This article provides a plan to return our students and staff to school safely using evidence-based medical practices and accelerated learning approaches. The author is a former superintendent of the Brown Deer School District and immediate past president of the American Association for School Administrators (AASA), This article is about a plan for the state of Wisconsin, but the research-based recommendations are applicable for any state in the U.S.
For additional information about plans in other states see: Returning to In-Person Learning, a report issued by the Education Commission of the States.
Who could have imagined a year ago that a pandemic would force schools to close across the country and so drastically affect our economy? “There’s no place like home” became a constant in our lives, as in-person interactions were abruptly suspended last March. Within a week, parents became teachers. Teachers became students learning technology tools to engage with their students in new cyber classrooms. And community leaders became social workers, assisting families in need of food and resources for life’s necessities.
When we look back on 2020, I believe we will celebrate a reawakening of support for education, including the Herculean educators, support teams, and school and community leaders who bravely served our kids and communities. The new year presents an opportunity for us to begin recovering from this pandemic, with the first step being to return our children to in-person learning.
I propose a statewide plan to return our students and staff to school safely, a plan that is based on evidence-based medical and accelerated learning approaches.
We are at a crisis point in our public schools. Statewide data in Wisconsin, for example, reveals declining enrollment across the state: 4,000 to 5,000 students are not showing up in virtual school programs and similar trends are being seen in other states. Teachers are burning out, and there is a teacher shortage, not to mention parent fatigue, a stressed workforce, and an impacted economy.
It is time for statewide recovery plans to return our students to school. It is time to address the learning loss and inequities that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, such as robust broadband access, tech devices, and food insecurity.
My plan includes the development of a stakeholder communication plan with school-based health and safety precautions. We will ensure personnel safety through ongoing collaboration and communication between administrators, building leaders, staff members, students, parents, and health services, and health departments. Staff will have adequate PPE along with safety training and clear expectations for student and staff safety protocols. Other key components are:
- Start with elementary students going back to in-person instruction, then a gradual release to/from hybrid models for middle and high school students, and then full in-person teaching and learning in all schools.
- Provide parents and caregivers with choices on how to serve their children best moving forward - whether it is an in-person or virtual approach.
- Support teachers with quality professional development that addresses their mental health and well-being and best practices to address student learning loss.
- Implement a transition plan for social and emotional learning activities to welcome students back to school, especially those who did not have closure last year, and quickly reestablish relationships traumatized by school closures.
- Use evidence-based acceleration practices to identify learning loss for all students, prioritize grade-level content, and target interventions to ensure growth in specified essential standards.
- Support collaborative planning to develop modified school calendars that may require learning opportunities through the summer, evenings, and weekends.
- Create innovative school partnerships with community non-profits, universities, and businesses that support the accelerated learning required for all students - high-intensity tutoring, before/after school programs, weekend programs, summer learning academies, evening classes, and online modules, etc.
- Work collaboratively with policymakers to support state and federal funding resources to accelerate learning, support training for educators, and recover safely from the pandemic.
- Let us learn from others across the country and the world who have safe and successful models in place with a plan to prioritize in-person instruction.
Teachers now have a more profound appreciation by our parents and community stakeholders for the art of teaching. It became very apparent early in the pandemic that our teachers are more than deliverers of content. They teach kids how to think, what questions to ponder and ask, how to find joy in their learning, and most importantly how to develop the values and virtues of character. Teachers have been inspiring their students to be persistent and not seek perfection while we were all learning new ways to learn.
Parents were able to watch more intently how teachers organized their lessons, how they engaged their child, and how to better understand the dynamics of managing a classroom without the bricks and mortar and kids sitting in straight rows.
Parents of children with disabilities worked with their teachers in creative ways to better serve their students. Meetings were easily scheduled online to problem-solve and design educational programs. Communication was more frequent as we all navigated a new landscape of education, but one that was more personalized and customized. Teachers served kids outside of school hours, on the weekends, and collaborated to support staff to assist with Zoom meetings. Teacher assistants were able to help a student more quickly by setting up a private break out room. I watched a lesson with a special needs student, his teacher, and an administrative assistant. The teacher was able to focus on the interpersonal relationship while teaching the lesson. The staffer handled the technical aspects of running the online meeting setting up the whiteboard and making sure the audio-visual aspects of the meeting were suitable.
It’s been amazing how schools are working to provide special education services virtually, virtual and hybrid models, and transitioning these students into school buildings before the full student population. This type of collaboration is a great way to reduce litigation because of the inclusion of all parties to not only serve students during a pandemic but do it in a way that is more responsive and creative. Through mediation services, online meetings have brought all parties together to facilitate communication in more effective and efficient ways. Educators and parents have worked well together to be more creative and collaborative - all good for our kids!
Parent voices have been exponentially increased through online board meetings. Never before have hundreds of parents and community stakeholders been listening and weighing in at monthly board meetings. This is one practice that needs to continue as we are going to have to support our students for school reentry and recovery from this pandemic.
Finally, let’s resolve to get our kids back in school. Each district can customize its recovery approach to meet the needs of students, staff, and the school community. No two plans will be the same because no two students, schools, districts, or communities are the same.
As the author, C.S. Lewis, writes, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” So let’s do just that. Together we must promise to reinvest in our students, families, and educators to create a reimagined education system that serves all no matter what sector. This is our call to action - our promise to all students and families. Our prosperity and future depend on it.