Starting the School Year During COVID-19: Action Items for K-12 Administrators


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:

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:

  1. Encourage a culture of reflection.
  2. Model empathy and understanding.
  3. Tailor professional learning to the current situation.
  4. Build a collaborative community of teachers.
  5. Commit to making professional learning a priority.

"Most schools did provide some professional development and training [in the spring], but a lot more needs to be offered."

Dr. Deb Kerr Former President, AASA

4. Equity Gaps and the Digital Divide

Huber also wrote something most education leaders can probably relate to: "The concept of educational equity has never resonated as much as it has this spring." Truly, the transition to remote learning in education has shed light on how widely students' needs have varied based on factors including their socioeconomic backgrounds.

Not every student has access to Internet at home, former AASA President Kerr says, which creates significant challenges when it comes to completing schoolwork remotely.

"I think we have to be creative in creating those [Internet] hotspots, whether it's going to apartment complexes or housing developments in communities and setting up those hotspots for everyone in that residence," Dr. Kerr says. Equity also means ensuring every child has the devices they need to study from home. To make this a possibility, school districts can consider partnering with local organizations for donated materials or lower costs on devices.

Elia says another major equity issue is that some groups of students may face learning loss more than others, and K-12 administrators need to purposefully focus on greater interventions for those groups while also ensuring that support is available for all students. This support can take many forms, she says, from having teachers work with students online or during study halls or lunch. Education leaders should also encourage teachers to focus on how their students are performing individually and provide equitable resources in their classrooms.

"As teachers find out where their students are and where their learning loss was, they're going to have to individualize and give supports where students need it to catch them up," Elia says.

5. Mental Health

"I think it is fair to say that all children have been impacted from a social-emotional standpoint through this process because of being at home, not being with their friends on a regular basis, and not being in a normal school setting," says Katherine Cowan, Director of Communications for the National Association of School Psychologists. But she notes the degree of impact will vary widely among students based on their age, the stability of their home and family environments over the past several months, how their loved ones have been impacted by the pandemic, and other factors.

Schools need to be able to address students' varying needs, Cowan says. However, Cowan says NASP isn't recommending that schools conduct any immediate broad-scale assessments in the early weeks of the returning school year, either academically or from a mental health perspective. Those assessments, she says, will reveal such high need that it will overwhelm support systems that would normally put into place more intensive interventions.

"[This is] why we're saying everybody should be implementing universal supports in a more intentional, intensive way, and then start moving into an assessment process of how kids are doing and what additional supports they're going to need," she says, acknowledging that in some school districts, this may happen in a hybrid or fully remote format. To name a few examples, universal support can entail:

  • Spending more time during the school day working on social skills
  • Ensuring that kids have time to share their experiences verbally
  • Reinforcing a sense of safe space for kids

For administrators who are returning to schools this fall, it will also be important for you to make students, parents, and staff feel comfortable and safe being back in the face-to-face setting in an uncertain time.

"How are we doing that safely?" Cowan says. "How are we assuring kids that being back with their friends and their teachers—something they want to do—is also a safe thing to do? And how are we reinforcing whatever the policies and procedures are going to be for schools?"

6. Racial Issues and Conversations

As ICLE Senior Fellow Dr. Tyrone C. Howard notes, children and communities of color have been hit particularly hard during this time. Racial issues have also been brought into the national spotlight in recent months as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have fueled protests nationwide.

In this new school year and beyond, it will be important for you to encourage your staff to address topics related to race in the classroom, even if these conversations may seem uncomfortable. Educators need to prepare to answer students' questions and project a message from school leadership that the safety and well-being of every student are top priorities.

"Teachers need to be bold, courageous, and willing to engage students honestly about race, no matter their age," Dr. Howard wrote in a recent blog post. Specifically, Howard writes, you should advise your teachers to:

  • Be informed with honest, age-appropriate answers
  • Be prepared to guide difficult discussions
  • Present diverse perspectives and acknowledge your own biases
  • Project the message from school leadership that student well-being and safety come first

In addition, education leaders can take more actions this fall to address race in their schools, experts say, including prioritizing a racially inclusive curriculum, rethinking discipline policies that disproportionally affect students of color, and diversifying school staff.

"Teachers need to be bold, courageous, and willing to engage students honestly about race, no matter their age."

Dr. Tyrone C. Howard Professor, UCLA; Senior Fellow, ICLE

7. Social-Emotional Learning

The "mission-critical" key to rebuilding a sense of community in the classroom and school is social-emotional learning, Dr. Kerr says. Children have experienced trauma as a result of the pandemic as well as the racial inequities brought to light by the recent racial protests occurring worldwide.

"That's why it's important that our kids and families know that schools are here for them—you are important, and we are going to serve you know matter what it takes, and we are so happy to come back together to work with you to become the best students that you can be," Dr. Kerr says.

Elia agrees that SEL this fall is critical for kids returning to school in any format, noting, "Children cannot learn if they don't feel a level of connection and safety and support from the people they're involved with. Teachers are generally the greatest support for children in a school environment and connecting with children in a remote environment. It can be done, and it has to be a part of the instructional program that's provided for all students."

In a recent blog post, HMH's Chief Research Officer Francie Alexander offers 10 SEL strategies for educators and parents this fall. She advises K-12 teachers and administrators to:

  • Re-build a sense of community in schools, for those returning to the physical classroom
  • Conduct a needs assessment for SEL for both students and educators to understand how they fared in the remote learning environment
  • Promote stress management techniques among students
  • Nurture diversity and empathy and help students establish a sense of belonging
  • And more!

Additional resources:

8. Budgeting

As unfortunate as it might be, the reality is that with the state of the nation's economy, school and district budgets will likely be tighter across the board for the 2020-2021 school year.

"[District administrators] really have to be very, very focused on what is necessary to provide a quality learning environment and education to all students, and so every single expenditure needs to be looked at in that context," Elia says. She notes that it is "absolutely critical" that some additional funding goes toward health and safety measures—including the added costs of cleaning, staggered schedules, and so on—as well as professional learning.

Dr. Kerr says investing in the social-emotional well-being of children and educators should also be front of mind, pointing to counseling services as an example of another possible necessary expense.

"It might mean you have to reallocate and realign some of your resources," she says.

With all of this in mind, some of these priorities may take on more importance than others, depending on where you live and the prevalence of COVID-19 in your community, and that's understandable in uncertain times.

As you move forward into 2020-2021, continue shaping the future of education by focusing on striking the right balance between maximizing student learning and ensuring student and staff safety. And remember, your own social-emotional learning and self-care matters, too.

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