COVID-19 forced educators and administrators to completely rethink how they work with students. Districts across the country hastily switched to remote learning at the start of the pandemic and then developed online-specific lesson plans and hybrid learning options throughout the past year. Now, with students returning to in-person learning, teachers are examining what needs to be kept and what aspects of education can be left in the pre-COVID era.
Some people see this as a chance to change education. It’s a time to help students catch up and also to move ahead and thrive. Here are some aspects of the school structure that can be reconsidered.
Evaluating How Far Behind Students Are
One of the biggest questions facing teachers right now is determining how far behind students are after a year of remote learning.
According to a survey of 941 educators conducted in early 2021 by Horace Mann Educators Corporation, 53 percent of respondents think students experienced significant learning loss this year while 44 percent experienced some (only three percent thought students were unaffected).
When asked how far behind students might be compared to previous years, the results were split. Thirty percent thought students were one to three months behind, 27 percent estimated they are up to six months behind and 23 percent think they are up to a year behind.
The fact is all of these responses are correct. Students in some districts might be only a month or two behind, while others have lost more than a year, with struggling learners and those in low-income schools having lost the most.
“We’re seeing evidence and data now that suggests we’re looking at students who were behind losing another nine to 11 months,” says Christopher Morphew, dean at the school of education for Johns Hopkins University, in a February 2021 interview. “And these are students who entered into the pandemic…maybe one or two years already behind their peers in terms of learning.”
One of the hardest parts of re-entering the school year will be determining how far behind individual students are — and how much of that is pandemic-related.
Districts can take steps to get more accurate results when testing students’ knowledge. For example, they can make testing more inclusive for non-English speakers who are as yet not fluent enough to discuss complex concepts.
“Along with their native English-speaking peers, English learners likely will face a battery of tests when school resumes to gauge what they’ve learned and lost during the extended school closures,” says Corey Mitchell at EducationWeek. “But those assessments may not fully reflect what they know and can do in academic subjects, especially if they cannot demonstrate their knowledge in English.”
There are increased calls to create native-language assessments where students can prove their knowledge of science, math and other subjects without also translating the information into English.
Developing Programs Through an Inclusive Lens
Inclusivity doesn’t just stop at evaluation. More educators are looking for ways to rewrite the curriculum and the school day so students can feel heard and accepted. They want to invite students who are behind into the fold, rather than pressuring them to catch up with their more affluent or native-speaking peers.
“School needs to be a place that’s not just driving curriculum home, but is a community,” says Michael Gottfried, associate professor of education policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “ “We’re seeing the failure of that not happening with the pandemic: Schools didn’t serve as a community, and kids didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Educators are also looking for ways to reconnect with students emotionally after a hard year. A year where they lost loved ones. A year where they didn’t see their peers. A year where their lack of money was made painfully clear by a lack of internet access that kept them out of school.
“Students’ sense of belonging is a critical—and often underappreciated—condition for academic success,” write the researchers at TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project). “Students who feel a sense of belonging and believe they are valued by their peers and teachers are able to engage more fully in learning.”
When students feel valued, they ask questions and believe they can overcome obstacles. This is how you foster eager learners and engage kids who otherwise might feel left out and give up. This is why teachers are developing lesson plans that help students move forward, rather than focus on what they are missing.
“Instead of segregating these children and trying to give them what they didn’t learn, you say to yourself, ‘What must they know in order to stick with their peers and have access to next week’s lesson?’” says David Steiner, executive director at Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.
Debating Seat Time Versus Competencies
The pandemic also sparked an older debate about the importance of seat time versus the need to focus on competencies. Some advocates are using the pandemic to prove that students don’t need to sit at a desk for hours on end to fully comprehend core materials.
“Kids are trained to be told [what to do during] every single part of their day and never have to think for themselves,” says Travis Lape, director of innovative programs at the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota. Conversely, the competency-based approach “puts the pressure and the ownership on the learner.”
Some students might not need seat time and these are likely the students that thrived during the pandemic. However, for every student that thrives outside of the classroom, there are some that need to be at a desk.
“Seat time matters,” says Katharine Strunk, professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “The more that kids receive instruction, the better off they do.”
There are many ways to increase seat time for students that need it most. This includes after-school tutoring, extended school hours, and spring breaks that are turned into “vacation academies” where students can participate in an educational mini-summer camp.
Seat time itself might not be a problem, but it can become an issue when the number of minutes sitting at a desk is considered a measure of success. Some education experts are calling on school districts to stop tying seat time to funding because being present doesn’t necessarily mean students are learning.
“Whole-group instruction is not suited for a classroom where each student is at a different place in the curriculum and has unique needs,” write Larry Miller and Matthew Joseph, vice president of learning and workforce development at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina and policy director for funding at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, respectively. “With state funding no longer tied to the physical presence of students, schools would have substantial flexibility in how to spend state aid, allowing them to educate students in a more dynamic and complex network of learning opportunities.”
Seat time allows students to have a safe place to go and creates time for kids to develop a sense of community. However, this isn’t a metric for academic success.
Using Summer School to Engage Students
Another aspect of the school experience that educators are looking to change is summer school. Summer school enrollment has increased significantly this year as parents hope their kids can catch up. However, these summer lessons are just as important for social development as core education.
“The overarching goal of summer school [this year] was to make sure students were able to recover credit,” says Constantino Aguilar, assistant superintendent of educational services at Merced Union High School District in California. “The second goal was to get students re-engaged with school community — teachers, athletics, clubs. Number three was addressing social and emotional learning.”
The school district is accommodating 3,394 students in summer school this year, a significant increase from last year’s 1,500 students.
Some districts are changing how they run summer schools, making it seem more like a summer day camp packed with activities.
“As an educator, as a grandparent, I know how important it is for our young people to have access to programs like these over the summer,” says William Hite, superintendent of the school district of Philadelphia. The district used federal COVID aid to pay for the added summer activities and to accommodate 15,000 students that signed up. Typically, enrollment is between 4,000 to 5,000 students each summer.
Keeping students in the classroom all summer can have some drawbacks, which is why there is such a focus on engagement and fun. Teachers want students to catch up without getting burned out ahead of the fall school year.
Rethinking Future Class Sizes
Schools are looking ahead to better understand how they can prevent students from falling behind in the future. Unequal learning was an issue before the pandemic, and educators want to create ways for students to ask for help and feel heard. One way they are doing that is with smaller class sizes.
“When elementary teachers have 25 or 30 children in their classes and middle and high teachers have over 120 students on their rosters, it’s not possible to give each child the attention he or she deserves,” writes teacher and columnist Jody Stallings. “It’s a challenge to even see the students as individuals.”
To address the issue of large class sizes, some districts are bringing in hundreds of new teachers this fall. Palm Beach County schools in Florida plan to hire 369 teachers and staff members to help students catch up in the fall of 2021. This is a $31 million effort that is funded by federal COVID relief dollars.
“We didn’t just want to buy stuff because we knew all of this money was coming,” says Glenda Sheffield, chief academic officer for Palm Beach County. “We wanted to make certain whatever we did would have a tremendous impact.”
That said, teachers alone can’t solve the “COVID-slide” and other academic challenges that students face. These educators need training and resources to create meaningful lesson plans for students.
“Lower class sizes probably won’t lead to meaningful academic gains if schools approach the teaching and learning of twelve students the same way they approach thirty,” says Dale Chu, president at DC Strategies, an education consulting firm.
While most teachers and students are eager to return to the classroom this year, there are some aspects of our education system that don’t need to come back. As educators and administrators review the curriculum and create plans for students to catch up, they can take steps to establish meaningful learning environments in the coming years. This crisis could ultimately turn into an opportunity for real change.