The pandemic-driven upheaval of the K-12 education system is doing something many say has been nearly impossible — opening a door for significant reforms that would disrupt decades or century-old practices and rituals.
And even though school administrators are in the midst of responding to the immediate health crisis, they are setting aside time to discuss long-term planning for how post-pandemic schools could be even better than before the health crisis.
“I’m so excited about the modernization of public education that will now come,” said Michael Johnson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, during a Council of Chief State School Officers virtual forum Nov. 10. “The move from the old models to the new models, we want them to be effective.”
Conversations are only just beginning nationwide about reforming education based on lessons learned during the pandemic. In some cases, however, educators are realizing tools and strategies that exist may gain widespread momentum due to pandemic-era experiences.
“We’re just starting to scratch the surface,” said Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois. “A system that has been criticized for not being receptive to change has changed overnight.”
Here are a few ways educators and education stakeholders are rethinking education.
Flexibility in learning formats
Traditionally, K-12 public education came in one format — in-person learning. That is, until students, teachers and families had to shutter schools in March amid shelter-in-place orders.
Now that school communities are more comfortable with video conferencing and asynchronous learning approaches, some school administrators predict there will be demand for the choice of in-person and online learning and other flexibilities, especially for older students who are juggling other commitments, such as jobs.
“In 2025, preparing [students] for their future I think will require more skills-based learning than ever before,” said Johnson. “The quality of instruction will still matter. However, how we will deliver instruction and how students access their learning will be different. The choice and customization they’ve experienced outside of school, indeed in the last six months, will need to be present in schooling in greater degrees to keep them engaged.”
Online learning will need to be refined so students are accessing high-quality instruction that is personalized and engaging, said Kayla Solinsky, head of school and director of strategic partnerships for Macbeth Academy, an online school that partners with several traditional public school systems to provide virtual classes.
Rethinking school schedules
Robert Avossa, founder of K-12 Leadership Matters and a former teacher, principal and superintendent, predicts growth in options for online learning, as well as flexibility for high school students to attend classes when it best fits their schedules — similar to how college course schedules are structured.
“High school is ripe for innovation,” he said.
Educators also are discussing alterations to the school year and daily schedules. "Everyone is afraid to change because our society has been so accustomed to the nine-month schedule," Avossa said.
Angélica Infante-Green, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education, said at the CCSSO forum, “In five years, my hope is that school looks totally different, that we’re more flexible. Instruction is really around students. It doesn’t have to be this 9 to 3, 2 o’clock [school day]; we’ve broken those barriers.”
“We’ve been doing school for our needs or what we feel comfortable with, but now that’s changed,” Infante-Green added.
Lengthening the school day through community schools models, which can provide health, education and other wrap-around services, may also be a post-pandemic possibility, said Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, convened by the National Center for Youth Law. Providing students access to the best services should be a priority when discussing school reform, Rollin said.
“There are signs of hope we can transform schools in a way that they are more effective, engaging and equitable,” Rollin said.
Creating stronger partnerships
Education experts said the popularity and familiarity of video conferencing will continue to grow and help strengthen partnerships that will benefit students and school communities. For example, professional development trainings will become easier to access if they are provided online without the need for travel.
Districts will also have more opportunities to work collaboratively and share best practices, such as learning platforms that are efficient and effective, said Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment for the National Disability Rights Network.
School systems are reporting greater engagement with parents since the pandemic began, likely because of the need for greater communication around changing plans dependent on the pandemic. The use of video conferencing also has led to greater and richer participation from parents in school meetings and in individualized education program team meetings for students with disabilities, according to several educators.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, has convened a 22-member Education Roundtable, which began meeting in September to discuss improving equity in education, according to emails sent to Education Dive from Teddy Tschann, spokesperson for the governor and Stephanie Graff, special advisor on education reform in Walz’s office.
Angela Jerabek, founder and executive director of the BARR Center in Minnesota and a member of the roundtable, said the group has discussed a host of possibilities for improving education — some of which would be dependent on schools working collaboratively with other agencies or organizations.
For example, meal distribution during the pandemic for students from low-income families has been a joint effort between schools and community agencies. The roundtable is discussing how that may look after the pandemic, especially if students have the option for hybrid learning, Jerabek said.
The group is also discussing equitable education approaches and implications for student attendance, earning course credits, school funding, curriculum, professional development and more.
"In many ways, [we’re asking] how can post-pandemic look better than pre-COVID, especially when we’re looking at these equity issues, because we know the system pre-COVID hitting needed revision. But in some ways, this has given permission to say some of those guardrails that people said you can never talk about ... we’re recognizing there are other ways to do it because we’re forced to look at it," Jerabek said.
"Things a year ago that seemed impossible are not," she added.