Education During a Pandemic: Returning to Traditional School/Classroom Settings – Part Two

 

Recently, I wrote about a principal’s request for me to review his school re-opening plan for students in April. I noted that his plan was well constructed, well thought out, and included all the elements (strategic, logistic, and tactical) that makeup a strong plan. I mentioned that I had two concerns – his plan assumed that the school he was opening was the same as the school that had been in place before the pandemic started, and it assume that is students were the same as the students who had been in classes before the pandemic.

In the that post, I noted my concerns about the assumption that his school was the same. In this blog I take a look at his students and how they might be very different than the students he had in place before the pandemic.

Before the pandemic new students to this school were prepared for the existing school culture and expectations by summer orientations and encultured in the first weeks of school by teachers and students who carried on and transmitted the “legacy” school culture. In fact, the school cluster supporting this school did everything possible to ensure successful transitions from elementary to middle school to high school.

This hasn’t been the case for the last three semesters. Since the beginning of the pandemic the school has tried and failed to reopen regular classes twice. For the most part students have been in virtual school settings or home school settings for the better part of the three semesters. School staff needs to understand this and understand how this can change the nature of the students they will have returning to class in April.

  • Student preparation has been different – the transition programs that the district had in place and the opening of school rituals routines have not been available to students nor have the ending of school and successful transition rituals and routines.
  • At risk students are different – the intentional support systems that the school and district have in place for students with behavioral, attendance, or learning issues have not been as intentional or as rigorous during the virtual school experiences.
  • Expectations and goals are different – in the past, student and teacher work was linked to the goals and expectations of the different grade levels and disciplines. During virtual school it has been difficult to develop a “collective” memory of goals, expectations and linkages. Goals and expectations will be individual rather than collective.
  • Attitudes and perceptions are different – Ed Directions emphasizes the importance of student attitudes about learning and “best effort” and of student perceptions of self and proficiency in determining the level at which students will perform. In a normal year attitudes and perceptions are developed through the collective patterns of student work and student assessments during this virtual. Attitudes and perceptions have been developed by individuals and reflect the influence of their individual work environment.
  • Attendance is different – in prior years, school staff emphasized and supported teacher and student attendance. It was an important metric in rewarding classes and grade levels and its importance in preparing for and completing state assessments was emphasized over and over. During the virtual year attendance was more of an individual decision, and the school emphasis and the linkage to school rewards and to student accountability has not been a factor.
  • The rhythm of school is different – all schools have a rhythm to the year, to the semester, to the unit, and to the school day/class. In schools trained by Ed Directions coaches, this Rhythm of the Learner Year – Summer Period, Opening Period, Formative Period, Calibrating Period, Testing Period and End-of-year Period – and the rhythm of learning – attending work, acquiring work, organizing work, meaningful/thoughtful work, assessing work, and independent use – are focused on research that relates to optimum learning and preparation of students to perform to their potential. With virtual lessons and the loss of teacher monitoring/intervention/reteaching and the uncertainties of when “real school” will actually begin – it has been impossible to initiate and maintain the best practice rhythms.
  • Behavior is different – in a normal school year, behavior (reactive are proactive) patterns are established and institutionalized in the first two or three weeks of the school year (a priority of the Opening Period). During the virtual school unless the teacher established enforceable guidelines for teacher led and student led activities the decision about how students will behave was left to parents, older siblings or to the students themselves. The students coming back to school will have no opening of school shaping of behavior experiences.
  • Work ethic and level of engagement are different – in a normal school year, students have their work patterns and their effort patterns shaped during the first semester and calibrated to what’s required for testing in the second semester. The shaping is done through escalating learning and assessment work and by providing targeted support for students who fail to exhibit acceptable levels of work or engagement. This has been impossible during the virtual experiences because it requires ongoing teacher observations of student as worker and student performer, it requires multiple data collections, and it requires grouping of students by priority need for support. Work ethic and level of engagement are the product of collective and shared experiences which are difficult to provide in virtual environments.
  • Test preparation Is different – in a best practice scenario, test preparation is embedded in the development of student as learner and student as performer. It is a part of the rhythm of learning and performing in a standards-based world, and should be present from the very first day students return to school. This is impossible in a virtual environment. Test preparation, when it is best practice, is outcome-based, collective, and linked to everyday work and every teacher made test. Over the last year and a half test preparation has been individual and for the most part accidental. If school starts in April and the students are expected to take a test in mid-to-late April teachers are going to struggle because students will be spread across a wide range of understandings and preparatory experiences.
  • Teacher/student and student/student rapport are different – an ED workshops the importance of rapport to the success of a classes emphasized over and over. Standards-based learning is best developed when teachers and students work as teacher/student learning teams and student/student learning teams. This requires a level of acceptance and rapport that is critically important and ED emphasizes that beginning in January any class that has a toxic culture (a negative relationship between teacher and students or between students) has to be changed or eliminated. We don’t know what rapport the students will bring back from virtual school until we begin the enculturation process but we do know that if they come back in April and the relationship in a classroom is toxic few students will perform to their potential as learners or as performers on the state assessment
  • Performance gaps are different – in the past we could predict most performance gaps summer related to student attendance or behavior patterns, to student/community expectations, to documented cognitive or emotional disabilities, etc. Some were associated to identified characteristics shared by groups of students (e.g. English language difficulties, poverty, lack of prior educational experience) but all could be anticipated, assessed and addressed with targeted assistance programs. All of these conditions continue to exist during the virtual school but, for example in those mentioned above will probably be magnified because of the lack of time for identification, assessment, targeting, and delivery of services. School should expect these gaps to be greater when students return to school this year.

    In addition, there are any number of other conditions that may have created performance gaps that didn’t exist or were not significant enough to merit individual targeted support before. These include unsuitable virtual learning environments, lack of parental expertise or support, lack of adequate technology or internet access, lack of personal contact with teachers for refocusing and re-engaging cues, and negative changes in performance patterns, effort patterns, attention patterns, attendance patterns, and behavior patterns. It is very possible that the number of students who will exhibit a performance gap for the first time when they report to school in April will be as large or larger than the groups who have already been identified as exhibiting characteristics that can cause performance gaps.
  • Parental and community support is different – in previous years the support community included school leadership, school instructional staff, and school support staff in addition to parents and the greater community. There were trained professionals who provided targeted support and monitored student performance to make sure that the support impacted the performance in positive ways (e.g. IEP monitoring) and there were a variety of special supports for students who exhibited characteristics that were not easily served by school staff but could be provided through school facilities and programs. Use of all of these supports was either nonexistent or severely limited during the virtual school and with the exception of mandated supports for IEP’s may not have been addressed at all during the virtual school.

 

In the end, we recommended that the principal and his leadership team begin with studying the list of ways that their students could be very different in April than they were when they were involved in a regular transition from grade level to grade level and from beginning to end of school. As result of the study, they should identify the ones that they see as the greatest priorities in their planning process.

With that list in mind, they should then look at the way their school is different than it was when it was involved in the regular transfer pattern. They also need to assess how ready the school is to deal with the student need priorities identified in the prior activity. At a minimum level, we at Ed Directions, recommend that they consider devoting as much time as needed in April to re-enculture students, re-establish positive behavior, and re-learn academic rituals and routines (these collective understandings are going to be critical in the last two periods of the year). We also recommended that the school develop a menu of outside services that may be needed this year that haven’t been needed in the past (e.g. mental and emotional health support for students, using outside facilitators to engage students as part of the solution process, and outside resources skilled in culture and rapport building activities).

We tried to emphasize, for the principal and his leadership team, that we realize his task is difficult but not impossible. Intentional, tactical planning for overcoming barriers to success is the most immediate need, but he has the staff in place that to do it.  School leadership must review their data on how they are going to deal with this different situation in starting school versus how they have in the past. He has staff and students that may need to be re-encultured but have strengths that they’ve exhibited in the past that can be reactivated and used to ensure successful transition.

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