For the most superstitious amongst us, Friday the 13th always conjures up thoughts of bad luck and Jason Voorhees. However, Friday, March 13, 2020, will forever bring fear and terror to all our minds due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that crippled health systems and closed schools across the globe. Education leaders, teachers, parents, and communities scrambled to provide meals, establish mental health supports, institute robust safety protocols, provide students with devices and hotspots, train educators on remote learning, and do everything possible to connect with students.
This remarkable and overwhelming achievement reflected the dedication and commitment of district leaders to provide a safe, engaging learning environment for students even during such a horrific time in history. Superintendents Kimberly Moritz, Springville-Griffith Institute CSD, Todd Dugan, Bunker Hill CUSD #8, and Cassandra Schug, Watertown USD, and high school principals, Shannon M. Mayfield, Allentown SD, and Bill Runey, Attleboro PS, pause to reflect on the first anniversary year of COVID-19 and look to the future possibilities.
Most Significant Impact
The unforeseen and unprecedented school closures put all school districts into crisis mode on March 13, 2020. School districts were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the overwhelming obstacles and immediate needs.
Both Mayfield and Runey agree that the loss of engagement and direct connection with those they serve (students and families) was the most significant impact.
Runey recalls that student-teacher relationships suffered because, “We didn’t lay eyes on students for months.”
In Dugan’s district, “It was the suddenness and the surreal effect it had on teachers and students,” he says. “Teachers wanted desperately to deliver and visit students even while under a stay-at-home order. The immediate impact was a sudden clarity on what was now ‘essential’ in learning.”
Schug says, “The two most significant impacts were student learning loss and increased social, emotional learning needs that we could not meet effectively for our students and our families.”
All of the district leaders recognized that school closures most affected their vulnerable populations. Committed to prioritizing young students and students in need of services, Dugan, Moritz, and Schug set up programming and outreach services to provide tutoring, transportation, and opportunities for some students to attend in-person learning. In Runey’s district, a virtual academy extended support, tutoring, and interventions that provided the necessary systems to ensure all students had access to their learning.
“The educational disconnect for close to a full year has irreparably created a void with our students and necessitates a complete reset for many,” says Mayfield.
An upgraded aspect of the food and clothing outreach program in Mayfield’s district included both social and mental health support for families and students.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Despite the hardships, 2020 brought the future to the present with communication, professional development, and technology that forever changed our educational systems.
Communication with the school community has always been a consistent challenge for educational leaders. Yet during the pandemic, school districts, more than ever before, needed to find ways to connect with the school community. The academic leaders in these five districts focused time, energy, and resources on developing creative, effective, and sustainable communication processes. Each district created Covid-19 specific websites and used various communication tools to ensure that they could reach all families.
Dugan notes that out of necessity, the school community became comfortable with multiple communication mediums, including social media tools such as Instagram and Twitter. Shrug says that virtual school board and community meetings resulted in more attendance and broader audience reach with recorded sessions.
“No matter how many ways I’ve said it or how often someone feels left out,” says Moritz, “boring redundancy is my motto with any message, and direct 1:1 conversation is always best.”
Both Mayfield and Runey, in districts with their high populations of low-income and non-English speaking families, say that family outreach and effective communication were paramount to their respective school communities. Effective strategies in Runey’s district featured translation tools, imagery, and links that simplified communication. Runey now includes his high school students in all communications in his building due to complicated home lives in which students don’t always get essential messages.
After March 13, 2020, professional development events that typically took place in auditoriums, cafeterias, and faculty rooms pivoted to online web conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet. In Mayfield’s district, like many districts, teachers had to be trained to learn new virtual learning environments for remote learning. Training teachers to use online platforms challenged his district to adjust based on curriculum needs and staff levels constantly.
Moritz says that a much greater acceptance of online PD came out of the necessity to ensure that teachers can navigate and teach virtually. Both Schug and Dugan agree that the advent of more technology has expanded opportunities to include virtual programming and self-paced opportunities, and provided flexibility for staff. Runey recognizes that his school community has shown the other side of humanity regarding PD in which “everyone is kinder and willing to help each other.”
While many districts struggled with 1:1 initiatives before the pandemic, the sense of urgency to provide students with an education in an online environment brought technology’s inequity to the surface. Districts such as Moritz’s ensured that there was finally a device in every student’s hands and provided hotspots to families who needed them.
Schug says that they adopted highly effective technology learning platforms that allowed them to offer instruction virtually while also providing personalized and adaptive instruction in face-to-face environments. “Teachers are much more adept at these learning platforms, and they have used them to supplement face-to-face instruction significantly,” she says.
Runey says that technology instituted before and during the pandemic, such as establishing Attleboro’s Virtual Academy and utilizing virtual parent-teacher meetings and programs including Talking Points for ESL parents, has positively disrupted education in his district. Dugan says that while his district has been innovative with technology due to the pandemic, broadband, a necessity for online learning, continues to be a challenge. It is still years from being a universal offering in rural, outlying areas.
Glass Half Full
No one can predict how the upcoming FY2021-22 school year will look. However, these education leaders agree that positive and forward-thinking initiatives have come out of the tsunami tidal wave that affected all aspects of our lives.
“Our very best teachers continue to lead the way with outstanding preparation for remote learning,” says Moritz. “Our teams are more vital than ever before–our administrative team, our relationship with the teachers’ union, our interaction with families–all much better.”
Dugan is witnessing creative ways teachers and curriculum leaders combine multiple subjects into one learning experience in his district to maximize precious class time. “[We’ve had] a realization that grades/work completed does NOT equal learning,” he says. “Instead, it has become apparent that, especially in secondary grades where significant learning loss did NOT occur, lower grades reflect either lack of engagement or compliance.”
“It is the incorporation of technology into tasks where we haven’t used it before,” says Schug. “We have seen reduced challenging student behaviors and increased enthusiasm about attending school and its value to our students and families. We have built stronger relationships with our students and families as we have all worked to navigate the unique challenges of this school year.”
Runey says that edtech programs in place before and during school closures have provided students with ownership and responsibility for their learning. “There is increasing appreciation for the things we haven’t been able to have,” he says, summing up the group’s thoughts. “Everyone is more aware of being safer in general; family connections have strengthened, and learning is personalized and tailored to students’ interests and needs.”