Mascareñaz: In Denver, Coronavirus Sent Us Into a Tailspin. But There’s Also Great Hope and Opportunity for the Future

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Last week, I was on a call with education leaders about how they should be thinking about virtual learning during the current crisis. I could barely focus. Just before the call started, my wife had received a call from a mom in north Denver who had four kids and was crying because she’d been laid off and didn’t know how to feed her kids and was scared to leave her house. She had reached out to us because we had launched an initiative to deliver free meals to families and elders in need. Being on this call with education leaders in the middle of a crisis like that felt like one of the more out-of-touch moments of my life.

Let’s get real about the unprecedented nature of now. We are witnessing an unraveling the likes of which we’ve never seen in our lifetimes. And it’s happened so fast.

One week ago, I was in meetings where we were planning the entire months of April and May. So many convenings, conferences and commitments that we were all going to attend. All that has been wiped clean from the slate of my life. I’m sheltered here at home, focusing on my work at the Colorado Education Initiative, staying engaged about how this is challenging our Colorado community colleges and keeping an eye on our small business at Lost City.

It has become unequivocally clear to me that the word we must start using with an honest urgency is crisis. 

Over the past decades, we have heard that word bandied about in our political and social culture ad nauseam. Maybe that’s why it’s taken some time for the word to really sink into our daily use now.

But the truth is right there in front of us: The stock market collapsed multiple times over the past week. Political finger-pointing and media hysteria play on a loop. Millions have lost their jobs, primarily in the service and hospitality industries, creating a dramatic economic tidal wave in our economy. The complete distancing of our daily in-person interactions. A chilling stasis taking hold over our local economies, potentially for months. Our education system’s massive shutdown and the uneven, inequitable distribution of home learning support. Each day has contained too many moments of scary, tough realities. This is a crisis. And it’s far from over.

A crisis is scary. It’s hard and painful. And most importantly, it’s real. What we’re experiencing now has nothing in common with the crises of the past decade. The events of the past decade now look like a lost, tired and decadent society at war with itself as it spins ever more into distrust and confusion. And just at our moment of maximum fracture (does anybody remember impeachment and the Dem primary?), we are now overtaken by a real crisis that has already led to a loss of life and well-being. Even if the COVID-19 panic turns out to be less than expected (unlikely at the time of this writing), the impact has been profound.

Yet, a crisis is not always a lost cause. An old Italian philosopher said, “The crisis occurs when the old is dying and the new is not yet born.” It is now clear we are watching the emergence of something new. The question now is not what is dying, but what is being born.

I imagine many in the education space have different, or distinct, takes on what is happening. They can’t wait to push their virtual learning platform or pontificate on how autonomy has helped or hindered this crisis. I don’t blame them. This crisis will have massive funding implications and dramatic political ramifications. It will obliterate many nonprofits that cannot match the moment.

I have long believed that the future is one of openness, abundance and community-driven redesign of public systems. Already in this crisis, the stories of those who are working together to serve, solve and save those in need are the light we need to shine to get us through the darkness. I hope that this is what is being born. But I could be wrong. I have a sense it will indeed get much darker (with both resources and education system capacity getting scarcer) before dawn and that any chance to better the world will be met with enormous resistance.

But before we start doing any of that, we must take a lesson from the superintendent of Cañon City, Colorado: George Welsh, a truly remarkable leader who for the past few years has helped his district adopt the mantra “Maslow before Blooms.” That is, we have to put the immediate physical needs of our families (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) before the learning agenda (Bloom’s Taxonomy). It is critical guidance we need in these times.

First, let us put aside petty education battles and collectively name what our first, second and third priorities must be: the immediate needs of our students, families and elders. There is massive need on a scale that is only beginning to unfold. Our traditional notions of “need” must now be thrown out the window in 2020. The work there will both guide the way forward and show us what this new world demands of us. Only if and when we work to support our communities can we move to the next stage of the conversation. Kids around our country and world deal with these challenges during wartime, famine or disasters regularly — we just have not experienced it on this scale. If we are in the business of human development, which I believe we are, then this is a time more than ever to get grounded on supporting the entire child. Too many of my Zoom conferences this week tell me the education community will struggle with this. But unless we focus on our students and families first, we will not deserve their trust in this new world.

Second, my ask to all of us now is to accept both change and continuity. Hold both in perspective. In this time of rapid transition, it seems clear that the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 will radically change our lives and our ways of operating in education. Many will declare the future to look like this or that. But much of that was already happening. Massive shifts in the way we educate children and unwind the worst of the previous century’s system have been underway for decades and belong to both sides of the now-antiquated education reform debates. Before we declare a path forward, we must hold both truths.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, let us dream together of a new world. A crisis builds new capacity because the old has been shaken and we get to foster emergent newness into being. Let us practice abundance instead of scarcity as we dream. This time in isolation should be a time for reconnecting with ourselves, because that is where all change begins. Next, we should connect with family, old friends and colleagues and start dialogues about what is possible. Then we can bring more and more communities into the conversation and strive to hold abundance as our dreams reach tension, as they inevitably will.

Maybe then we can bring a new and better world into existence. One that creates real and meaningful opportunity and lives for all children and adults. One that our communities deserve.

I believe we can.

Landon Mascareñaz is vice president for community partnership at the Colorado Education Initiative and a state board member for the Colorado Community College system. 

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