A half century ago the shortest period of time that really mattered to most of the world was 23 minutes. That was the time it would take for an intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple nuclear warheads to travel from the Soviet Union to the United States, or vice versa, signaling the end of the world as we knew it.
In less than two generations, that “most impactful minimum time” has shrunk by orders of magnitude. News items, both real and fake, are viewed instantly by billions of people around the world. Financial transfers that can make or break the fortunes of your business or your family happen in fractions of microseconds. There is zero lag time in connecting with people across town or across the world, many of whom 50 years ago would have had to walk for weeks to reach a telephone.
For school communities the collapse of the time scale has been just as dramatic. Our textbooks used to take years to write, approve, and produce. Now, educators increasingly find ways to circumvent textbooks altogether. 50 years ago, every family knew where their kids would go to school; we walked or rode our bikes there every day, and the idea of going anywhere else never crossed our collective mind.
And next year, school was going to look like last year, just one grade older. Today, literally TODAY, August 5, 2020, many, if not most schools around the country have no real idea what school is going to look like two or three weeks from now. Multiple plans are in place and billions of un-budgeted dollars have already been spent. Governors, mayors, superintendents, teacher’s unions, and parents are shifting their often-conflicting orders and responses almost every day.
The metaphorical missile has been in flight for half a year, and we have no comprehensive strategy to respond. That is NOT the fault of educators.
Military experts know that plans never survive the first bullets of battle. The school leaders I most respect seem to all agree that within a few days of opening school, many of our plans will have been tossed aside as conditions change each day and we “do school” on the fly. Those who can iterate over night and fail forward will do well. Those who don’t? The students will suffer, perhaps for a very long time.
No school leaders are wrong in how they try to deal with this collapse in the time spectrum. They were never trained as warriors against an invisible virus foe, or against politicians who value their own reelection more than they do the welfare of kids, teachers, and their families. There is no “right” answer to school opening this fall, any more than there was a right answer to surviving a nuclear strike.
But there are lessons to learn, and I think these are three of them:
- In the present, do what is best for your students, teachers, and families. It won’t be perfect, or maybe even great, but never abandon this core value.
- For the future, don’t wait for the missiles to fly. We have to learn to be great in a future where change can happen much, much faster than it did in the past.
- Learn from the past, and NEVER align with people who ignore facts or mold them to their own self interest. It may feel easier or OK in the moment, but it will bite you hard in the end and may kill those you love.
In the words of one wise edu-leader this week, school openings are going to be a “hot mess”, full stop. As the great Edward R. Murrow said at the end of his broadcasts from London during the Blitz, “Good night and good luck”. God bless all who are getting ready for this battle against uncertainty.