How do schools go from recovery to reinvention in fall?

Across the country, school systems are planning for what's next as they try to readjust after the pandemic. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
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Across the country, school systems are planning for what's next as they try to readjust after the pandemic. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: OS

Yes, the pandemic created trauma, but education leaders also see opportunity

Schools, teachers and students are climbing out of their pandemic bunkers. How long will it take them to return to “normal” and what form will that take?

“I think we are talking about a half a decade response before we get back to, not normal operations — I think that will happen in the fall — but back to really shoring up student skills to where they could have been,” said James F. Lane, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction.

Among seven speakers Wednesday on an all-star Southern Regional Education Board panel on post-COVID classrooms, Lane said the pandemic recovery, fueled by a historic infusion of federal funds in schools, ought to be a foray into innovation rather than a race to catch up students.

“This is our chance to do the deep learning skills that we always wanted to address student engagement. We have to figure out why kids are running to school in kindergarten and running home from school in fifth grade,” he said.

SREB President Stephen Pruitt opened the panel by recalling that schools expected to be closed for only a few weeks when COVID-19 began to crop up across the United States 16 months ago. “It’s gone on for a year,” Pruitt said. “What now? Let’s face it. Unfinished learning was a thing before the pandemic. What the pandemic has done is actually expand that to where really everyone now has experienced some type of unfinished learning, some type of isolation and trauma.”

The panelists described operating without a playbook during the crisis to now having the funding and time to build on what they learned. Mississippi School Superintendent Carey Wright said her state put 400,000 electronic devices into the hands of students and teachers when schools moved overnight to remote learning. Now, she wants to capitalize on that new technology to improve instruction and address problems, including teacher shortages.

“How can I put this outstanding teacher that may be in DeSoto County, which is in the northwest of our state, teaching AP chemistry to somebody in the southeast portion of our state that could not find an AP chemistry teacher if their life depended on it?” asked Wright. “Then, how can we synchronize those schedules, so the children have the advantage in the southeast of this amazing teacher that they never had the opportunity to have before?”

Among other points raised:

Schools must overcome the reluctance of some families to send their children back face-to-face. “Most of our students in Virginia will be coming back in person in the fall, but we still have significantly large numbers of parents who are hesitant, especially if there is not a childhood vaccine by September,” said Lane. “We have to get our students back in person for them to be successful and make sure we maximize their potential.”

Schools should not attempt to reteach all the standards kids may have missed. Wright said she told Mississippi teachers to start with grade-level standards. “Don’t go back to the standards you missed in the spring. You will always be behind. Let’s talk about how we accelerate as we move forward.”

Schools can’t ignore teacher trauma. With new technology to master overnight, concerns about their students’ well-being, and dual demands to teach both virtually and on-site, Chanda Jefferson, 2020 South Carolina Teacher of the Year, said. “Teachers are hopeful, and teacher are exhausted.” Jefferson welcomed the federal aid that will enable schools to pay for more social and emotional learning, trauma-informed teaching and multitiered systems of support, but cautioned, “We want to make sure all that sticks around after the funding is over.”

Involve teachers in how to spend the federal windfall. “As we have these investments in education, new companies are forming to sell their silver bullets,” said Jefferson. “Teachers need to be involved in the selection process of what we will be using in our schools. Teachers should be looked at as leaders and our expertise utilized.”

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