How Do You Open School in a Pandemic? Start by Asking Teachers and Students

Voices | Learning Research

How Do You Open School in a Pandemic? Start by Asking Teachers and Students

By Justin Reich and Jal Mehta     Sep 7, 2021

(Kapitosh / Shutterstock)

How do you open a school for a third year in the shadow of a pandemic? How do school leaders create a welcoming community amid fear and grief and, in some places, discord? How do teachers balance the need to identify and begin to address important unfinished learning from the past year with the need to connect with young people who may have been away from school for many months?

A good place to start is talking to students and teachers.

Over the past six months, we’ve invited teachers across the United States, in all grade levels and subjects, to interview their students and ask them five questions: What worked last year that we should carry forward? What didn’t work in the past that we should leave behind? What should adults do to make this year as good as possible? What do you feel like you’ve lost in the past 18 months? And what are you most proud of?

During April and May of this year, more than 200 teachers interviewed 4,000 students and sent us their thoughts—and more are joining in every week. (You can see our slides with five key questions for students here.)

It turns out that they have quite different views from much of what is being discussed in the national policy conversation. For example, in all of our data from more than 200 teachers, not once did we hear teachers describe remediating lost learning through assessment and targeted remediation as their top priority for next year. A few teachers expressly discussed “learning loss”—but only to explicitly reject it as a useful frame. Some students described concerns that their new teachers wouldn’t understand which topics they may have missed, but several students vehemently rejected the idea that they had lost learning during a year in which they had worked so hard under such challenging circumstances.

Despite a constant refrain in the media and among policymakers that “learning loss” and declining test scores are the signature challenges facing students and schools, the folks who are closest to the classroom—at least the ones we’ve talked to—just don’t see it that way. Perhaps that helps to explain why schools and districts that did offer academic summer programs or tutoring received such tepid responses from families over the past months—these programs were solving problems that many students and families don’t see as the most pressing needs they face.

Intriguingly, students also described many of their most significant challenges as not stemming from Covid, but rather from pre-existing inequalities in schools. For many students, chronic neglect and sustained disparities are more serious problems than the immediate challenges of COVID-19. If racism and the coronavirus were the “twin pandemics” of the past year, for some young people, the former demands greater attention and action.

Overall, if the two narratives that have emerged in the media about K-12 education are “learning loss” and “getting back to normal,” our respondents offered a third alternative, focused on incremental reinvention and healing, humanity and community.

Students and teachers told us that the best things about the pandemic year were when it created opportunities to slow down and build real relationships between teachers and students and their families and when students were given more independence to be in charge of their learning, their bodies, and their development.

When we asked them about what problems with schooling they hoped policymakers would address next year, students and teachers talked less about COVID-19 and more about long-standing problems with school buildings and classrooms that are uncomfortable to learn in, overstuffed curriculum that limit opportunities for human connection and interest-based exploration, overzealous policing of bodies and behavior, early start times that are out of sync with adolescent biology, and much more.

All of this is also highly contextual. Different communities need different things. As such, in our recent report on these findings, Healing, Community, and Humanity: How Students and Teachers Want to Reinvent Schools Post-COVID, we not only share what our respondents told us, but we offer some tools and processes that you can use to assess what is needed in your community.

We provide slides and guides for the five Imagining September questions that we listed above. We developed an activity called Amplify-Hospice-Create, where teachers and students reflect on what practices they want to build up from the pandemic years, what can be sunset to make room for new change, and what needs to be created anew to address needs in schools. Whose Problems? is a perspective-taking activity that asks folks to consider how the challenges of this year look differently for students, families, teachers and school leaders. Finally, the Metaphors as Tentpoles protocol asks people to look past day-to-day logistical challenges and think holistically about the kinds of schools that would be best able to meet the demands of students and educators in the evolving pandemic.

Whether you use these conversation starters or develop your own, navigating the pandemic requires listening intently to the people closest to its challenges. The best solutions with the best take-up will emerge from efforts to see how people learning and working in classrooms every day understand the best ways forward.

As devastating as the pandemic is—in so many ways, for so many people—it has expanded our sense of what’s possible in schools. As one high school teacher in Milwaukee told us, “We know how to change.”

After a year of pivoting every few weeks, teachers have developed new comfort and skill with flexibility and adaptation. During the pandemic, we have learned that many of the features of schools that appear to be fixed and immovable are actually contingent and plastic. Of course, at the start of a third pandemic-inflected year, folks are tired, and no one will be reinventing education this September. But the challenge for the months and years ahead will be to harness the energy and capacity for change that educators discovered in a crisis and apply that same determination to the longer-term challenge of rethinking what is possible in our schools.

Justin, Jal and Boston Public Schools teacher Neema Avashia are hosting a free, recorded webinar about the report at 3 p.m. ET on Sept. 16. You can sign up here.

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