By Richard M. Long, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance.
It’s an understatement to say that we’re living at a time of uncertainty. Public education is a large endeavor: While we have 50.8 million students in traditional public schools, we also have 14,000 school districts, many communities, and families who all have different needs. Yet all want to know, what are we planning and when will the school buildings open?
The anathema to planning is uncertainty. And, in times of uncertainty decisions are still needed, and that these decisions are based on partial information as well as anxiety.
Compounding the current situation is that we actually face multiple uncertainties, each with multiple options, and most without the needed resources. School leaders will need to make calculated decisions with high stakes.
Yet even in this chaos educators can use a rubric: These seven categories can help educators to move from the chaos of the moment, and anticipate the many steps that will be needed along the path to opening the buildings.
1. Chaos: Most districts are past this initial phase, when schools had to close with almost no warning. Decisions needed to be made about how to create some sort of instruction, distribute food and keep students and staff safe at a time when some people are denying the severity and the likely timeline.
2. Utilitarian: After the shock has begun to dissipate, school leaders can engage in more systematic thinking. For schools that had been working towards a distance learning environment, the shift is less traumatic. Yet, even in districts where a high percentage of homes have computers and broadband, some have wanted assignments to be handed out on paper. Schools figure out a massively complex process involving duplication, distribution, cleaning, and many other steps. But, these problems get addressed. Some communities where students don’t have access to broadband outfit buses and set up wi-fi hotspots. On an individual level people are now beginning to be aware that they are sensing time in a very different way, a COVID-19 hour may well feel like a day or more. People are tired, stressed, and basically beginning to find that new patterns of their lives are emerging.
3. Regrouping: As the reality of the situation becomes clear, educators see the challenges of remotely working with students with disabilities and English language learners, and the emotional needs of many students and faculty are different and increasing. Schools begin to address the now “systemic” problems of the new environment. They know that emergency distance learning isn’t the same as a well-planned online curriculum, and they are finding that the lack of connection between staff, students, and parents is exacerbating many problems. These issues are complex and interrelated. School leaders will need to take the best from ‘stakeholder engagement’ and apply it to both figuring out what is needed and then solving problems moving forward.
4. Decision points: Now comes the really tough part. The wider community’s demand for schools to re-open moves from a slow beat to a crescendo. Educators, at all levels, may be left out of the strategic discussions by many business leaders, political leaders, and government leaders. In the background, district administrators must start planning to build new routines, from cleaning buses and school buildings to how to support the idea of social distancing in schools.
Yet, safety issues are only one part of the equation. When students return to school, they may be traumatized from a family’s sudden financial straits, abuse or seeing the illness and possibly death firsthand. Schoolwork may not have been completed or even considered. Teachers will have to bear the responsibility of assessing where each student is in their work, although they may not have the time and tools.
5. Pre-opening: To mitigate the chaos of the reopening of school buildings, schools will need time for a new process of Pre-opening. This will be critical for teachers, administrators, counselors, and others as they will need time to think, plan, and assemble resources. While the state may give schools short notice to open, schools nonetheless need time to be made safe. School districts will need to revise their budgets to new realities. This means time will be need to incorporated new plans, teachers need to work together to take curriculum ideas and plan how to put them into practice.
How will students be assessed when they come back? Most students likely will have made some progress in some areas and need remediation in others. A system can use the Pre-opening to determine what tools to use and what options they should develop.
We are likely to find that a a hybrid model using both distance learning and the classroom will facilitate learning and allow for social distancing, especially given some predictions of a second wave of COVID-19 that would require schools to close during the fall or early winter. Educators could use time before school officially reopens to help the vulnerable students get the remediation and interventions that they need. Some districts will use existing models–such as summer or after-school programs in new ways that will allow some students to start back in an academic setting, before the entire “school” opens up.
Leaders should start thinking about needed partnerships with other agencies and what is required to set up services on Day One. Will schools need outside agencies to help address the social emotional needs of students, teachers, and other adults? Building a system that considers factors such as new hires, having systems to incorporate professionals from other agencies to work with teachers requires at least some orientation, and systems need to be outlined to coordinate services with teachers, and families. All of this will be involved should take place before schools starts back.
6. Opening: The reopening of schools will be a mixed experience. Many students will be happy, some will be scared, and some will be wondering how all of this is going to impact them, applying to college, playing on a team, or even something as simple as knowing what “grade” they are in. It’s going to take some time to incorporate the new routine. Additionally, teachers are going to need to work with other professionals and adapt to the new processes.
Even with the return to school, there will be unanswered questions about how different procedures, rules, regulations, and statutes will be enforced and interpreted. Some students will have moved out of the school district, others will have moved in–when should they be counted? Simple questions are going to be much more complex. Plus, budgets will have been changed, likely meaning that there are fewer professionals in the building, thus putting even a greater burden on those who are left.
7. Revisions: Even the best-laid plans will fall short within the first few weeks of school. Data needs to be collected on an ongoing basis so that changes can be made quickly. Does a school need more social workers? More time for professional development for teachers? Better links to the parents and caregivers? Making adjustments as a school-based team will become the hallmark of success. And it will also help get schools ready for closures if there is a second wave of the pandemic.
During this crisis, schools have shown their communities that they can respond, with most districts providing professional development, technical support, access to broadband and nutrition to students and their families. No other sector of the economy has demonstrated anything near the professionalism of the education community to move from sitting in metaphorical rows one day, and then being fed, and reached out to using a new medium within days. We now should demonstrate a collective demand for the tool of time, to refocus and move forward.
Richard M. Long is the executive director of the Learning First Alliance.