CNN recently reported that if we can’t find a vaccine for Covid-19 soon, social distancing could continue for another two years. Since it’s nearly impossible to enforce social distancing for 30 children in a classroom, schools may be some of the last spaces to reopen.
Although many school and district leaders are understandably preoccupied with immediate Band-Aid solutions, this is also the time to discuss long-term reform. As we prepare for remote learning for the indefinite future, the following are urgent topics and questions we must confront in order to prepare for the likely shift away from traditional schooling practices. I’ve broken them down into three sections: equity, staff, and students and families.
1. Curriculum: We’ve been suddenly given an opportunity to create a curriculum that not only provides space for choice and differentiation, but also expands access. When everyone is attending the same school (the internet), there are ways to ensure that they all have access to the same curriculum. We may need two sets of teachers in schools—presenters, who are screencast experts and will spend their time developing engaging virtual lessons, and tutors, who will work with small groups of students to help them understand those lessons.
No matter our strategy, our first and most important consideration must be equity. An equity-centered education reform organization, 228 Accelerator, developed a framework that is a good starting point for these conversations and poses a series of questions tied to power, compassion, and equity. How are we using equity as a lens as we rethink schools?
2. Pre-K to 2nd grade: While it’s logical to expect middle and high school students to be able to work more independently and from a distance, elementary students—especially pre-K to second grade—are at the greatest risk in this setting. During distance learning, parents of younger children must monitor and guide the learning process more closely, so schools will need to invest more heavily in supports for families with younger children. Interventions might look like smaller e-class sizes; more student-friendly technology platforms; and distributing books, whiteboards, and manipulatives like math blocks to families. How are we redirecting resources to K–2?
3. Summer: Covid-19 is no doubt going to be a summer slide multiplier. While there are plenty of programs that work to close opportunity gaps by leveraging summer and other out-of-school time, we have to also explore in-house interventions. We might even want to make summer school a permanent feature of schooling. Leaders should discuss what additional opportunities they can provide students outside of the traditional (now remote) school day. Even if schools get only a small number of students continuing to engage in learning during the summer, it’s worth it. How are we leveraging time during the summer to catch students up?
4. Professional development: We need to start shifting away from traditional professional development. Districts can move professional development to individualized e-courses and webinars that target teachers’ specific needs. Imagine every teacher in the school choosing from dozens of professional development learning pathways. What professional learning this summer and next year will best set up staff to serve a new set of students’ needs?
5. “Techspertise”: Whether you were a “techspert” already or were overwhelmed by anything with a hard drive, we have to eliminate excuses and build our technology expertise quickly. We can lean on tutorials and webinars to train both staff and families to navigate e-learning platforms. We also must scrutinize technology experience when hiring staff and then prepare for intensive technology onboarding. How are we talking about our technology identities and training staff?
6. Therapy: One teacher described her experience three weeks into the crisis: “I’m so stressed now and can’t sleep because the families I support are under so much duress. I’m not just supporting my students with their challenges, I’m also supporting their families.” More than ever before, this is a time to take care of everyone’s mental health.
Telehealth options will likely become a primary tool for supporting students and families who face trauma, but schools will also need to lean on school-based coaches and counselors for teacher support. Trauma-informed pedagogy must guide our work. What resources, training, and personnel will support everyone’s social and emotional Covid-related needs?
7. Virtual vs. in-person: Even Bill Gates readily admits that kids need in-person social interaction as part of their schooling. As long as Covid-19 remains a threat, any in-person schooling will require high levels of creativity to mitigate risks. One consideration for education leaders, especially in cities where school buildings are small and student populations are large, is a rotating schedule. In-person learning might be possible only a few days a week to limit student interaction. Schools also need to seriously consider looping teachers or at least keeping cohorts of students together. What is a realistic hybrid model for in-person and virtual learning?
8. Individualized learning: Personalization and acceleration will likely be priorities in the coming year, as schools battle learning and opportunity gaps that existed before the pandemic and those exacerbated by it. Technology is well-suited for supporting personalized learning, but pedagogy will have to shift. Schools have to ask everything from “How will we keep kids physically active during virtual class time?” to “How do we teach reading from a distance?”
Teachers’ proficiency with technology will help, but we also have to consider how we can make e-libraries readily accessible. For science, students will be able to see experiments more easily but will miss out on other sensory experiences—if a student can’t feel the heat of a flame from a science experiment, will their brain encode the experience as permanently? We need more research around the science of e-learning. What pedagogical shifts must we make to our practice to serve students’ remote learning needs?
9. Family communication: Parents have officially become the primary liaisons for their child’s learning—parents are teachers, and teachers are their learning consultants. Teachers have also been given a clearer window into what happens when students’ families are struggling to put food on the table or are dealing with other challenges at home.
This is a great time to develop protocols for parent engagement—with an increased need for interaction between families and teachers, how do we communicate with each other effectively? How are we actively empowering and believing in families? The more schools see parents as partners, not barriers, the better we will collectively serve students. What are families’ needs, and how are we working with them collaboratively?
In a crisis where major change is both inevitable and uncertain, we have to listen to teachers, students, and families. What are they experiencing? What do they need? School and district leaders must explore these questions together with those most impacted by the decisions they make.
This pandemic has highlighted inequities in our society that have been ignored for a long time. We don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but we can urgently discuss the big, bold questions that will help us prepare for the changes ahead.