In this file photo from May 13, 2020, Shannon Shaw, a third grade teacher at the Abraham Lincoln School in Bangor, adds a video link to her Google Classroom as part of the day's lesson plan. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Public education has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presenting itself. This pandemic may have scrambled the school year, but it has also forced educators to consider new ways to instruct that are radically different. When the school year starts, everyone will expect fundamental change.

Anyone who has spent a career in public education knows how incredibly hard it is to enact change or nurture reform. Maine educational history over the last 30 years offers a number of examples of well-intended initiatives that went nowhere. Whether it was responding to No Child Left Behind, the establishment of standards-based education or combining school districts, they all failed and public education remained monolithic and unmoved.

There are several reasons for this. Changing any social institution is not an easy thing to do; institutions have performed a role for so long that everyone just assumes them to be a natural feature in a cultural landscape. Their size, configuration and outcomes are immutable. Another reason is the bifurcation of leadership and funding in Maine education.

New England schools have been locally controlled since the days of puritans, but the state bears about half the education bill and is responsible for setting most educational laws. Every school district has to decipher and wage a yearly funding battle with both local and state government in order to function for the next fiscal year.

The same can be said of any reform initiative. Parents of successful students are stalwart in resisting change, and they have loud voices. If their child is doing well academically, they see no reason to change what is taught. If their child is a sports star, then they are adamantly opposed to changing athletics. If their children need babysitting services then they do not want to change the timing of the school day.

Finally, the staff themselves. Educators are like anybody else. Most are not comfortable with the uncertainty that change always brings. About a third can be convinced to participate willingly in any new initiative, another third will go along once others invest significant time and effort and the final third will passively resist any change that promotes significant alteration. That one-third of passive resisters are an incredible weight to bear and will collapse most reform.

If you doubt where we are today with school reform, call your local high school and ask them what the requirements are to graduate. You will find that they are pretty much the same as they were when you graduated — no matter how old you are!

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to change all that. The choice confronting educational leaders is to either fight a stop-gap holding battle, starting this fall, wait for a vaccine and rebuild our institution in exactly the same way our grandparents built it, or take this opportunity to imagine and build a new vision.

For years we talked about the advantages of year-round school, fully integrating online education into instruction and altering the timing and scheduling of the school day. Imagine a class where kids who can learn online do so and those who need a personal touch have a daily or weekly meeting schedule with tutors or teachers they have to follow. What if we shifted the main instruction of any given class online and used the school as a place to meet, review work, practice instruction, and do homework? What if we reduced the number of courses for each student but increased the time spent on each one? The possibilities are limitless and the opportunity is now.

This has been a horrific few months that no one wanted and no one prepared for, but if we can keep our eyes up and focus on what we can construct anew out of this chaos, we might, at some point, look back and see more than the misery this virus has brought upon us.

Alan Haley of Skowhegan writes about Maine life.