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Rethinking, Not Reopening (Part II)

Back in August, (eons ago!!) I wrote a blog entitled “Rethinking, not just reopening. ”  The impetus for the blog was to urge schools to implement some of the strategies learned from March-June 2020 on what worked during remote and pandemic learning, and to use the pandemic as an opportunity to step back and really think hard about the way we do school.  What is working? What is not? What should we keep? What should we change? Unfortunately, that is not the way things turned out.  Due to the ongoing pandemic, many (not all) school leaders have not had the bandwidth to truly rethink things.  Understandably, most school leaders, teachers, staff and students have mostly been in survival and crisis mode, navigating waves of the virus.  Also, many schools have simply stayed in remote learning.  

Brass Tacks has been thinking a lot about Covid response and reopening schools through our work both designing and redesigning schools and Covid-19 responses.  We have worked with several schools on their expansions and reopening plans–Breakthrough Schools (OH), Fitchburg Public Schools (MA), Para Los Ninos (CA), Grand Isle Public Schools (NE), East Boston High School (MA).  A lot of this work has been thinking about two things, both of which align to Covid response and rethinking schools:

  1. What are your “Covid Keepers?” Meaning, what are the strategies, programs, etc that you used during remote learning that you want to keep going forward? 
  2. Given that you may not have seen students at all or on a limited basis during the pandemic, what will you need to start school? 

“Covid Keepers” 

Remote and hybrid learning forced us to rethink how we do school, for some schools more than others.  There are many strategies that schools instituted as regular practice during the pandemic that should be kept around.  For example, now that all (or most) students have 1:1 devices, do we still need to make so many photocopies? How can we be thoughtful about when we print (and copy) actual paper so that it really aligns with the learning task? Not to mention, let’s continue to hone students’ technology skills now that they all have access to devices and have mastered basic skills.  Other examples are:  using the chat for more participation, real time feedback on work via Google Classroom or other tools, and online tools for collaboration.  Schools have also begun to personalize instruction via online adaptive tools, small groups and various other tools.

There are also a lot of teachers who quickly pivoted, adapted and invented new ways of teaching during the pandemic. For example, teachers who quickly picked up new tools such as collaborative tools like Nearpod, or teachers who started recording flipped classroom videos not only for their students, but oftentimes for students in the entire district or state.  Who are the people in your building, school, or district who created great ideas that should stick around? How can they become thought leaders and share their tools, materials and strategies? 

Finally, families and students have a lot of ideas.  They have feedback that can be used to improve school and improve the experience for them.  One big practice that we hope stays around is doing parent video conferences, which have proved to be remarkably more efficient.

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We have created a process and protocol for you to surface innovations from the pandemic and to implement them.  We have also aligned Covid Keepers to common problems seen before, during and after the pandemic in order for you to easily implement solutions.  

SEL and Acceleration

Two of the biggest challenges that we know are coming down the pike are student and adult needs for SEL supports as well as how to address learning gaps.  

SEL

We believe that in order to really affect changes in schools and to really help students with their social-emotional learning, we need to start with the adults.  Teachers, leaders and staff need to “do the work” of SEL before and while they are helping students with their SEL.  This has been proven time and time again at schools that are successful.  It is also important for having staff buy-in–if staff is doing the work, they are more likely to have a deeper understanding of why it’s important and why it works, and be more willing to implement it with students.  SEL and academics are deeply intertwined–it is not possible to achieve at high levels without strong SEL support. 

Two of our partners, James Bailey and Randy Weiner, have written a book about how school leaders can work to improve their own SEL. We are also in the process of creating modules for adult learning on SEL.  

As part of our reopening plan for Fitchburg Public Schools in Massachusetts, we created professional development videos for social-emotional learning.  We started with modules for staff and then moved on to how staff could support students.  The district has reported that even though they remained in remote learning for the entirety of the school year, their attendance has remained steady.  They attribute this to the time spent on SEL at the start of the school year. 

We are also working with schools and districts to help them respond to what has been called the “tsunami of social-emotional needs” that have been created or exacerbated by the pandemic, the recession, and racial unrest.  Students need assistance with trauma and emotional regulation. There are also many students who have not been in the physical building with their peers for over a year! Some students have never met each other or their teacher in person.  They will need significant community building and time to “relearn” how to be in school.  Finally, many of the Covid Keepers align nicely with teaching SEL, in particular teaching student agency and teaching students how to work independently.  

Acceleration

The other thing keeping school leaders and families up at night is the learning loss caused by Covid.  Students are behind, and many have missed out on time needed to learn fundamental skills like reading.  Many students were behind before the pandemic, and that is now exacerbated.  Let’s take advantage of the opportunity of the pandemic not to go back to a system where many children were left behind, and instead let’s think about how we can give all students what they need. 

We have been working closely with a network of charter schools in Los Angeles which serves primarily low income students and has high numbers of English Language Learners, called Para Los Ninos.  We have done several professional development sessions on accelerating learning and using the results of assessments to plan teaching, in order to move students to grade level work. Understanding the precursor skills that students may have lost, as well as the “power standards” that may spiral or that are key to higher level work is also key.  Part of acceleration is also personalization, in order to give each student what they need and address unfinished learning. We have also coached their CAO and school leaders in supporting the teachers to do this work, and created tools and measurements for implementation.  

The American Rescue Plan, which is the bill providing Covid-19 relief, specifically earmarks 20% of funding for schools for learning loss, as well as gives significant Title I funds, money for homeless students, and money for special education.  This is a huge opportunity for acceleration! It is also a great time for massive tutoring programs, which is good for students and the economy as a whole as it could put people back to work. 

We cannot and should not go “back to normal” when all schools reopen for a full in person school year in Fall of 2021.  We hope to use the reopening of schools as a way to reboot and rethink versus a return to the “before times.”  Let’s reopen better.  

Reach out to us if you are looking for help with Covid Response, particularly around identifying the Covid Keepers, supporting students and staff with SEL, and acceleration of learning.  

-Elana

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