Educating During the Pandemic
On March 16, 2020, I was told to “temporarily” shut down GPA. We were told that the country would just need a few weeks to work our way through a virus that was rapidly spreading around the world and killing people at an alarming speed. I knew that it wasn’t going to be a “few weeks”, so I sat alone in a space that we had spent 6 years building - much of it with our own hands. I hated that I wouldn’t be able to high-five students as they gathered acceptances from Caltech, Northwestern, Reed, Colorado College and so many amazing schools and programs. I hated that seniors wouldn’t get dressed up for prom, and we wouldn’t be able to hand each of our students a rose at graduation, congratulating them on going through a process that only they would understand. We had stayed until 3 am working on projects and applications. Together, we brainstormed personal statements, cried a bit, wrote draft after draft - all while building value that would fill their applications with authentic and quality content.
I wrote a Telegram note to all of the graduates, apologizing for an astonishing lack of leadership in this country that led to them missing out on landmark moments in any person’s life. It sucked.
Quitters? Not Us
However, there was no time to pout. I watched as education crumbled under the weight of the pandemic and vowed to create something new and better out of the disorder. Students had no incentive to even wake up before noon; education’s stunning lack of agility had finally been exposed. The Titanic was too big and slow to avoid the iceberg. In fact, to be frank, high school education had already hit the ‘berg; students finally just noticed that most teachers and administrators had taken off in the lifeboats, leaving the students stranded as the ship listed and sank slowly into the freezing water.
Ironically, I had worked at Blackboard, a company that tried to enhance (read “replace”) classroom learning with discussion boards, downloadable content, and teachers on camera. Blackboard and Canvas and the rest of the learning management systems all floundered as much as the brick and mortar schools did. We had hit a breaking point that I knew was coming; I just didn’t think it could happen so quickly. Surely, I noticed the students taking joke courses at College of the Canyons, cutting and pasting their way to bloated GPAs that were a transparent ploy to fool colleges. None of it was working. Too many students were dangerously unprepared for college and for a rapidly changing economy. The pandemic turned on the lights, and all of us could see the dusty curriculum that was meant to prepare 1950s students to be servile and compliant in factories or offices. Gatsby, memorizing British Kings, and math packets make no sense to a generation that sees TikTok influencers and SpaceX launches. Students quit. So did teachers and administrators.
We didn’t. We took the time (and money) to invest in technology that can empower students to not only survive but also thrive in a fourth industrial revolution economy. We built a Makerspace that contains two 3D printers, 5 Ipad Pros loaded with powerful apps, six Macbook Pros filled with Adobe Creative Cloud, Blender, and other essential and relevant programs. We used Zoom for good...rather than for evil. Our students came to our Zoom classes and collaborated just as voraciously as they did when we were in GPA. Eric and Zoe started Six Feet Supplies, gathering over 100 volunteers around the district who are still delivering food and supplies to at-risk families around SCV. Bijaya, Terra, Ashton, Jathin and others started building a Contact Tracing program that could help students get back to school. Andi, Cassidy, Christine, Andrea, and Hannah led a team effort to create a more relevant curriculum and more transparent and just Hart School District handbook. GPA students took the quarantine as an opportunity to grow and learn.
As soon as it was allowed, we brought in a UCLA epidemiologist to consult with us about how we could safely open the space so that students could gather - even while wearing masks and sitting with enough distance between them. We were told to keep all of our doors and windows wide open, creating an outdoor environment inside of GPA. It may get a bit warm sometimes, but the students want to keep working. We created our own GPA masks for any students who need them. We placed sanitizers EVERYWHERE. We created a new deep cleaning routine that includes all-day sanitizing and late-night scrubbing. I have an auto-immune disorder, so I am sensitive to those who are a bit afraid right now. Like so many, I think I endured COVID-19 in early March but won’t know for sure until we have an antibody test that gives me 100 percent confirmation (I did take an antibody test that came back positive for COVID antibodies, but it is only with 63 percent accuracy. Crazy, right?).
Moving Forward - with Gusto
So we are back. I think we can all say with some degree of confidence that the students will not be back in school until, at least, the spring. Therefore, we have created a Fall Schedule that includes Boost courses to ensure that the students learn their subjects beyond just through downloadable packets from Google Classroom. We have subject area experts covering the entire range of classes and also wish to get the students more prepared for AP tests than they have ever been. In addition, we have spent the summer building supplemental courses that are targeted on the next generation of soft and hard skills that will be vital to the students’ futures. We have created a GPA Alumni network so that current students can benefit from the experiences of those who have graduated are attending college now. We have built a process and utilize technology that empowers students to build projects that matter now more than ever. Standardized testing is dead for at least the next two years, so students must show colleges that they will bring a return on their investment.
This hasn’t been easy - for any of us. However, GPA feels more confident than ever in the direction we are moving. We always saw the flaws that the pandemic exposed and have been screaming from the rooftops for years to not simply rely on COC courses and standardized testing. While public schools operated as if it were 1976 and our competition kept telling parents a fable about standardized testing, we were committed to what was next. Today, we move forward focused on models that adapt, equipping students with the skills to create a more inclusive, cohesive, and productive global community.