and therefore cannot offer crucial assistance with organizing the daily flow of digital assignments.

And given the structure of our society, factors such as geography, race and socio-economic class most strongly correlate with these disparities. Covid-19 and the deepening economic crisis give us a new perspective on the existing disparities within U.S. schooling and simultaneously skewer the hype about online and personalized learning as a potential panacea to public education’s perceived woes.

However, this abrupt change has restored some much-needed respect for teachers and raised awareness of the vital role schools play as a social institution.

The many social benefits that schools offer their communities in addition to educating students — such as feeding children, providing health care and social services, as well as socializing youth under the guidance of trained adults — became a core part of public schooling through the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century.

And it is exactly these functions that our districts have not been able to bundle with remote learning because a fundamental premise of our system is that schools are place-based institutions. Schools are geographically, socially, and culturally enmeshed in their local communities through daily interactions in and around the building.

The challenge was, as William Wirt articulated when describing his widely influential reform model, the Gary Plan, that “school must do what the school, the home, and the small shop formerly did together.”

Developed in 1907, this system entailed extending the school day and expanding the curriculum through partnerships with local libraries, churches, the YMCA, and businesses to cultivate a broader community into which students were being enculturated. This effort to care for the whole child and not focus strictly on intellectual development is a hallmark contribution of the American Progressive Era education reform movement.

In taking on this greater role, schools necessarily became more responsive to society’s disruptive events. Schools grappled with World War I, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, tuberculosis and measles all at once during the 1910s. The influx of issues and communicable diseases prompted a keen focus on children’s health. A peculiar innovation during this era was the development of open-air schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. (See photo above).

The design of open-air schools moved education on to rooftops, into open-windowed classrooms, or outdoors regardless of weather. Many urban public schools also increased medical personnel during this period with a considerable growth in school nurses, who performed physicals and monitored children’s health.

Additionally, the curriculum saw an emphasis on health and fitness due to the waves of contagious diseases and a desire to be physically fit and ready to defend the nation in a time of impending war. This was reflected in the establishment of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps from the 1916 National Defense Act.

Just over a decade later, schools were battered by the Great Depression of the 1930s, during which teachers continued to teach in some cities without pay. In other areas of the country, schools closed or merged under significant financial distress. Simultaneously, schools and their communities dealt with the persistent scourge of polio and lessening threat of tuberculosis, which prompted periodic school closures.

With World War II following right on the heels of the Depression, the country’s public education system was again quickly refashioned to adapt to a rapid decline in enrollments and large-scale departure of male teachers and administrators. As women moved into fill educational jobs as they did elsewhere across the wartime economy, the federal government responded with the Lanham Act of 1940, which among other initiatives, provided subsidized, low-cost child care and preschool for families.

Subsequent decades have continued to pose considerable challenges to our education system and the inequities within it, often in clusters such as the simultaneous and connected reforms stemming from the Cold War and court-mandated racial desegregation across the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

More recently, the effects of climate change have displaced or closed whole school systems due to fires and hurricanes of historic proportions. These circumstances have required families, schools and communities to adapt to extreme conditions that have been further complicated by the loss of utilities and needing to add days or weeks on to the school year or move to entirely new communities to begin anew.

Similarly, the experience of covid-19 and the growing economic downturn will require schools to once again respond to the educational needs of its students and the well-being of its community. One of the more promising trends of the early 21st century, reminiscent of the Gary Plan, is the community schools movement. Schools, policymakers, teacher unions and community groups support this model, which focuses on the school being the hub of the community.

Community schools are collaborative institutions that offer extended learning opportunities, engage family and communities, and provide mental and physical health services. Schools that have adopted this model have been well-positioned to support their communities in this time of crisis, able to transition their community school network for the distribution of resources such as food, clothing, technology and other essential items to their school and larger communities.

After covid-19, our collective pursuit of a new normal for public education will be freighted with important decisions about what we want schools to do for our communities and how equitably we wish to fund these endeavors.

The pandemic has provided us a new vantage on the value of neighborhood public schools and we will soon have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the goal of ensuring students are fully supported at all times.