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When Reopening, Begin with the End in Mind

by Martin Scanlan - July 22, 2020

Educators, parents, and community members all recognize that reopening PK-12 Schools plays a central role as communities strive to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. As communities plan to reopen PK-12 schools this fall, we need to bear in mind that doing so is not simply a matter of solving logistical problems to ensure health and safety. The process must be driven by educational professionalism that serves the broader purpose of maximizing learning and addressing studentsí holistic needs.

A host of organizations (e.g., the National Education Association, The School Superintendents' Association, Southern Regional Education Board, Education Resource Strategies) and states (e.g., Massachusetts) are releasing guidelines for districts and schools. These tend to foreground logistical details of getting students back in schools. While many are eager to return students to in-person learning, critics are reacting with skepticism regarding the degree to which these logistical plans succeed in “establishing a culture of health and safety.” Both the guidelines and critics keep attention squarely on the logistics. This begs the question: What happens is far more important than where it happens.

Focusing on the logistics of reopening schools in a manner that protects the health and safety of all is necessary, but insufficient. Educators, parents, and all community members alike need to keep this end in mind: maximizing student learning and well-being while reducing inequitable opportunities to learn.

How do we pursue this end? In a word, through professionalism. Educational professionalism is what grounds and guides teachers and administrators to help each school fulfill its mission and vision. Teachers act with professionalism as warm demanders who balance ambitious expectations with caring support. They tap into students and families’ funds of knowledge and foster culturally responsive instruction where students experience mirrors in which they see themselves alongside windows that expose them to new perspectives. Principals act with professionalism, orchestrating the organizational learning throughout the school community toward a clear and compelling vision and mission, scaffolding strong instruction, building authentic partnerships with families, and optimizing opportunities to learn, particularly for students who are marginalized.

The disrupted schooling of the spring, quickly adapting to remote learning amidst abundant uncertainties, posed tremendous challenges to professionalism. In our plans for reopening, focusing primarily on logistics threatens to undermine it further.

To center educational professionalism, reopening decisions must be driven by the stakeholders in each school. To be sure, overarching guidance about health and safety protocols from the state are essential. And within districts, general guidance will also help create uniformity. But teachers and administrators need to be provided the latitude and resources to work with their students and families to determine how, working within state and district guidance, they can maximize their students’ learning and address their holistic needs.

One hallmark of educational professionalism is that decisions are grounded in a philosophy of education. Thus, to begin, a reopening committee, ideally formed at the school level with inclusive representation of various stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, staff, and parents, needs to review the mission of the school community. Missions vary markedly in what they emphasize and how they direct attention. For instance, one bilingual school’s mission reads: “Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley nurtures creative, multilingual learners, equipped to confidently embrace the delights and challenges of an interconnected world.” Another, based on the community school model, proclaims: “The mission of Gardner Pilot Academy is to provide quality learning and social opportunities for our diverse student body, engage families, and offer health and community services through innovative programs and partnerships.”

The key is that the mission serves as the compass guiding the reopening planning process. Initially, the committee might ask: What were our school’s strengths and limitations meeting our mission last year, prior to moving to remote schooling? Then, it might consider: During remote learning, what were our successes in continuing to meet our mission? What were our biggest challenges?

Another hallmark of educational professionalism is articulating and iterating theories of action. Theories of action describe causal relationships about how change happens. Their power lies in making tacit understandings of how things work explicit. By clarifying and explicating our thinking, we are able to develop shared understandings, and also refine and adjust these understandings. Lacking explicit theories of action, reopening decisions may unwittingly undermine the school’s mission.

To articulate useful theories of action, the reopening committees need to discern the priorities and challenges posed in meeting their mission when schooling is hybridized. As the logistical guides emphasize, the vast majority of students will engage in a combination of some in-person and some remote learning. Theories of action will help reopening committees identify affordances and constraints posed by each component. One approach to beginning to craft these theories of action would be to use a simple heuristic to guide the discussion:

Hybrid Schooling

In-Person Schooling

Remote Schooling











Faculty /

 Staff /






Explicating these priorities and challenges can allow the reopening committee to begin moving toward articulating theories of action, typically as a series of “If… then…” statements, for meeting the mission.

A third hallmark of educational professionalism is adaptation. In designing reopening plans, some schools which had embarked on personalized learning initiatives pre-pandemic may find it easier for their students to move between in-person and remote learning. Schools with robust community partnerships may find themselves able to leverage these as they strive to craft “de-densified” spaces for teaching and learning. Schools with established commitments to confront inequities, such as racist patterns reflected in class placements and discipline policies, may find themselves better attuned to anticipating and mitigating inequitable approaches to remote learning. Such innovations at localized levels create successes for others to model, and central office leaders can help schools share lessons learned from these approaches.

A final point is that educational professionalism is grounded in the virtue of practical wisdom: doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. This means going beyond a dogmatic drive to follow rules (heeding the stick) or a hunger to chase incentives (seeking the carrot). Practical wisdom allows us to act with professionalism as we navigate situations of ambiguity, deliberate on how to balance competing aims, frame and reframe situations, and empathize. The pandemic we are facing is the epitome of such situations that demand practical wisdom.

In sum, bringing students safely back into schools is an essential, ultimate goal. But as we pursue this, we need to begin with the end in mind: Reopening schools is not simply a pursuit to get the logistics right. It must be driven by educational professionalism that serves the broader purpose of maximizing learning and addressing students’ holistic needs.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 22, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23382, Date Accessed: 8/8/2020 8:07:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Martin Scanlan
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    MARTIN SCANLAN, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. Before joining the academy, he spent over ten years as a teacher and administrator. His research focuses on the organizational routines and practices of adults in schools in the service of advancing opportunities to learn for students who have traditionally been marginalized, particularly culturally and linguistically diverse populations and students with special needs.
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