It’s taken a long time to get here. 15 months to be exact. But, you can feel it. There’s a palpable sense that we’ve turned the corner--the same corner we thought might take just a few weeks. Yet, 15 months of our lives turned upside down by a once-in-a-generation pandemic is (hopefully) nearing its end.
Now before I leave the door open for criticism here, I need to acknowledge that we are not completely out of the woods and that our current positive trends could reverse for any number of reasons. However, I think we all agree that this moment feels different. It feels like the vaccination just might lead to success.
As a School Superintendent, I couldn’t be more relieved.
I also couldn’t be more adamant that we not be in so big a hurry to return to normal, that we forget some really important insights we’ve gained from a year we could never have imagined or planned.
So as we all enjoy turning this corner, I wonder if we might all agree to take the following lessons forward with us into the future:
Let’s agree to be more judicious with how we spend our time. Living, working, and parenting in Silicon Valley, I’m afraid that in our zeal to get our kids engaged once again that we’ll return our kids--and ourselves--to a pace and an expectation that leads to burnout. Let’s spend more unstructured time with our families, free of obligation, free of over-scheduling, free of so much coming and going. Let’s plan time just to BE and to BE together.
Let’s agree that learning can successfully happen in ways and contexts far beyond how we traditionally envision school. By no means am I suggesting that virtual learning is optimal nor am I giving credit to the pandemic for showing us ideal models of learning. However, I do argue that we are much more capable of adapting how we learn and how we teach than we once thought. Education as a system deserves criticism when it is described as too myopic, rigid, one-size-fits-all, and reluctant to change.
Let’s agree that the health and well being of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our community is not to be taken for granted. As a result, let’s commit to treasuring and protecting our personal and collective health and well being. Let’s take time to reach out to our neighbors and truly get to know them. Let’s offer to pick up toilet paper for them when we’re running to the store, even when the shelves are full and they could do it themselves. Let’s prioritize exercise, stress reduction, emotional intelligence, and the people around us.
Let’s agree that the pandemic laid bare the deep inequities that exist in our society and let’s commit to being agents of change. Politics aside, data is clear that COVID experiences and outcomes for the poor, marginalized, and racialized among us were and remain different than for those of us privileged to have access to stable income and job security; technology and wifi; quality education and freedom of the press; food security and health care; (relatively) stable government and infrastructure.
Let’s agree that life is short and tomorrow is not guaranteed. With no better a collective lesson of life’s frailty, let’s live each day as though it matters. Let’s spend less time arguing our differences and more time enjoying our commonalities. Be kind. Offer grace. Don’t be afraid to take risks. What’s the worst that could happen? Failure? Failure is nothing more than learning. In six months we could be facing another pandemic with even more profound consequences. It’s human nature to believe we have far more control than we actually do. Let’s acknowledge the little we actually have control over and let’s make good decisions about how we exert that control.
I am turning this COVID corner clear-eyed and resolute. I will be a different Superintendent. I will be a different parent. I will be a different neighbor. I will be a different citizen. I will be different in all these ways because I experienced the last 15 months. We’ve stopped the bleeding. The wound is healing. But the scar that remains will remind us of the lessons we’ve learned and the commitment we make to ourselves to never be the same again.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.