As we evolve to a post-pandemic world, the scars and long-term consequences of the pandemic are becoming increasingly evident. The pandemic’s impact on daily life and on what our “new” daily life will be, however, is still cloudy: Some people hope for a complete return, while others believe that what was will never return. What is clear is that medical and education systems are forever changed, and the road to a better future will be rocky, chaotic, and uncertain.

We have witnessed the disruption and destruction of our education systems throughout the world in a manner never before experienced. The disparities and inequities in our education systems that were evident pre-pandemic have now been accelerated and exposed in a dramatic manner. None of us need to look far to observe the significance and impact of these realities.

Students, parents, and teachers have taken part in vastly different educational experiences over the past school year. Some families and their teachers have operated all year with near normal schooling but with strict health procedures adopted throughout the school community, while others have been frozen in time with ineffectiveness and disengagement since last March. Children in the latter scenario have experienced a loss in learning that is only partially measured through assessments; the toll on their intellectual and social-emotional development will not be fully understood for years to come.

Why such stark disparities? While some countries fared better than others, Americans and people around the globe have experienced the failures of government at all levels to lead us through the pandemic. Even so, why did some schools find a pathway forward that enabled learning to continue for their students and families while other schools completely failed? The answers begin with understanding the nature of schools.

Schools are communities, and communities operate best when they are based on cooperation, trust, and mutual respect. In some school communities such as Miami-Dade (Fla.) County Schools, Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin, and Atlanta (Ga.) International School, students’ safe return to their classrooms was grounded by the communities’ united approach to navigating the challenges of the pandemic. In these communities, all key stakeholder groups (students, parents, teachers, and educational leaders) joined together to solve problems, create a restoration plan, and commit to the plan’s implementation.

However, far too many school communities lacked a plan that gained agreement among all key stakeholder groups. As a result, students suffered the consequences of ineffective learning experiences with frequent disruptions. I spoke with a parent recently who painfully shared her son’s experience of online learning for the past year, which culminated with the school telling her that her son’s reading level is lower today than it was a year ago. I have interacted with other parents who have high-school age children who have quit, either literally or in effect. They may sign in for online learning, but they are not engaged and have lost interest in their education.

The key differentiator between the schools that enabled continued learning and those that did not is the bond of trust. Highly effective schools nurture and respect a culture that builds trust among all participants in the community. These communities leveraged their bond of trust to collaboratively build solutions to restore learning for their students. In these settings, that fundamental bond of trust is stronger today than before the pandemic. These education communities will likely deepen their feelings of trust and flourish in the post-pandemic world.

Struggling school communities, though, suffer from weakened or broken bonds of trust; consequently, these school communities failed in their response to the challenges of the pandemic. They treat the responsibility of finding solutions as though it belongs only with the leaders of the school community. For example, one school-board chair indicated that the operation of schools during the pandemic was the sole authority of the superintendent. This response has been repeated to parents and others as they have tried to provide input into developing a solution. Unfortunately, this school community has experienced direct consequences associated with the pandemic.

Our education community faces myriad challenges in the post-pandemic world, including learning loss and social-emotional struggles. To address them, every school community must invest in building and sustaining a bond of trust among and between all families and educators. With a healthy bond of trust throughout the community, the pathway forward beyond the pandemic will be filled with vigorous support for the educational development of students and their families.

Private: Mark A. Elgart, Ed.D.
Dr. Mark A. Elgart has served as president and CEO of Cognia since 2002. Under his leadership Cognia was established, following the merger of AdvancED and Measured Progress, to bridge the gap between school evaluation and student assessment.  Cognia serves as the trusted partner with over 36,000 institutions in 85 countries to advance learning for 25 million students.  Elgart has a long, distinguished career of 40 years as an educational leader including time as a math and physics teacher, school principal, and chief executive leading a global, education non-profit.  He is annually recognized, both locally and internationally, as an influential leader in education due to his impact on education policy and the work of schools.  He is an internationally recognized speaker on education and frequent author on educational issues including recent whitepapers on federal policy and school improvement.  In education, Elgart is widely viewed as the foremost authority on school improvement and education quality.  Elgart earned a bachelor’s  in Mathematics from Springfield College, a master’s in Educational Administration from Westfield State College, and Doctorate in Education in Leadership in Schooling from the University of Massachusetts.