To this point in my tech predictions for 2021 I have ignored COVID-19, which we all do at our peril. Now that we know the pandemic is real, that it won’t just disappear, and that half a million people are so far dead from it, what are predictable longer-term impacts? I see plenty changing in how we work, how we use social media, and how education has generally failed. Coming out the other side of this mess several aspects of life will be different, but school probably won’t be one of those.

I have an unusual perspective on these times since I am a parent of three sons (19, 16, and 14), I have a background in IT, yet my first job out of college 48 years ago was teaching high school biology, chemistry, physics, and vocational agriculture. Oh, and I home-schooled two of my kids for two years ending about 18 months before the pandemic began.

Home-schooling wasn’t difficult at all, yet distance learning is a nightmare, why is that?

On the surface this makes little sense. Remember that for much of the time I was home-schooling my kids I was blind. Maybe that worked to my advantage. I know my kids were worried for me and may have tried a bit harder as a result. But home-schooling success really came down to having a good student-to-teacher ratio of 2:1. If you have one teacher and only two students, it’s hard to screw it up if you have a plan and work that plan.

But there was no distance learning plan at all and that’s not so surprising. Why plan for a once-per-century event if chances are 99-to-1 that in any given year there won’t be a pandemic? And even when COVID-19 hit, it wasn’t a lack of planning that led to the distance learning disaster we’ve all been watching. The problem mainly comes down to the 24/7 nature of the crisis, which is psychologically grueling. When my kids were home-schooling they could still meet with friends and not wear masks. Home-schooling was an educational — not a lifestyle — choice. Playdates and sleepovers and spin-the-bottle still happened with home schooling while they don’t with distance learning.

This is not to say that most schools can be proud of their COVID-19 performance, which has generally been miserable. When classes became virtual we all quickly came to see the limitations of virtuality. We saw the limitations, too, of our educational technology.

I volunteered to help our local school system address what seemed to me to be a major IT failure. Here is what I discovered looking under the hood of the Santa Rosa City Schools.

My sense of the district as being not especially in control of its IT systems was confirmed. It’s not that our situation was worse than most other school districts, they are ALL messed-up. From my experience this often comes from a combination of under-informed managers and passive-aggressive worker geeks. Think Dilbert.

The head of IT, who is generally a school administrator, often doesn’t understand his or her own systems and rarely knows what to do to improve them. IT workers, in contrast, come to see their activities as being divorced from the educational goals of their district. Students, what are those? The result is little immediate improvement, replaced by a broad tendency to blame vendors and respond by changing them next year or at the end of the current contract — any time in the future that provides us no help at all today.

It’s probably too late to change much, if anything, this school year. Attendance and grading are both in trouble even if you don’t take into account students and parents who are burned-out from distance learning. Kids are marked present who are absent and absent who are present. In our school system, for example, every grade change is announced by e-mail to parents three times. An arcane data entry process generates the first report when teachers input assignments into the system, telling parents not that the assignment exists but that their kid failed (because the work was just assigned and therefore can’t have been completed so the grade is an F, get it?). 

I didn’t get it, either.

The second report happens when the native grading application synchronizes with Google Classroom, which happens daily, again sending out a failure report — often before the students even know the assignment exists. 

The third report happens at the end of the day and nobody knows how to turn it off. Appeals to vendors go unanswered.

That’s three failure notices per day per class. If you have two children in the same school, like I do, and they take six classes each, that’s 36 failure messages per day, none of which bear any connection to reality.

“Ignore the messages,” I was told. Don’t think of a bear.

Now we are entering familiar IT organizational territory. Remember that seventy percent of big IT projects fail completely. The definition of complete failure, in case you are wondering, is the customer gets nothing for their money. The organization ends up worse-off than if nothing had been done at all.

Why would a company or a government agency would ever start a new IT project knowing how likely is failure? It’s because IT projects that DO succeed can return 10-100X, more than making-up for the losers.

But that logic doesn’t work so well when those losers are our children.

Let’s pray things get back to normal by September. But even if they do, our kids will have suffered from this year. They suffered through a learning environment that pretty much didn’t work for anyone. And they are now about to be PUNISHED for their suffering — punished in the form of both missed experiences (I keep getting marketing messages for the school yearbook — how do you even do a yearbook for a year that effectively doesn’t exist?) and punished by grades that are far lower than they would have received in a normal year.

The schools will be fine, the teachers will be fine, but these kids will always be hobbled by this experience.

I have an 11th grader, whose college options have been deeply affected. Counselors say, “Cal State and UC understand this — they’ll be flexible.” But Stanford won’t. I know that because I sat on admission committees when I taught at Stanford. When you accept only five percent of applicants you don’t EVER have to be flexible. Next!

Turning this disaster into a prediction, I’d say that blame is starting to be passed around. The schools will let our kids suffer silently if that’s okay with the kids, themselves. But with parents like me making trouble, soon the very people who are used to being seen as infallible will be very fallible, indeed. Teachers and administrators will be blamed with the ultimate result being what I have started calling The Great High School Reset.

If your kid breaks a rule they are punished, but if ALL kids break the rule, then the rule is changed. Maybe they’ll make this year all pass-fail. Certainly they’ll ignore attendance. Maybe they’ll reach back and just give everyone their pre-pandemic grades again. Whatever the reset, there will still be collateral damage and our kids will have lost a year.

There have been definite technology winners and losers in this pandemic experience. Cloud-based conferencing software like Zoom has been a big hit. But it is important to notice that none of the tools we are using came about after the pandemic began.

Post-pandemic there will be a huge impact on monotonous office spaces. People who prefer working at home may want to stay there and many employers will realize a savings from this. Here in the California Wine Country there is right now a real estate boom caused mainly by folks from San Francisco who prefer to do their Zooming from the countryside, ideally from a couple acres of paradise (if paradise isn’t burning, that is). This change may endure.

Another big hit in 2021 is Clubhouse, the invitation-only voice social network. I am a Clubhouse member and I have been thinking hard about the nature of this startup’s success. Exclusivity is part of that. People want to be invited in. But other attractions are that it is audio-only (problem solved: do I turn on my camera on this bad hair day or not?) and also a sense of intimacy just hanging out with a bunch of (hopefully) interesting folks. Clubhouse has definitely been helped by COVID-19.

It will be interesting to see if Clubhouse continues to thrive when COVID is gone and the bars are again open.