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Perspective | A pandemic has power to reshape a society, and its schools

As I prepared for my first college semester, Hurricane Betsy slammed into New Orleans with 145 miles-per-hour gusts, and Loyola University told us incoming students to stay away for a while. Now, 55 years later, I’m preparing to teach two classes of undergraduates unlikely to return to UNC-Chapel Hill for the remainder of the current semester as a precaution against an especially contagious virus.

For now, while azaleas bloom to herald spring, the coronavirus has driven us off-campus, out-of-school, out-of-restaurants, and six feet apart creating “social distance.” And yet, even as we cope with the inconveniences and uncertainties of this moment, we have to think ahead critically about how to minimize destruction and to maximize recovery in the economy, in education, and in our democracy.

Every era has its forces of disruption that tear at the economy, politics, and the social fabric. We seem to live in an era of disruptions and crises arriving, fast-paced, one after another. In the current century, first came the September 11 terrorist attacks, which led to long-running war, and then the 2008-09 Great Recession with its agonizingly slow recovery left many people and distressed communities behind — and now we cope with the coronavirus of still unpredictable duration and ultimate effects.

Disruptive shocks turn up in different dimensions and from different directions. Take, for example, the two dominant and contentious issues during my years in two universities: the Vietnam War and civil rights. Vietnam fractured the nation’s body politic, while the civil rights movement disrupted the white South’s placid acceptance of unjust racial discrimination.

For all its fury, Hurricane Betsy proved only a temporary disruption in my college career. In New Orleans, Betsy remained a legendary storm until Katrina arrived in 2005. Flood-protection barriers gave way and dark water covered much of the city. Now, 350 miles of levees, pumps, and gates encircle a still-vulnerable city.

In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans became a focal point of inquiry in education circles for its effort to transform a previously dysfunctional public school system. Now, 98% of its public school students attend charter schools — an arrangement that has produced educational gains, and yet the system is still a work in progress.

North Carolina has had its share of devastation from hurricane wind and rain. Fran in 1996, Floyd in 1999, and Matthew in 2016 cost lives, destroyed property, and disrupted schooling in rural communities. While massive flooding did not lead to a schools make-over as in New Orleans, North Carolina has struggled over more than two decades with the equity and achievement challenges embedded in the Leandro case.

North Carolina and its public education institutions have confronted the issues raised by another agent of disruption: economic change, both positive and negative, brought about by technology and globalization. The internet offers quick-as-a-click access to reliable news, substantive commentary, academic research, historical source materials, and consumer guidance — including credible information on coronavirus. But it also facilitates the rapid transmission of falsehoods, rumors, political divisiveness, and medical misinformation.

The old low-wage farm and small-factory economy has eroded; metropolitan areas have burgeoned with high-wage, high-skill jobs. Public education policy now emphasizes science, math, and engineering, along with more post-secondary degrees and credentials.

The coronavirus outbreak has dimensions of duration and reach greater than tropical storm, flooding, and forest fire. Whenever it subsides, the pandemic no doubt will have left more than a few marks on our politics, our health care systems, and our educational institutions. In addition to helping young people deal with their anxieties and fear, we will have to become better at imparting self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as the skills of critical thinking and judgment, so that today’s students can navigate through their own era of disruptions.  

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.