The 74 Interview: CRPE’s Robin Lake on the Pandemic’s Missed Opportunities, Lingering Inequities and the ‘Decade of Work Ahead’ to Turn it All Around

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, has led work to track school closures, reopenings and how districts are spending billions in federal funds for pandemic recovery. (Center on Reinventing Public Education)

Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

To mark the 700th day since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going.

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which shortly after schools shut down, began tracking closures across 100 large districts. and has continued to collect data on school reopening, academic recovery efforts and other pandemic-related policies. In January, she chatted over email about equity, learning loss and the “unacceptable” status quo in education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Feb. 14 will be 700 days since most schools began closing. That number even took us by surprise. What’s your initial reaction to it?

Robin Lake: What we thought was going to be two weeks of disruption turned into two years. No wonder we’re all so tired and stressed! In some ways, the days have flown by because we have all been so focused on just getting from one week to the next. But two years is a very long time to have our lives fundamentally disrupted. It’s been a hell of a ride for adults, but for young people who’ve missed out on so much, two years feels like forever. 

What was the moment you realized everything changed? What were you doing before and after?

Oh, I remember exactly. I was having brunch with my sister in Kirkland, Washington [just across Lake Washington from Seattle] when the news broke that there were multiple cases and deaths at the Life Care Center nursing home just a few miles away. My husband sent me a text telling me to get out of Kirkland right away, and everything felt ominous. Within days, the University of Washington announced it was going virtual, and the Northshore School District, just north of Kirkland, did the same. Those were the first schools in the country to close. 

In Seattle, it was evident that this virus was unstoppable and we had to prepare. I remember sitting in my house, listening to sirens wailing, and writing emails to every person I knew in a position of influence in philanthropy and in the policy world that we had to get ready, and quickly. I knew school systems would struggle to respond and I knew the kids who were already underserved would pay the highest price. It was hard to get people to realize the urgency of the situation and start planning.  As we noted in those early days: “Many districts are paralyzed right now, faced with a choice of keeping kids safe or keeping them learning. Instead, they must prepare to do both.” That has been a repetitive theme at almost every stage of the pandemic.

What has been the darkest part of the pandemic for you?

It’s been a series of dark times. It’s hard to pick just one. The early days were so chaotic and anxiety-inducing. The entire academic year of 2020-21 was horrible because we were swinging in and out of closures, repeatedly unprepared to deliver quality virtual instruction. States left local leaders to figure everything out on their own, and national leaders made schools central to their political fight rather than insulating them. Union power plays kept schools closed when it was clear they could safely reopen. And nasty local political fights meant that when schools did reopen they were often subsumed by hot-button issues.

In some ways, though, this past school year feels darkest to me. The academic and mental health consequences to kids are revealing themselves to be worse than many had feared.  Meanwhile, districts are spending federal stimulus dollars on football field upgrades and unsustainable salary boosts for teachers. Because we failed to innovate and protect schools from politics, educators are burnt out and parents are angry. Two years later, we are still in denial and students are paying the price.

What do you feel hopeful about now?

In the interviews we do with school and district leaders, I hear a true hunger for doing things differently. People are saying, “You know, the way we ask teachers to teach alone in a classroom, trying to be expert in all things and serve vastly different needs, is crazy.” The way we’ve organized high school to prepare all students the same way for vastly different post-secondary pathways is broken. The way we have walled off community services and supports from schools serves no one well. The way we put the full burden of education on families while schools closed and then shut them out of classrooms when schools reopened is unacceptable. This represents a historic opportunity: The people leading our public education system, and working within it, feel more deeply than ever that the status quo is unacceptable.

We’re also seeing new ingredients for transformation fall into place. We saw community organizations step up to support learning in new ways. We saw major investments in closing the digital divide. We saw school systems form partnerships to design new career pathways for their students on the fly.

I believe there is a powerful confluence of parents, educators, and civic leaders who know things have to change and are determined to make that happen. That gives me real hope. 

What would you tell yourself 700 days ago, if you could go back in time, given what we know now? 

Get ready for a decade of work ahead.

What decisions do you remember having to make in the first weeks after schools closed?

There were a number of tough puzzles to solve.  We needed to know what schools and school districts were doing, what challenges they faced, and what solutions they were finding. But there was no easy way to get that information. So we assembled a team of researchers to go from website to website to collect information, and then created a public database to share the information with whoever needed it. This was no time to hoard information. 

We also knew that the enormity of research needs would require a coordinated strategy to get right. We pulled together working groups of researchers, policy makers, and funders to identify high-priority research projects and to quickly synthesize evidence back out to the field. 

And because we were tracking all of this information so closely, a lot of people asked us our opinions about what kinds of help was needed for students, families, and educators. I took it as a serious responsibility to try to recommend investments and policy changes that would truly make a difference at such a critical time. For that reason, I spent a lot of time calling the smartest people I knew to help me think strategically, creatively, and responsibly. 

How long will we be talking about pandemic learning loss?

I think we will grappling with it for as long as the COVID generation is alive, really. We’ll be looking at the immediate impacts for probably a decade, but there are sure to be lasting effects on individuals and on the economy for many decades unless we can change the trajectory of our response. The question is how we’ll be talking about it. Will the story be that we failed this generation of children, or will it be that we pulled together and found solutions for this generation, and designed a better education system for future generations?

Do you think CRPE’s work has been misunderstood during this time? In what ways?

I really don’t know. People have told us they appreciate that we acted quickly and tried to be helpful. We worked hard to call out examples of success but also tried to be vocal when there were problems. Throughout the pandemic, however, people thought I was being alarmist when I called for people to prepare for school closures and others thought I was being reckless when I called for schools to reopen. People often don’t know what to make of CRPE because we reject dichotomous thinking and look for pragmatic and creative solutions. Our North Star has been to focus on what students need and tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

How has the pandemic changed you as a researcher? As a parent?

The crisis was a wrecking ball and there was no time to second guess myself, to spend time on things that didn’t matter, or to hold back my views about what should happen to ensure students’ wellbeing. As a researcher, I hope I can always hold that focus. 

I don’t really think the pandemic changed me as a parent. If anything, it hardened my resolve that our public education system needs to flex to meet student and family needs. The urgent need to create schools and systems with that capability is where my life as a parent and my work as a researcher converge.

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