In the United States, one of the most controversial actions by the Trump administration has been the attempt to force schools to reopen in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. The question of whether to send children and young people back to school—especially in those states where there are no serious mandates to fight the virus (mask-wearing orders, contact testing and tracing, and so on)—is an acutely sensitive one. All parents want their children to feel safe, but parents also want to feel safe about their children going out in public. Even so, much like Buddhist sanghas and meditation centers, educational institutions are very much communities in which interaction, teaching, and learning have traditionally taken place in the physical presence of others. The challenges posed by uprooting these interactions are not insignificant. However, while new formats and methods of delivery are probably going to stay with us for some time, there is also an extraordinary opportunity to rethink the content of that delivery. So what are the multifaceted priorities that should be circulated and acted upon?
There are big questions about whether parents and students are receiving their money’s worth when schools and universities shift courses to online platforms, and anxieties about whether all-important exams can be held on time. In Hong Kong, for example, Reuters notes of the most recent closure of schools: “The switch to online learning at home has frustrated teachers, parents, and students, and exacerbated the learning gap between the haves and havenots. More than two-thirds of parents, regardless of income, believe their children have difficulty learning at home, according to a February survey by the Education University of Hong Kong.” (Reuters)
Even being deprived of a graduation ceremony or a post-graduation get-together or party can be deeply upsetting (even traumatizing to some extent) to this year’s graduates. That is to be expected. These are difficult times for young people and schools around the world have reluctantly closed because they have concluded that, despite the difficulties and uncertainties, learning at home as a whole is better than COVID-19 depriving people of the chance to learn altogether.
In the Greater Good Magazine of the University of California, Berkeley, Jill Suttie writes in response to her child’s university canceling all in-person classes and finals because of one COVID-19 case: “Though the university will incur high costs—they have to deep-clean the whole campus, for example—I, for one, am truly grateful for their swift action and putting students first.” (Greater Good Magazine) Suttie observes in another article for the magazine that decisive action can increase people’s sense of unity, patriotism, and confidence in their government. In both instances, decisiveness has partially helped to weather the pandemic storm. However, that is only the beginning as educators move to adapt classes to an online format. Helping young people through this crisis requires collaboration between students, parents, and educators on multiple fronts and spanning multiple generations. For now, closing educational institutions is a start, but communities and governments need to move beyond simply reacting to the coronavirus, to proactively develop bold programs that will educate students through this new era of social distancing and self-isolating.
As many commentators and analysts have rightly noted, there may be upsides to the way education has changed (since COVID-19 has rendered many aspects of the traditional delivery model unfit for purpose). Project Wayfinder, a purpose-centered curriculum based in UC Berkeley, notes that certain aspects of social-emotional learning will be taken much more seriously and given a much higher priority. For example, the notion of purpose and finding meaning in the era of COVID-19 is becoming a more prominent discussion. Finding purpose is a philosophical and spiritual endeavor that has largely been left out of most classrooms as something to be privately pursued. Now that classes have literally been brought into the privacy of one’s home, it is fitting that discovering purpose is now something that can be part of public learning, whether in an online class or a Dharma talk.
In recent years, an increasing number of schools have seriously looked at the beneficial effects of meditation programs for students. There might have been administrative and cultural hurdles in a regular school environment to introducing meditation or learning about compassion (as a scholastic subject), but such spirituality-tinged topics could become part of a new approach to purpose-based learning—exploring these subjects not only as part of a preordained curriculum, but asking active questions about how students can navigate academia and life productively and healthily.
This model of online-only classes has striking similarities to adjustments made by Buddhist and other religious communities around the world. Religious festivals are being conducted online, as Vesak was this year. Religious leaders have taken to live-streaming or prerecording videos to continue their teaching work. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, for example, a respected Korean Buddhist monk, held a live-streamed international Dharma talk this month. His Holiness the Dalai Lama returned to public teaching through a two-day global webinar in May and celebrated his birthday in July with a series on online events. The concerns motivating these changes reflect those for closing schools: worries about the transmission of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing. On a smaller scale, online Dharma classes are becoming more common, with the added effect of helping more people access the Buddhist teachings, since finding a nearby Dharma center is no longer an issue.
There is no doubt that something important is lost in the transition to this online-only format. Imperfect in execution though it can be, the classroom is a special space that is fine-tuned for learning. The religious space, whether a temple or a meditation hall, is conducive to spiritual activity. It is an embodied locale that those with a spiritual purpose need, just like the natural human need for physical contact. Nevertheless, a recent Buddhistdoor View observed that we need not fall into the trap of simply repackaging a teaching or retreat and sending it out to those who request it—the educational equivalent of “copying and pasting” an existing curriculum onto an online format. That is not only impractical, but a tremendous waste of an opportunity to rethink content and priorities. The ways education can be tailored for online life—discussion boards, apps, one-to-one videoconferencing, open-access livestreams, and Q&As—broadly reflect the adaptations that Buddhist leaders and communities are also adopting.
As one school principal observed: “COVID is presenting a unique opportunity in education. For the first time in 150 years, we get to blow up the industrial model of education. We are given the gift of learning because we want to learn—not because we have to learn.” (Greater Good Magazine) It is often only during a crisis that disruption and subsequent innovation leads to a future that might have been possible but not very practical before said crisis. This is applicable to Buddhist institutions as well, since online Buddhist courses, retreats, and classes were already prevalent before the pandemic. The decades-long discussion about building religious communities without a temple (especially in the early days of Buddhism in the West) is a direct parallel of the conversation between students and educators on developing new experiments for a class without the “classroom.” It might be hard to turn back the clock—for schools and religious communities alike.
Everyone is still feeling their way through this once-in-a-century crisis so there are bound to be mistakes and false starts. While it is important to carry on with as much of normal life as is safe, the magnitude of COVID-19 should not be underestimated. As with religious centers and communities, many in education are looking further ahead, exploring how our adaptation to the COVID-19 world could change academic priorities and reach for the better. With the right mix of prudence and resolve, when COVID-19 is finally suppressed to a globally safe level or even defeated, education could well emerge better than when it entered the coronavirus era.
Hong Kong to suspend all schools due to spike in coronavirus cases (Reuters)
How to Keep the Greater Good in Mind During the Coronavirus Outbreak (Greater Good Magazine)
Can the Lockdown Push Schools in a Positive Direction? (Greater Good Magazine)