Before they can think about welcoming back students, schools will need to prepare for the new year with tighter budgets and a better way to support distance learning, among other seemingly endless questions. With a new lens through which to view safety, officials will revise nearly every existing operational process all at once, from student and teacher schedules to classroom configurations and cleaning procedures.
Reflecting on these unprecedented times, it is easy to understand how schools might have been caught unprepared for the current pandemic. But as the work to retool continues, no community will accept its school moving forward without a plan to transition quickly between in-person learning and distance learning. Throughout most of the United States, that means schools will continue to adopt and evaluate solutions that enable remote learning to work seamlessly in concert with classroom instruction as part of their regular playbooks.
For responses to be effective, school personnel will also work to find more of the one resource that no budget can increase: time. Even when circumstances were less complex than what’s facing schools today, educators have regularly felt hurried.
Also working to find their footing right now are the service providers looking to support schools. But everyone—from the superintendent’s office down to the last classroom teacher—is being inundated with solicitations. Schools don’t need more mass emails at a time when they need thoughtful, meaningful partners. But what does that mean?
Following are some of the most important and time-consuming jobs our schools will undertake in the months to come, and for which they will need support in finding solutions.
By now (mid-June), nearly every school in the U.S. has been running remotely for twelve weeks. Continuity of student learning has varied wildly between schools; compounding that disparity are equity issues causing already disadvantaged student populations to be impacted disproportionately by closures. As a result, some researchers expect students will return having completed only half their grade-level goals in math and fewer than three-quarters of their goals in reading.
Quality formative assessments, a requisite for providing meaningful instruction, will be especially important for closing COVID learning gaps. Yet actionable data takes tremendous time to collect, particularly for younger students who are less independent and experience greater mental fatigue in the weeks they require to adjust from summer to school schedules.
How to Support:
- Schools will need the flexibility to administer nuanced assessments, either in-person or remotely, with limited (if any) teacher support but without compromising the accuracy or depth of results.
- COVID-related learning losses will widen gaps between the highest achieving students and their lowest-performing peers, presenting a challenge for even the most seasoned of educators. To address this, they will need actionable data that include specific recommendations that match students’ needs with options for differentiating instruction.
- School leaders will need ongoing, comprehensive access to results in order to monitor progress.
Communicating Assessment Data
Not only do educators need actionable assessment data, but they also need tools to place results quickly into context so they may effectively communicate findings with board members, colleagues and parents. Though every school has some experience collecting and reporting achievement data, one new use for that information will be as part of a burgeoning process to evaluate the efficacy of distance learning solutions.
Placing results into the richest possible context will be profoundly important to helping schools make informed decisions and communicate progress.
How to Support:
- Consider how schools can quickly tailor the data they collect from assessments to match the specific questions facing their communities.
- Data should transfer quickly to a variety of print and electronic formats for sharing, with clear references to help readers understand results.
- Year-over-year comparisons between students at a grade level and how they compare to similar students across the country are good places to begin analyzing data.
- With variations in testing results about to skyrocket, tools that compare previously expected achievement trajectories to currently predicted ones will also be useful.
As a result of the extensive structural changes facing schools, another impending constraint on time will be professional learning. Teachers and administrators must familiarize themselves with new procedures and applications to support student needs in real-time. Transportation and food service providers will work to accommodate split schedules while maintaining six feet between students.
And don’t forget parents! As schools moved to remote formats in recent months, parents were often first to provide students support, rarely with even the most basic training teachers ordinarily receive.
How to Support:
- Partner with schools to ensure they have systems allowing the easy and rapid dissemination of information through a variety of outlets.
- Survey end-users (administrators, teachers and parents) to ask what support and learning is needed to implement programs more effectively.
- Accessibility to guides and screencasts answering frequently asked questions, in multiple languages, will help to better engage parents and caregivers in their children’s learning outside the classroom.
Schools everywhere are creating contingency plans to address the reality of deep budget cuts. Making that process more difficult is the fluidity of COVID infection rates, the availability of federal stimulus dollars, and the speed at which the economy can recover.
Public and private schools are bracing for economic stress as state and local funding initiatives reconcile with a recession, and high unemployment rates stretch disposable family incomes to their limit. More teacher layoffs are likely. Even for those in positions that survive cuts, school personnel may be risking their health, raising further questions about staffing as personal well-being and professional obligation collide.
How to Support:
- Partner with schools to consider how continued remote teaching may be viewed as a beneficial option for some teachers. In a hybrid learning model, for instance, roles may be split with one teacher working in person with students and another working with them remotely.
- Schools may also benefit from opportunities to transition teachers at greater risk to mentoring, advising positions, or other temporary professional development roles.
- Where these factors converge to create staffing shortages, online courses may help to ensure students’ needs are met.
While each of us should take the opportunity to ask colleagues what is working, not every educator is positioned to share answers with a wide audience—or even their peers. Education service providers can help bridge communication gaps by proactively sharing how different school districts they work with are tackling common challenges.
In the face of uncertain times and complex challenges, nobody can be entirely prepared for what comes next. Our collective success will require each of us to actively engage in the conversation on how best to support students, teachers and communities as they prepare to reopen schools.
Jessica Millstone contributed to this piece.