This article appears in the 2021-2022 Education Guide published by Moffly Media. Click here to download a print version of the full article.

Schools became essential players in community health, and this meant regularly communicating  boundaries determined by public health officials and then enforcing them, often when these procedures were not immediately appreciated or in some cases faced fierce resistance.

During spring 2021, with the optimism of vaccine efficacy and the ensuing rollout of vaccines to teachers and other adults, there was fear of another surge, a surge caused by the reopening of society too quickly and the abandonment of mitigation strategies too fast. In Connecticut we first saw an increase in cases from February into March and April.

In April 2021, the White House coronavirus response team tried to address these things: the optimism stemming from the vaccine rollout, the need for continued restraint, and a longing for a return to normalcy. According to the CDC, coronavirus case numbers were rising, especially in the Northeast, and the CDC feared that a premature reopening would lead to another surge.

Meanwhile, we longed for a return to normal, even while we might have admitted that our memory of normal was a bit forgetful, perhaps too kind, and not necessarily trustworthy. We are humans; we wanted normal.

At the same time, writers, thinkers and commentators asked us to be careful in rushing to a “return to normal.” They asked us to be honest: Was normal that great anyway? Was it great for everyone?

A letter by Sophia Rosenbaum, editor at the Associated Press, addressed, “Dear Normal” put it this way: “The thing about normalcy is that it’s never universal. My normal is not yours. And because of that, it perpetuates life’s inequities, many of which have been laid bare by the pandemic.”

So, while battling a pandemic and our emotions, we were asked to consider what it meant to return to normal. It almost didn’t seem fair. Couldn’t we all just return to normal without having to ponder what that meant?

Well, no. Of course not.

I was reminded that when I was a head of an independent school, I would often meet with prospective families and if I had the chance to sit down with parents, I would ask this question: “Did school work for you?”

What I meant by this was whether or not school—the routine, the classwork, the culture—worked for them. Did they get it? Did they figure it out and know how to navigate it? The answers ranged from an emphatic “Yes” to a thoughtful “Not so much.” This would often lead one, if not both parents, to describe their relationship with school, how it evolved, when it succeeded and when it did not.

When I think of these myriad interactions with parents, there was some degree of similarity among their responses and some portion of these adults, as children, had a “normal” experience. That is, their experience was stereotypical and predictable, and they enjoyed the trappings of school: they went to class, did homework, played sports, appeared onstage, took trips and graduated.

That seems relatively normal. Inevitably, for one or both parents, school worked. They got it. They mastered it. Yet just as inevitably, school did not work for others. But here is the thing: whether it worked for them or not, beyond the predictable, “normal” aspects of life as a student, almost every parent with whom I spoke experienced something they thought of as being uniquely abnormal…

They recalled a dinosaur project in second grade, a history reenactment in 6th grade, a book in 9th grade, a capstone project prior to graduation. There was this one teacher . . . or there was this one project . . . or there was this one trip . . . or there was this coach, or theatre, art or choir director. In the string of examples that parent after parent provided, a pattern emerged: their perceptions of experiences that were abnormal or exceptional were in fact just the opposite. These incredible, unforgettable people, experiences and salient moments were actually entirely normal.

So last spring, as we hoped the pandemic was winding down and desperately wishing to return to normal, and at the same time being forewarned about the perils of returning to normal, I thought of what is both normal and remarkable in our independent schools: the interaction between teacher and student, an inspiring idea, motivating goal, a performance high. Normal is not in-classroom or in-person compared to hybrid or distance; what is normal is the really important stuff of school: the stuff that happens through interactions with classmates and teachers, or with a text or an idea, in a question posed or a hypothesis proven.

I happen to be a proponent of questioning the return to normal. We are wise to consider—and consider deeply—that which we were doing and that which we should leave behind, as well as which modifications we should now adapt no matter the situation. We should consider where we found inequity; where we found a lack of justice; and also, and relatedly, where we found students who had previously struggled or been unserved or underserved, but now flourished in a different platform or landscape.

This new normal is going to challenge us because we began living with it during a pandemic, and we need to think about what happened and what those occurrences mean for students. And school. And schooling. I think schools are ready for that challenge because they lived it deeply.

One example is looking at how much the press covered businesses closing offices (it made headlines) and sent employees to work remotely, and further, some portion of that office space would be repopulated, and some would not.

Well, that is certainly true for schools. We not only had to rethink space (and spacing), but employees also worked from home and from school and students worked from home and from school. What does that mean for normal?

While COVID cases surged, we adopted mitigation strategies and we saw influenza cases plummet. The CDC reported that from September 2020 to  January 2021, it had recorded 1,316 cases of the flu, whereas in the same span the previous year, there had been 130,000 cases—a 10,000% decrease from the year prior. Wow. Will our previous normal response to infectious diseases change? Well, we can hope so. We know we can mitigate the spread of infection and we can do it well. Wearing masks during flu season apparently works, as does staying home when one is sick. A new normal? The CDC says that since 2010, 7,000 to 26,000 kids under five go to the hospital each year for flu. Preventing that seems like a good new normal.

We will continue to discuss our yearning for normal, and what normal means. We can be reflective and take action in addressing what we should carry forward and leave behind. Further, we can, should we choose, look at school health in new ways, just as we know we should consider our own physical and mental health in new ways.

And I think we can recognize that the trappings of school are not the normal we crave. Instead, it’s the real connections, real experiences and real collaboration that are aspirational and attainable. These are both the old and new normal.

Rick Branson
Executive Director