By: NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen
Many superintendents and principals are starting to consider what the 2020-21 school year will look like. The list of hypothetical scenarios continues to grow. Many leaders in the education community are asking big questions, like "What should I be thinking about in preparation for school opening next year?"
While a critical question, I would propose another related question: It is not just what you should be thinking about, but what should district and school leaders be doing – right now, before the current school year is over – to best position schools to serve students throughout the summer and into next school year?
Surveys indicate that less than half of U.S. students are engaged in any level of formal, organized learning from their remote locations. We also know that very few districts – even those who have started remote learning – are doing this fully in a virtual environment. Most are engaging kids with a combination of paper packets and online learning for those students who have devices and connectivity. Feedback, much less grading, is not occurring on a regular basis, and in many instances, kids have dismissed what they are doing as busy work. If this is what our students and teachers think remote learning looks like, we've missed a real opportunity to regroup and get it right.
And that's what we should do this spring, before we inadvertently set these experiences as the new status quo.
Even if we are thinking positively, there is still a strong chance remote learning will be in play in some way next year. While we don't know exactly what 2020-21 will look like, we do know it will fall into one of three categories: 1) brick-and-mortar learning 2) remote learning or 3) a hybrid of these. It seems highly probable that social distancing measures will require us to limit the number of adults and students in a school building.
Developing our district and school infrastructure to effectively deliver virtual learning is a must right now. Regardless of which possibility becomes reality, students could be better served by some form of virtual learning for remediation support, enrichment, and even summer learning. What we do now sets the tone about expectations with teachers and with students, and that will be the difference-maker in the fall.
This means, right now, we should focus on:
Solidifying systems for serving students' needs.
Districts and schools have new and evolving processes, such as food delivery systems and pickup locations, to meet student needs. Spend time now to survey families, articulate what worked and what you would adjust for the fall, write down the plan, and share that with your school communities. Consider how you would do this is in a hybrid scenario and think through these options now. Districts desperately need these structures to be solidly set and operating seamlessly starting now so that cognitive space and energy can be redirected to building academic growth plans next school year.
Doing everything possible to make sure connectivity and device access are not a barrier to learning.
Virtual learning can only be effective if each and every student has access to that virtual learning, so it's critical to think about how device and internet access will be provided to all students. While this solution should involve federal and state support, it is useful to think about what you can do with what you have now. Perhaps funding that was going to be directed toward end-of-year activities could go toward laptops and hotspots for students, and pickup locations for food could double as device rentals as needed. Providing connectivity and device access should also be paired with building out support functions: technology tools, teacher training, communication protocols, and dedicated personnel who can troubleshoot and support virtual learning from the IT team.
- Planning how content can translate into a remote setting.
Before this school year ends, intentionally curate, select, and develop content that can be delivered remotely. Help teachers to plan what skills they can review with students, map out what standards they should focus on and emphasize, and practice strategies for virtual teaching. Target academic efforts toward developing virtual instruction so this learning can seamlessly bridge into next year. Make sure teachers are supported and understand that they aren't expected to get it right the first time – this spring is the opportunity to continuously learn what works and build those feedback and revision processes for the fall. If we don't focus on this in the present, we won't be prepared for a future that includes remote learning. Think through what teachers must practice and review in their virtual classrooms this year to smooth the transition to next year.
- Creating pathways for individual students to receive skill reinforcement and support.
Remote learning can feel transactional, so it's important to build in more personal and hybrid options that focus on direct instruction and individual support. Many teachers are texting with students and families to check in, which is foundational. In addition to texting and structures like "office hours," teachers could schedule 1:1 calls or chats with students on a regular basis to ask them what they need and hear how they are feeling, and as necessary, they can use that time to focus on specific skills or lessons. Even if it's just one or two times before school is out, that can help set expectations and systems for the fall. Students should feel just as comfortable reaching out with questions in the virtual setting as they do stopping by their teacher's desk or raising their hand in the physical classroom. These efforts should be paired with collecting information about where students are academically so plans – at the school and individual student levels – can be in development now.
Organizing human capital to maximize student support and growth.
Hiring and training decisions that districts and schools are making now should focus on maximizing teacher effectiveness above all else. Effectiveness in a virtual setting takes on the same best practices for in-person teaching – like effectively grouping students, questioning, focusing on standards and objectives, setting success criteria with students – but the methods look different. Sometimes teachers need to be reminded they already know what to do, and they just need some support and ideas for how to translate those strategies into a virtual environment. Instructional teams and teacher leaders are critical levers to efficiently support all educators. Perhaps there are teachers who could be elevated into those roles to support their peers, and existing teacher leadership roles could be maximized with clear direction to plan for the fall.
The actions of schools and districts in the present moment will determine the momentum with which we enter the 2020-21 school year. Maximizing time this spring to get acquainted with the virtual learning environment and setting permanent structures to best serve students are some of the biggest ways to set a tone of growth and success when we re-enter our school buildings – or our virtual classrooms.
While we don't know exactly what 2020-21 holds, we do know that remote learning will likely be implemented to some degree for years to come. Preparing our schools now for this reality will allow us to focus on students' academic needs and keep learning at the center.