Webinar Replay — Planning for Changing Scenarios: Emerging Stronger Post-Pandemic

Office of Ed Tech
6 min readDec 16, 2021

As we think about how to emerge stronger post-pandemic, it is critical to take time to reflect on the learnings from the past 20 months, acknowledge the different challenges that we faced, and identify opportunities to ensure that students receive the best experience moving forward. Incredible opportunities for transformative learning experiences can take place when we take the time to listen to the needs of our teachers, students, and families, and engage them in the process of co-designing how students can learn best in the future.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology recently hosted a webinar on December 1 about the future of learning, in the context of a post-pandemic world, after considering the learning and creative innovations that have developed amidst the adversity that many schools have faced during the pandemic. You may watch the full recording for the complete conversation here.

Kristina Ishmael, Deputy Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and Chris Rush, Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education, facilitated a conversation with education leaders who shared their biggest takeaways from the past year. During the discussion, the panel offered strategies for creating more meaningful learning experiences for students now and in the future, and we share some of those strategies below.

Scenario Question: As we look ahead to the future, what is needed to ensure every student and every educator can learn and work in spaces that are safe, supportive, enriching, and equitable?

Everyone’s journey through the pandemic has been unique and offers school leaders the opportunity to pause, recognize, and honor the different needs of everyone in their communities. Dr. Baron Davis, Superintendent of Richland School District Two (South Carolina), advised against making assumptions about the needs of students or staff, and instead, taking the time to fully understand how those needs might differ and compete with one another. He recommended school leaders have conversations with different groups — from teachers, to students, families, instructional assistants, counselors, cafeteria workers, or school bus drivers — to discuss both the challenges and successes of the past year. As those conversations take place, people can come together to address their individual and collective needs to develop plans for the future.

Building on Dr. Davis’ point, Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, Superintendent of Hopkins Public Schools (Minnesota), emphasized the importance of centering those conversations around health and wellness to ensure that students and school staff feel safe, supported, and encouraged to show up as their authentic selves. She pointed out that having culturally responsive organizational values, with culturally affirming curriculum, and culturally respectful instructional practices help to create a sense of safety and support within the school community.

When it comes to making hard decisions regarding the different and competing needs within school communities, both superintendents recommend staying mission focused. After assessing everyone’s needs and listing out what can be accomplished throughout the year, they both take time to weed out and abandon the practices that are not mission or vision aligned.

“You can’t address every single thing at the same time every year, with the same amount of resources, because there are finite resources, not just from a financial standpoint but from a human capital standpoint as well. The system will only allow you to do so many things at one time, so really identify what are the mission critical things you need in order to accomplish your organization’s mission,” Dr. Davis said. ​​”Eliminate choices that don’t align to mission. If that’s difficult, reassess your mission,” he added.

Justin Reich, Director of MIT Teaching Systems Lab and Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies further emphasized that school reform cannot be additive, naming that districts cannot expect teachers “to do more and more” without letting go of some things, especially the things that are not contributing to meaningful learning experiences for students.

Scenario Questions: The pandemic necessitated the use of different learning models to engage students. How have your districts incorporated these new models into “traditional” instruction? How will hybrid models impact K-12 schools moving forward?

New learning models can unlock brand new opportunities, including new technologies, new learning spaces, and new community connections and partnerships. The new learning management system (LMS) that Hopkins Public Schools immediately adopted at the beginning of the pandemic not only saved the district during its transition to virtual instruction but it also has continued to be incredibly helpful during in-person learning. Teachers have leveraged the tools embedded in their LMS during in-person instruction to support practices such as flipped instruction, where students review materials before class and apply learnings during class1, to support students who are quarantining at home, and to support instructional assistants who check on students’ learning and progress.

Hopkins Public Schools has also leveraged new learning models to offer students new experiences outside of the classroom. Teachers have capitalized on opportunities to teach their students outdoors, making use of the nearby woods, greenhouses, farms, and gardens. In a few cases, kindergarten classrooms have spent 75–80 percent of their time immersed in outdoor learning experiences, which are not only COVID-safe but also experiences that both teachers and students love.

Dr. Beth Rabbitt, CEO of The Learning Accelerator, points out how new learning models represent a huge area of inquiry and learning for schools and applauds superintendents who are willing to try new things and ask what is possible. She posed new scenarios that could emerge: “If we were to work more virtually, what types of experts could we introduce our students to? What types of interventions could we offer if we allow students to work in a hybrid manner? Could new learning models allow rural students to not have to spend so many hours on a bus?”

Scenario Question: How can we use what young people are saying (and what educators are saying) to redesign or reimagine school curriculum, or even school schedules, especially if we consider how students increased their overall agency?

As schools continue reimagining equitable learning experiences for students, the practice of including students, teachers, and families in a co-design process will be critical to creating the most meaningful, relevant, and beneficial experiences for students. Justin Reich believes the first step of involving students and teachers in the design process is talking to and really listening to them. His team led a project where they encouraged 250 teachers to have conversations with more than 5000 students using the following five questions:

  • What’s gone really well for you during the past year and half?
  • What’s been really difficult for you during the past year and half?
  • What are you really proud of?
  • What do you feel like you’ve lost?
  • How do you want adults in your school to run things differently?

The results of the conversations were incredibly insightful for the teachers and allowed them to learn more about how students felt about their own learning and growth. For many students, the aspects that were most challenging to their growth were not necessarily the result of COVID-19 or virtual learning, but rather long-standing inequities in their schools that existed before the pandemic.

Similarly, Dr. Rabbitt encouraged school leaders to go beyond simply listening to the opinions of different stakeholders on a given matter and digging deeper by fully engaging students, families, and teachers in discussions about “why things are happening the way they are.” She recommended spending more time listening and discussing challenges, successes, and even diagnosing challenges with them before jumping to any solutions.

Building on the points above, Dr. Davis and Dr. Mhiripiri-Reed emphasized the significance of incorporating students’ passions and interests as part of the redesign process. They reminded us that students are looking for adults to guide them and help them figure out who they are and what their purpose and passions are. Teachers can talk to students about their interests and then facilitate learning experiences that align standards with their students’ curiosities and passions. With support and resources, teachers can be trained to facilitate powerful learning experiences that inspire students to explore topics that are relevant and meaningful to them.

Underpinning all of these ideas is the importance of centering equity across discussions, decision-making, and codesign processes. Kristina Ishmael noted in closing that we must not only recognize the uniqueness of everyone’s journey with learning through the pandemic; we must also honor those experiences by stripping away what no longer serves — or has never served — our schools and moving forward in partnership with students, teachers, and families.

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Office of Ed Tech

OET develops national edtech policy & provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education. Examples ≠ endorsement