Full Speed Ahead

Topics: Pandemic Leadership, Equity and Diversity

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a seismic impact on teaching and learning. Sudden shifts to remote learning made inequities in student access to meals, clothing, Wi-Fi, health care, and school supplies more evident. School closures allowed teachers to experiment with new strategies for instruction and assessment. And the shock made social and emotional learning, mental health, home-to-school communication, and the “whole child” a bigger focus.

But while the future of K–12 education holds many uncertainties, there will be lessons to learn from this unprecedented point in history. “Strong leaders quickly get comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos, recognizing that they do not have a crisis playbook,” wrote Nancy Koehn in Fast Company. “Instead, they commit themselves and their followers to navigating point-to-point through the turbulence, adjusting, improvising, and redirecting.”

Will your school be ready to reopen and meet the needs of each learner in the fall—in what might be a post-pandemic world?

Supporting Students When Schools Fully Reopen

Leaders who want to ready themselves for life beyond the pandemic should prepare to do so now. While safety, social distancing, disinfecting, and mask-wearing have all impacted the educational experience, how, when, and where schooling takes place is likely to be forever changed. The five-days-a-week, seven-​hours-per-day structure has been disrupted. The delivery and receipt of instruction might never look the same again.

School districts across the country provided parents with an opportunity to choose between face-to-face instruction for their children and a completely virtual model. Parents and teachers will continue to expect that choice, and schools and districts that position themselves to offer it will be primed for what comes next in public education.

  • If schools can reopen completely, you’ll need to take the following steps:
  • Routinely evaluate safety measures to maintain a safe learning environment;
  • Adjust the traditional structure of the school day and/or year for students and staff;
  • Modify the delivery of instruction based on the needs of students and families; and
  • Expand choices to accommodate student and family expectations.

Instructional Strategies to Support Learners

The pandemic forced us to think carefully and critically about what is essential for students to know and be able to do. With limited time and remote contact, educators have had to determine the most critical content, knowledge, and skills students must master to be college- and/or career-ready when they leave our school systems.

Moving from a hyper-­focused look at standardized assessments to a concentration on student readiness and subject mastery might prove more beneficial, increase student motivation, and improve teacher retention and recruitment. This is an opportunity public education can’t miss—a chance to create a personalized, competency-​based system instead of a comfortable but archaic system of teaching and learning.

To plan for teaching and learning in a post-pandemic world, take the following steps:

  • Prioritize the content, knowledge, and skills students need to master in each subject and on each grade level;
  • Create a definition of success beyond performance on standardized assessments to reflect the readiness needs of students as they exit your system; and
  • Establish a plan to address the SEL needs of students and staff.

Shine a Spotlight on Equity

COVID-19 has clearly emphasized how marginalization can impact a student’s educational experience. From the rural broadband gap to the working parent who can’t be home during the school day to support their student’s remote learning experience, we have evidence that opportunity is not equal in public education.

The pandemic’s end won’t eliminate the need to create a system that’s more equitable for all students. At some point, each school and school district will need to analyze its strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities, and educators will need to design quality learning experiences for students that do not compromise a student’s ability to demonstrate mastery due to a lack of resources in the home.

Take these steps to work toward equity:

  • Conduct a thorough review of your policies to identify barriers and obstacles to equitable access and opportunity for all students;
  • Revise policies and/or practices to reflect your beliefs about equity; and
  • Provide staff with professional development and training related to creating a more equitable teaching and learning system.

From Surviving to Thriving

A sudden change in circumstance quickly made educators think carefully about what students need to know and be able to do. By focusing more on essential learning concepts and enduring understanding, schools and districts have an opportunity to shift instructional programs in a way that might allow students to improve the depth of their knowledge, apply critical thinking skills across disciplines, and make connections that lead to new understandings.

Districts that take advantage of the opportunity to change the mindset of what a quality instructional program consists of and carry it forward beyond the pandemic will be ready for the future demands of public education. This new “essentialism” could allow us to develop students in ways that show a return on investment in their ability to not only acquire knowledge, but also apply it to real-world situations.

Schools and districts should consider the fact that adjustments made due to COVID-19 might need to become permanent practices to make the educational system effective. Educational leaders and policymakers should acknowledge and outline the things that should remain part of our work, practices, and policies post-pandemic.

Let’s make no mistake regarding the need to innovate. No longer should we ask students to fit the system we’ve designed; rather, we need a system that is designed with students at its center. Schools and districts that move to a student-​centered approach will position themselves to better meet the needs of those they serve post-pandemic, while those that make only slight alterations to their processes might fail to realize the benefits.

So while it’s tempting to look at the pandemic as something to survive or endure until things return to normal, teachers and administrators should take advantage of the “new normal” to create schools that focus on equity, whole-child education, student growth, and preparation for the future. Because what, exactly, the future holds is anyone’s guess.

Latoya Dixon is director of Early Childhood, Elementary, and Gifted Education at York School District One in South Carolina.

Steven Weber is associate superintendent of Fayetteville (Arkansas) Public Schools.