Educators around the globe knew this school year would be like nothing we had ever experienced. In the face of a worldwide pandemic, how do school districts properly balance the well-founded fears of staff and families with the equally well-founded evidence that children need schools to learn and to grow academically, socially and emotionally? A health crisis running headlong into an education crisis: Welcome to the 2020-2021 school year.
This year reminded us that our work is all about people, and their safety is paramount. My staff and I at Ector County Independent School District, in Texas, could not accomplish our academic goals without first ensuring our schools were safe places of learning.
The pandemic challenged our system to create health protocols to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus within our school buildings. Our teachers delivered instruction behind face masks and face shields. The traditional classroom setting expanded to hallways or other open areas to allow for distancing. The cafeteria no longer was used to eat; rather, meals were individually packaged and delivered to students at their learning spaces. Custodial teams were frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Hand sanitizer and masks joined the ranks of notebooks and pencils as common supplies found in classrooms. School buses were filled at half of their capacity. Screening protocols were put in place, including temperature checks and symptom questionnaires, and visitor access to our buildings was restricted.
“School” has become almost unrecognizable.
In my district, we brought students back to our buildings in phases this fall, with our most fragile students—students without internet access and students with learning disabilities, among others—returning first. Having the smaller number of students on campus through the first few months of school allowed us time to pressure-test safety procedures and gave our staff much-needed practice and confidence operating with masks and shields. Parents, too, gained a better understanding of how our schools could continue to teach their children without putting their families at greater risk of exposure to the virus.
While developing safety protocols, our team never strayed from the commitment to serve our students with excellence. Predictive data indicated a detrimental learning loss for our students. In some estimates, students could lose up to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. Therefore, as we navigated the constraints of the ongoing health crisis, we felt we did not have an option to pause the education of our students.
The pandemic interrupted the launch of our district’s strategic plan, designed to improve student learning. However, rather than allowing the disruption to hinder our work, the team stepped up and accelerated the rollout of the strategic plan.
We are incorporating blended learning strategies from pre-K through 12th grade and have embedded learning coaches to support this effort. Teachers are personalizing the learning process by leveraging powerful new data tools with high-quality curriculum resources, thus empowering students to own their own learning. Thirty additional school days have been added to the elementary school calendar to provide more effective time with our youngest learners.
Virtual learning has become an exciting new option for our students. More students now have access to highly effective teachers with our use of various strategic staffing models, including Opportunity Culture, a design that extends the reach of excellent teachers, principals and their teams to more students, for more pay, within recurring school budgets. Within a six-month period, we purchased and received 37,000 technology devices for our students to use at school and home.
Even with a device, data indicated some 39 percent of our students lacked reliable (or any) broadband service in their homes. Through innovative partnerships with local internet providers, national non-profits and a first-of-its-kind agreement with SpaceX, we have provided broadband access to more than 1,000 families in our community. It is a moral imperative that we address this equity gap in access to technology and high-speed broadband.
While many aspects of this pandemic have been horrific, we have learned a great deal and will be a better school system because of it. As vaccinations begin and the public can start to envision a future without COVID-19, we must not allow ourselves to “return to normal” because “normal” was a place in which the status quo ruled the day. The pandemic has forced us to rapidly evolve into something that is better than it was before. Let’s hold onto that.
- We will not go back to outdated learning environments or traditional learning structures in our school buildings, because we know that is not the most effective way to engage learners.
- We will not return to the one-size-fits-all approach to delivering instruction, because we know each student learns differently.
- We will not return to a time when adults owned the learning process instead of children, because student achievement improves when students own their own learning.
- We will not go back to accepting the comfort level of the status quo because “it’s the way we have always done things,” when we know the status quo does not serve all students equitably.
- We will not go back to complacency in addressing the equity gaps among children, because we know those gaps become chasms that follow students into adulthood.
- We will not go back to robbing our students of being prepared for and adaptable in an ever-changing world, because as we saw this year, agility and resilience are skills required for this generation’s success.
What we did before is not the normal I am looking forward to, nor is it the normal that our teachers, counselors, nurses, custodians, administrators, bus drivers, child nutrition workers, students or parents want either. We must seize this moment and press forward only with those elements that are good for children—all children.
The American engineer W. Edwards Deming stated that an organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it is achieving. The opportunity before us is to design a school system that is organized to ensure the success of every child. Our opportunity is now.
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.