Midyear Check-In: 2021 Conversations#Leadership
by Erin WerraRead time:
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changesThis time last year, we had no choice but to turn and face the strange school year to come. And the changes came fast.
Now that 2020 is farther in the rearview, school leaders are analyzing and assessing to figure out how to move forward into a new future. The digital shift in schools has been accelerated, and school is no longer defined by buildings and grounds. Instead, school can take place just about anywhere there’s reliable broadband internet.
Only a fraction of schools were prepared at the start of the pandemic response in March of 2020 to make remote school happen at scale for as long as needed. This number has been growing over time as schools learn more about providing virtual education options long-term.
It’s unfair to compare virtual learning as an emergency response and well-designed virtual learning. The virtual school options in districts now are more likely to be separate, not hybrid attempts at teachers conducting in-person and remote classes in tandem. The continuity of education has improved, with standards for in-person learning adjusted when needed to meet a remote learner’s abilities. This provides a better experience for students, allows for agile response when something needs tweaking, and means districts can offer high-quality virtual learning to remain competitive.
Equity is a priorityAs everyone looks back on the past eighteen months or so, equity is in the spotlight with more challenges than answers. Families of color were less likely to trust school offers for in-person learning, adding a layer of equity questions to high-quality virtual learning programs. Students in rural and urban districts were also less likely to have access to broadband internet, putting virtual school out of reach. If families weren’t yet comfortable with in-person learning and couldn’t gain access to the resources needed for virtual learning, many students simply did not enroll.
A dip in enrollment isn’t only alarming for the obvious reason that kids need to be in school. With funding tied to attendance and enrollment, it’s important that families feel safe returning to school. That takes communication, which admittedly demands a lot of time. The tools to make it easier might already be in place—tap your student information system’s messaging features to keep in touch with families. Mobile technology support is a must, since many parents rely on a smartphone for internet access.
Using existing systems designed to engage families also ensures teachers don’t have to give out their own personal information in order to stay in touch. Instead, they have the same mobile access to messaging systems.
On the horizon is a focus on the learning lost over the past year, both academic and personal growth. Schools will work to ensure equity in addressing these losses, which may be more severe for students who were unable to enroll during virtual learning—including special needs students, rural students, and students of color.
Physical, mental, and emotional healthWhile uncertainty still lingers, school must go on in 2021 just like it did in 2020. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released recommendations for schools to continue masking for children and adults, citing the need for in-person learning alongside the need to protect children who are still ineligible for vaccination. The social-emotional benefits of having children learn in person can’t really be replicated online, hence the recommendation for in-person learning. Too many students lost a source of food, friendship, and protection during the early part of 2020.
Those lifelines are mostly due to the efforts of teachers, staff, and school leaders. Teachers are trying to recover from one of the most difficult years they’ve seen. There’s no better time to ask questions and listen to their needs. It could mean the difference between retaining a teacher for the new school year and having another vacancy to fill. Easing the mental load of educators by automating administrative tasks can also keep the focus on their professional task: facilitating learning. Optimizing teachers’ precious time serves as a differentiator.
Finally, school leaders haven’t been immune to the impact of constant decision-making and crises. While it’s true the past year has brought numerous unique challenges, looking to the past for leadership guidance from other administrators who struggled might help.
Another year approaches, and with it another opportunity to continue striving for equity, health, and high-quality education.
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|Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader