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

Last month, a friend asked me to review his school’s plan for restarting traditional classroom learning in April. Specifically, he requested that I look at his priorities and see if he missed anything. He added a caveat “do not depress me.”

In reviewing is plan (actually plans) I was struck by two things:

The first observation was that he and his leadership team had done a good job of analyzing the impact of three semesters of nontraditional education on students. The leadership team had analyzed the possible gaps in the curriculum (including content areas not covered), the problems of inadequate or missing technologies, the absence of a collective focus between and among teachers (grade level and/or departmental), the loss of continuity in preparation for high-stakes accountability assessments, and issues with diversification and special education support.

Second observation was that is plan included bringing students in and restarting classes as efficiently and quickly as possible. He had plans (A and B) for school buses, lunchrooms, and homeroom periods. He had specific instructions for teachers about collecting data on their students, and helping students transition (into school, from class to class, from activity to activity, and from school to home). He emphasized the need for a safe and orderly environment before, during, and after class and had reached out to the PTA to get parent volunteers for the first week to help students transition and provide moral support.

When I talked to him about his plan, I told him that I had good news and some concerns. The good news was that this plan was thoughtful and included a strategic overview, a logistical plan to provide the components needed for success and tactical plans for the different role groups and the school. Given what I knew about him and his staff, I believed that the school would indeed have an orderly and efficient reopening in a normal year. But the pandemic has affected so many aspects of the school and its students that I feared he hadn’t anticipated what’s not going to be in place.

His reaction was less than enthusiastic. He asked me if I was saying that his plan wouldn’t work. I said I didn’t know if it would work or not because I was missing some information. I asked him to sit down with his team and talk about two things:

  1. How will your school be different in April than it was the September before the pandemic hit?
  2. How did nearly three semesters in non-traditional classrooms impact your students and how might your classrooms need to change to make sure that you don’t leave students at risk?

His team is involved in that discussion right now, and I decided that I would take my two concerns and develop some content/context to help me organize my thinking and maybe provide him, and anyone reading this post, some direction.

In the first case, I think that for any principal to assume that their school is the same as it was pre-pandemic is setting themselves up for disaster. I believe that three semesters of non-traditional education has broken the continuity of even the most organized of schools.

In the case of the school in question here, this principal and his teaching staff took great pains to develop “best practice” environments and patterns of teacher and student work. Teachers worked in grade level teams to ensure that core competencies were developed in all classes and they worked in discipline specific teams to make sure that students progressed through the standards expectations from grade level to grade level. He had an excellent school and great teachers but I’m not sure that he’s leading the same school today.

What I’m least sure of is that that he can assume that he can open school in April with the schools “legacy” strengths still in place.

  • One strength of this school has always been the student body. The student population has been stable, enjoyed parental support, and had access to developmental programs in and outside school. This year, the student body is not only uncertain (he’s missing about 100 students and doesn’t know if they’re going to come back to school in April or not) but they’ve not been prepared the way his students are usually prepared (he uses outreach programs at the end of the school year to alert students to what they can expect in the next school year and to the rituals and routines that they will find in place in their classrooms). He is thinking he’s opening school on the eve of testing when in fact his situation is less certain than it is in August of a normal school year. He will have 2 classes in his school that have not experienced the school’s regular school rhythm. Half the student body will need to be oriented and not reoriented and he won’t have experienced students in place who can model the schools “way of doing business.”
  • This school’s teaching staff was also a huge strength. Teachers tended to stay at the school and very few ever reached a “burnout stage.” In addition, teachers worked as a team in planning, monitoring and supporting. For the last two and half semesters that past level of teamwork just hasn’t been maintainable. Re-establishing it is going to be necessary if he intends for students to be supported if they’re at risk, and hopefully “test-ready” by the end of April.
  • Another strength of the school has been the positive climate in classrooms. School administrators and the teachers developed a positive rapport with students, and students who were at risk were assigned an adult mentor to support them in developing the social and emotional competencies needed for success. The pandemic has for three semesters isolated students in “individual” classrooms that varied in climate and culture depending on variables outside the school’s control.
  • Related to the school climate issue is the culture issue. The school emphasized positive and proactive rituals and routines that related to student growth as a learner and performer. Students developed a collective memory of content and a collection of shared learning and performing competencies. They were prepared to work in teacher/learner teams and in learner/learner teams. The isolation factor has certainly disrupted the development of collective rituals and routines that were shared by all students across grade levels and across disciplines, and it may be impossible to determine how “collective” student memory of what’s been learned and what they’ve learned to do actually is.
  • The school has prided itself on attendance (teachers – 98% and students – 97%). The pandemic and the virtual school settings has seriously impacted this data point. As I stated, he’s missing 100 students and doesn’t know if they are returning, if they’ve been attending virtual classes someplace else, been homeschooled, or if they are going to return to his school. Both teacher and student attendance has fallen below the traditional levels in all three semesters of nontraditional instruction.
  • Staff also prided itself on school discipline. This school enjoyed a proactive discipline plan that emphasized optimum behaviors and students seemed to accept and respond to this approach. In the principal’s first three years in the school, he had reduced referrals by 80% and suspensions by 90%. For three semesters now discipline has been “nonstandard.” The rituals and routines haven’t been developed, practiced and reinforced. I believe that in April, he’s going to find that re-establishing and maintaining order will be much more difficult than it has been in the past.
  • It a normal school year, the students would have mastered “test preparation” by mid-March. They would know the different types of questions and how to answer them, have a menu of test strategies in place and have linked their learning to teacher and state testing. By the end of March, they would be working on building an optimum testing environment (physical, academic and emotional) and practicing testing protocols and schedules. The pandemic has disrupted this rhythm and the students won’t “be there” when school starts up in April.
  • The school’s leadership team has always taken the role of academic leadership seriously. They made themselves visible in hallways, lunchrooms, and classrooms encouraging and supporting students. They also monitored the implementation and impact of their plans on classrooms and on individual students. This has been impossible for the last three semesters, and the implementation and impact (I and I) data stream is almost completely missing. In the past, it’s always been possible to develop ad hoc plans for groups of students or teachers who needed support – and from November on, develop ad hoc plans to support and measure its impact on the teacher or the students. When school opens in April, students who are at risk for any reason will have to be identified and supported quickly if they want an impact this year. Any teachers struggling will need to be identified almost immediately and provided with aggressive support if they want them to be successful leaders of learners this year.

When I talked to the principal about his school, I encouraged him to think about what strengths will be missing or will have to be re-established before the school can operate as it had in the past. I warned him that this might take the better part of the rest of the school year but that it will be critical to help students transition successfully back into an environment where they are accountable for performance on high-stakes tests and for making successful transitions to the next year.

I remember a refrain from the musical “little Abner” (I know I’m dating myself) when the inhabitants of Dogpatch broke out into a chorus of “get them back to the way they was.” We have to get the school back to the way it was so that we can get the students where they need to be.

For schools that won’t open classrooms this year the problem will be compounded. Students will have missed three complete semesters and there will be very little “legacy support” for transitioning back into a regular school setting in August.

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