Starting an Uncertain 2020 – 21 School Year After a Semester of Virtual School

A group of Ed Directions coaches were speculating as to the strategies schools were going to use to start school in August 2020. They were concerned that plans were going to be focused on running a virtual, hybrid, or a physical school.  We quickly realized that the conversation needed to pivot in a different direction – toward how the students, having been out of a traditional classroom setting for over nine months, would be affected.

The discussion concluded with the thought being that if schools plan without assessing the effects caused by students being out of a regular school setting for nine months they can build models that look good, but may not work. And even though students have taken part in virtual classroom settings, that this year will be worlds different than last year.  Here are some key concerns that schools need to address:

The Situation Isn’t The Same

  • Last year schools were forced to respond to an emergency situation and come up with a virtual school model that would provide some continuity in education for students who had been in school for the first semester. Schools had the advantage of having students work with the teacher that they recognized, had worked with the previous semester, and they had residual work patterns, expectations, and relationships. This created a “collective memory” for the students that supported a sense of classroom even when the students were in a homeschool situation.

This year, this “collective memory” essentially doesn’t exist. The teacher will probably be new, the subjects studied will be different, and the students will not have had learning and performing experience during the preceding four months. Schools must make careful planning based on an assessment of how virtual school affected the learners, and a meaningful evaluation of the work (learning work and performing work) students generated during virtual school. If this is not successfully accomplished, then academic leadership will be forced to reconcile the differences between/among learning cultures, work patterns, behavior patterns, etc. if and when schools change back to in-person settings.

Gaps Between Successful and Unsuccessful Students May be Greater

  • When the results of four months of virtual school followed by 2+ months of summer are analyzed, we at Ed Directions believe that performance gaps will probably be greater, if not much greater, than they were when regular school ended in December of last year. There are a variety of reasons for this concern – the availability of resources, teacher training in preparation, virtual school space/environment, parental involvement/support, etc.  However, the fact of the matter is that virtual school created an “accidental” environment for students with personal resources and intensive parental support.  These students had an advantage in maintaining performance through virtual school and during the summer over students who lacked resources and/or parental support.

The fact that last year’s virtual school followed a full semester of regular school work enabled all students to convert to virtual school with this set of shared competencies and expectations. Teachers in planning their lessons could expect students to own certain competencies and expect certain levels of performance. Unfortunately, variables that were usually outside the teacher’s control could determine the impact of the lessons on student as learner and performer. As a result, existing learning gaps would tend to widen as existing “at risk” factors determined the quality of student engagement and learning.

Summer recess always causes performance loss, less in the case of strong students than with less successful students. Students with resources and access to tutors, excel programs, or academic support programs over the summer generally lose less performance over the summer than students without resources. Several Ed Directions coaches noted that this year, affluent parents, maybe because travel was so limited, tended to provide more academic experiences in support for the students than they would in a normal year. Ed Directions fears that some students, many of whom are already successful, are getting more support and improving their potential while others are getting much less support and are not able to avoid the summer performance loss. If this is the case, Ed Directions would expect that performance gaps increased more significantly this summer than we would normally expect.

Failure to open any type of school (virtual, hybrid,or in-person) with student and teacher work that intentionally builds collective experience/memory, standard operating procedures for class, expectations for engagement and endurance, etc. will intensify existing performance gaps and cost valuable time when schooling returns to “normal” as teachers struggle to erase ineffective learning/performing patterns and replace them with more effective methods.

This will be a new school year and, in most cases, students will have a new teacher, schedule, and likely a new school configuration. The “shared culture” that supported student performance in last year’s virtual school setting no longer exists. Plans that are developed will have to include strategies for creating collective cultures, expectations and work patterns. Without assessing the impact of last year’s experience on students and establishing each student’s current status as a learner and a performer, schools can build good looking plans that can be run efficiently but will fail to meet the needs of students.

The Ed Directions Approach

One strategy that Ed Directions recommends when schools are dealing with new requirements, and influx of new students or unexpected emergencies that disrupt normal school processes is called “leveling the field”. We understand that gaps exist, and this year the gaps may be greater than they have been in the past. We also understand that in spite of the gaps, all students are expected to reach certain levels of proficiency by the end of the year. That’s what “success for all” is all about.

Our approach to leveling the field involves engaging all teachers and students in

  • establishing a common culture/climate that focuses on building high-level engagement in rigorous learning work and optimum learning behaviors in all students
  • building the competency set that all students need to own to be effective, independent learners
  • building the confidence and competencies needed for students to use learning in assessment or real-world situations
  • monitoring student growth as learner and performer and providing targeted support

At Ed Directions we have found that if at the beginning of any type of school, if teachers can establish rituals and routines that all students will practice, master, and independently use, they can

  • create an optimum culture/climate, build optimum behaviors for learners
  • build learning competencies that all students will need to be successful in class this year
  • have a teacher/student partnership and monitoring student success and building targeted support systems for students at risk.

Our coaches have tools in their Ed Directions “toolkit” that introduce teachers to climate, culture, behavior rituals/routines, academic rituals/routines, as well as to teacher and student monitoring tools. One of these available on our website that relates to the establishment of “core competencies” that facilitate teaching and learning in any classroom setting but might be critical in standardizing virtual or hybrid learning experiences.

Need some toolkits to help you get your school year started on the right foot? Check out our free tools, or read more about our methodology for overall school improvement in the latest edition of Turning Around Turnaround Schools – Embracing the Rhythm of the Learner Year.