When the pandemic is over, there will be COVID-19-related practices many school administrators will happily like to see vanish and never return, such as mask wearing and social distancing.
But there are some new or refined activities that — while forced upon the education world due to COVID-19 — should have staying power because they have the potential to improve student outcomes and school operations for the long term, some administrators predict.
Education Dive recently spoke to several school leaders for their thoughts on what practices should have lasting impacts. Here is what they said.
Remote learning bridging emergency closures
"Zoom fatigue" is real, but video conferencing has prevented a complete pause to learning and helped maintain student-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships when distance learning is the only format available.
Effective remote instruction, however, depends on student and teacher access to devices and the internet so teaching and learning can take place in synchronous and asynchronous formats outside school walls. Using technology to keep kids learning even when they can’t travel to school buildings will have positive and lasting impacts from the pandemic, much to the dismay of children in northern states hoping for no-school snow days.
Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said students should use technology not just for document production, but for data analysis, collaboration, publishing and creation — skills, he emphasized, are needed to succeed in the workplace. Spence, however, said technology should augment, not replace, the experiences students have on school campuses.
It can take districts five years to fully execute the purchase of a device for every student, as well as train educators on learning platforms and pilot the devices’ capabilities, said Spence, who was named the 2020 EmpowerED Digital Superintendent of the Year.
“What’s happened now is that, overnight, you have school divisions who never thought about being 1:1 who have done it,” Spence said. ”I think there will be this steep learning curve for people.”
Schools and local and state governments will also need to address the barriers to internet access so remote learning assignments can be accessed by all students, Spence said.
“In 2020, internet access is a utility. It’s like water and electricity,” he said. “People need it in order to thrive in this current economy and this information world we live in.”
Although there are challenges, Spence remains optimistic technology use in education will grow and improve.
“[The pandemic] has moved us ahead about a decade in terms of digital learning in public education, and it’s settled, I think in many ways, this question about whether or not these tools have a place in schools,” Spence said. “We’re proving that you can learn anywhere and anytime.”
Creativity increasing school model flexibility
Educators are being creative and flexible out of necessity, but the pandemic also provided an ideal scenario to break away from stagnant practices and try new approaches. Innovative instructional practices, such as the distribution of boxes with materials for hands-on learning and the development of interactive online academic activities, helped students continue their studies from home.
Additionally, educators eager to keep positive school cultures strong even when staff and students weren’t face-to-face created school spirit videos, planned drive-by graduations, and erected grade promotion yard signs. Those approaches helped boost morale, maintain traditions and strengthen community belonging during extended school closures.
“Some people thrive when there’s a disruption, and I think what’s going to continue in a good way is we’re going to be able to be connected in disrupted ways,” said Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois.
Lubelfeld also predicts that creativity may extend beyond the classrooms when the pandemic fades. For example, school fiscal planning may need to adapt entrepreneurial approaches, he said.
“What if we don’t need all of the brick and mortar? What if we could use part of the maintenance funding to build infrastructure for broadband, social services, tax-payer relief?” Lubelfeld asked.
“What if we can still provide robust and rigorous public schooling at the highest level of quality for all children, yet we don’t need to put all that funding, public funding, into brick and mortar if we don’t really need it full-time for everyone all the time.”
"I think what’s going to continue in a good way is we’re going to be able to be connected in disrupted ways."
Superintendent, North Shore School District 112, Highland Park, Illinois
School systems will also need to use innovative and creative approaches for teacher recruitment and retention, said Steve Joel, superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Pre-pandemic, there was already activity on this front as school systems established grow-your-own recruitment programs and built up mentoring and coaching supports for novice teachers. The stresses on the education system caused by COVID-19, however, may require new staffing redesigns and supports.
“When this is all said and done, the hardships brought on by pandemic learning are going to cause a lot of educators to think if this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” Joel said.
Parent-school-community connections growing
This spring, many parents learned the way they were taught addition and subtraction is not at all how their children currently learn math. Likewise, school systems quickly discovered they needed to provide parents explicit and repetitive guidance in order to help them support their child’s learning from home.
There were lots of frustrations on both sides, but the forced pivot to distance learning also typically had a welcomed side effect: Parents and school staff felt more connected as back-and-forth communications increased and appreciation grew for each other’s challenges and successes. Educators said it’s one of the more positive trends they hope continues years after the pandemic has ended.
Several school districts created new opportunities to train parents in how to use online learning platforms. For example, the Wichita School District in Wichita, Kansas offered a Parent University to help parents navigate the district’s learning platform and learn how to best communicate with teachers and check on students' assignments. In California, the Azusa Unified School District in Los Angeles County holds regular virtual parent training meetings to share academic and health wellness advice.
Laurie Rodriguez, executive director of special programs for the Dickinson Independent School District in Dickinson, Texas, said that during the pandemic, her district has scaled-up school-home-community partnerships that began in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey damaged the area. In June, the district created a Gator Wellness Center that offers parent trainings, counseling services and more.
“It was a need that grew out of Harvey, sustained us through COVID and will stay beyond the pandemic,” said Rodriguez. “In the schoolhouse, we do so much more than reading and math. We are the hub of the community.”