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Lessons Learned from COVID: Leaders Share Challenges and Bright Spots

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In a year like no other, educators are asking an important question: where does K–12 education go from here?

That was one topic explored in a discussion with two education leaders at the annual SXSW EDU Conference & Festival. Hosted by Matthew Mugo Fields, EVP and General Manager for Supplemental Intervention Solutions at HMH, the virtual event included Dr. Lisa Herring, superintendent of Atlantic Public Schools, and Henry Hipps, deputy director of K–12 education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in a panel titled "COVID Lessons: A New Era in Education."

Let's take a deep dive into how COVID has influenced these education leaders' work since spring 2020, the bright spots they see coming out of the pandemic, and the challenges they continue to face.

How Has COVID Impacted Your Work in the Past Year?

For Dr. Herring, the pandemic led to an important realization: the public school system is responsible for much more than just classroom instruction. Educators need to consider how to implement teaching from home, alongside ongoing fears and anxiety around health and wellness and, for some students, a lack of access to technology. In some situations, students may depend on their school for access to food.

"It has forced me to completely look at how we approach not just teaching and learning but how we approach serving our communities, and especially the most underserved," Dr. Herring says.

Hipps, who clarified that his job at the Foundation is in response to the needs of education leaders, says his focus has been on helping school districts achieve what they need to immediately address the urgent needs of this crisis—and more importantly, to help the world understand what types of generational problems the world when students return to school. Among these issues is the student learning gaps resulting from the pandemic.

"The pandemic has changed the work in that now more folks really see the challenges we have in getting to a more equitable system, and so there's just more energy and focus on data you can no longer deny," Dr. Herring says. Overall, the pandemic has also facilitated the need for high-quality educational products that address students of different racial identities and focus on social-emotional development.

What Are Some Bright Spots from the Past Year?

For Dr. Herring, one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is her district's greater focus on working to strategically eliminate barriers of access to technology for students. Devices and internet hotspots are now available to any family or student who needs them. She was pleased, she says, with how teachers facilitated instruction through the use of devices, especially for younger students—even in physical classrooms, where precautions around social distancing needed to be implemented.

"Being able to manage and effectively engage for the purpose of teaching and learning became a new culture for teachers and students," Dr. Herring says. "I can't say it happened automatically, but I can absolutely say that it's happening. And I think it requires us all to pause and ask ourselves, 'How will we now reimagine that moving forward?'"

This reliance on technology also allows for more personalized learning, which can be considered a bright spot, Dr. Herring says.

In some ways, educational product developers and distributors have also seen some positive outcomes. HMH now has upwards of 20 million users on its digital platforms, which generates more customer feedback to make the company's solutions more effective, Fields says. Hipps agrees, noting that COVID has helped EdTech developers identify the populations that need their services the most.

"A lot of what we also saw is much faster feedback loops between folks who build things and folks who say, 'Hey, the stuff you developed—all well and good, but it's not working for us in these ways,'" Hipps says. For example, some students' parents or caregivers also had to serve as teachers in some capacity—an unexpected consequence of the switch to remote learning.

What Are the Enduring Challenges in Education Due to COVID?

One aspect of the past year that will continue to present challenges: students' realization that they don't need to be in a physical classroom to engage in learning. This raises a key question, Dr. Herring says: "How do we blend and balance that moving forward but do it through the lens of equity so that we don't create further disparities around the achievement gap that we've been seeing?"

It forced me to completely look at how we approach not just teaching and learning but how we approach serving our communities.

Dr. Lisa Herring

Superintendent, Atlantic Public Schools

While personalized learning will be a bright spot, it won't be an easy feat, Dr. Herring says, because teachers will need to develop plans around the unique needs and circumstances of every child—and household. The focus will be not just on the learning but also on student progress, and students, teachers, and caregivers will all serve as co-owners.

With many states deciding not to give summative assessments this year, it also becomes difficult to authentically assess what children know and can do and what additional supports they need, Hipps says. This is especially important because SEL and academic development are deeply intertwined.

"We have to understand that without the right types of data and authentic assessment, then we run into a situation where we're not equipping educators with information they need to be responsive," Hipps says. "That's going to be an ongoing question in several dimensions."

How Can Interrupted Learning Be Addressed?

For one thing, addressing the interrupted learning that has occurred among students due to the pandemic should focus on the whole child, Dr. Herring says. She says schools need certain resources in place to help students engage, even if this needs to be done in the virtual format, through programs or services tied to mental health or student disabilities.

Another important need for educators: meeting children where they are and finding appropriate data to identify where student performance lies. But EdTech needs to do more than just provide the information. Educators need to be able to monitor student progress as their performance hopefully improves, whether in literacy or math.

"We want to have access to platforms that provide an opportunity to truly see growth, to be able to speak to what it is, to be able to acknowledge that growth, and not just from a visual standpoint but from an analytical standpoint," Dr. Herring says. The information needs to be easy for a teacher, student, or a parent or caregiver to digest, and an individualized learning plan can be created. Programs that help students build connections will be important now and in the future.

Fields agreed with Dr. Herring on a very important point: EdTech is not a substitute for building connections with students. "On our best day," he says, "what we should be striving to do is help facilitate better human relationships and interactions."


Learning didn't stop during the pandemic. It just took new forms. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.

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