COVID-19 has resulted in many uncertainties about our daily lives, and as educators, you're about to face some unique challenges as the school year begins. As of now, your school district has likely announced its plans for this coming fall—that is, whether classes will be held completely online, completely in person, or a combination. But in many cases, those plans are subject to change at a moment's notice.
"You’re going to have it, I think, pretty much all over the place. And it will depend on the state, and it will depend on the occurrence of COVID-19 in their communities," says MaryEllen Elia, Partner at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), who previously served as the New York State Commissioner of Education and president of the University of the State of New York.
No wonder the reopening of schools has sparked debate among government officials, parents, educators, and staff in recent weeks. Regardless of the reopening plan that your district's schools pursue, there's no denying the fact that students will need to make up for the time spent away from the classroom this past spring. And this goes beyond just academics, extending to mental health and social-emotional learning.
Addressing 8 Top Priorities for the New School Year
In addition to figuring out the complexities behind general reopening details, physical distancing, and sanitary measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to (and will continue to result in) a number of new priorities for education leaders, from addressing a widening achievement gap to a greater need for remote instruction. Here are some insights from education experts on how to prepare for your top priorities this fall.
1. Instructional Planning and Understanding Achievement Gaps
It's typical that students return to school after the summer with some degree of learning loss. But this year, the learning loss will likely be more dramatic than usual. According to researchers at the Northwestern Evaluation Association, students could return with just 50% of the learning gains and in some grades be nearly a full year behind what would be expected under normal conditions.
"Students will have a slide in terms of their level of learning and their skills levels, and we're going to have to take that into account," Elia says. "So targeting specific standards and then being very focused on those, and developing lessons with strong curriculum on connecting all of that to the delivery of service, of education, teaching, and learning, is going to be really critical."
To address this issue, HMH recently released a guide highlighting the Connected Learning Model, which includes five phases:
- Notice and empathize
- Assess to identify learner needs
- Use data to inform decisions
- Leverage high-quality curricula and learning sciences to accelerate academic growth
- Reflect for continuous improvement
Check out this free white paper from HMH's Learning Sciences and Research teams to understand the challenges ahead and what the research says about interrupted schooling.
2. Remote Learning and Tools
This past spring, administrators, teachers, and students made the sudden switch to remote learning as a result of the pandemic. Whatever the format of their classes this coming fall may be, digital learning—whether in full or in part—is here to stay.
"I think it will only continue that the technology will be advanced and become even more advanced to support it, and I think the big issue will be the support we provide for our educational leaders and our teachers—how to do that well and how to continue to get better at it, and to use the instructional materials that coincide with that kind of learning model," Elia says.
In the new school year, educators should be nimble and understand the need to quickly be able to switch between face-to-face and remote learning as needed. We'll talk about the key to making that a possibility—professional learning—in just a minute. But first, here are some resources that you can share with your staff for tips on teaching in a virtual setting:
- How to Teach Online as a K-12 Educator
- 7 Ways to Keep Students' Attention in an Online Class
- How to Engage Students in Online Learning
3. Professional Learning
Experts say professional learning (preferably remote) is key in these times, especially if teachers may need to switch between remote and in-person teaching or adapt to interacting with students in a mix of both environments. David Huber, a school principal in Bristol, Connecticut, states that he noticed during the transition to remote learning that teachers had varying skill levels when it comes to integrating technology into their curriculums and experimenting with digital tools.
"Recognizing that some staff are less comfortable using different forms of technology highlights the need for differentiated professional development," Huber wrote.
According to Dr. Deb Kerr, former president of the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and former superintendent of the School District of Brown Deer in Wisconsin, "We had a chance to pivot, and most of us did, in the best way we possibly could, back in March. We had the school closures across the country. However, we know we have more work to do with that. Most schools did provide some professional development and training, but a lot more needs to be offered."
Depending on how smoothly remote learning went last semester, the professional learning offered for teachers may also need to address catching students up on last year's standards in addition to this year's curriculum. This is especially important in Grades K-8, Elia says.
"They have to make sure that students have those necessary standards, that they've learned those but that they move forward in their schooling, their education, that they don't have a deficit that is kind of a blank spot in their learning," Elia says.
The solution to all of these challenges may lie in a connected professional learning system that is flexible, personalized, and collaborative, as Grant Atkins, an HMH Education Research Director, outlines here. Atkins provides the following five tips for success when implementing connected professional development this fall:
- Encourage a culture of reflection.
- Model empathy and understanding.
- Tailor professional learning to the current situation.
- Build a collaborative community of teachers.
- Commit to making professional learning a priority.