It seems early to be thinking about what we’ll be doing in Fall 2121. But that is when experts are predicting that all students may return to school. If we want that to go well, we need to start planning now.
Hope seems so close yet so far away. Vaccines are on their way, but it isn’t always clear when teachers will get them — let alone the majority of our students. Now, it’s sounding like it might not be until May, which means that all or nearly all of the 2020–2021 school year will end up being taught in either distanced classrooms, online, or by teachers trying to manage the impossible task of doing both at the same time.
Assuming that schools will finally be fully reopened in person next fall, where will students be academically, and what needs will we need to meet? Access to education has always been inequitable, but COVID-19 showed us those rifts in stark relief while further widening all of the gaps. We all know that while a subset of students have been thriving while learning online, many more have had trouble staying motivated — or have stopped logging on entirely. Virtually all teachers this year have said that they have not been able to cover as much content as they have in previous years. They are concerned that their students will move into the next grade level with less preparation.
We already know from research on the “summer slide” that how much knowledge students lose (or gain) during summer vacations varies in ways that are correlated with socio-economic level. More affluent children may spend the summer doing enrichment activities such as travel, theater, sports camps, and reading at libraries that help them minimize the slide — or even get ahead. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t get access to those resources and may slide 1–2 months back from where they were the previous June. It is likely that the “COVID slide” will follow similar patterns, but to a greater extent given both the fact that students will have been affected by COVID from Spring 2020-Spring 2021, and given that COVID-19 has further amplified class stratifications.
All of this is going to mean that next fall, teachers will face an even wider achievement gap. Students with access to productive work environments at home, computers, the internet, parents who could help them with classwork, and who had the ability and motivation to do the more independent work online or hybrid instruction required may be “on track” — whatever that even means anymore. A few could even be ahead of where they would have been if they had been in classrooms. Others will have made some progress, but not not as much as would be “typical” in a normal year. Many might have learned something but slipped behind — whatever “behind means anymore. But the approximately 1 in 5 students who could not access instruction during COVID-19 might not have done any school work since March 2020, and might have slipped back from where they were then. Teachers and schools need to start planning now for how they’re going to manage this dizzying difference in learning.
What is “Ahead” and “Behind” Anyway?
Maybe it is time to get rid of the idea of “ahead” and “behind” — or at least put those in perspective. Experienced teachers will know that these “standards” are arbitrary because they have shifted over the years. Experienced teachers also know that children do not learn in lockstep, and that there can be a lot of variation within the “normal” range of when students learn to read or master other skills. “Asynchronous development” has been embraced by the Gifted community for decades. It is time we applied that concept to all of our students.
We also know that test scores are strongly correlated with students’ and their families’ socio-economic levels. Most measures of “student learning” are compromised by this confounding variable. Maybe it is time to go back to focusing on meeting students’ needs and on individual learning and growth, rather than on which benchmarks each student is meeting by which point in the year. Shifting our focus could help us make our schools more human.
Most importantly, we know that we have all been doing our best to survive a global pandemic. Access to schools and technology, stress, loss, isolation, family responsibilities, work demands, have affected each of our students differently. This does not feel like the time to measure students’ academic progress with the same yardstick.
More Flexible Structures and More Steps to Meet Students’ Needs
With the unprecedented challenge of meeting new challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, maybe schools should consider some unprecedented steps.
What if schools considered some of the following strategies?
- Classrooms that had two grade levels instead of one. For example, there could be a 3rd/4th combo class, and also a 4th/5th combo class. The 3rd/4th combo class could have a stronger focus on third grade content, but move everyone into 4th grade content, while particularly focusing on preparing the 4th graders to enter 5th grade the next year. Schools could give a diagnostic test at the beginning of the year and place 4th graders who need more help catching up in the 3rd/4th combo class, and students who are ready to move ahead into the 4th-5th combo class. Schools could have combo classes at each grade level: Pre-K/K, K/1st, 1st/2nd, 2nd/3rd, 3rd/4th, 4th/5th, etc.
- More individualized and standards-based instruction with more flexible and fluid grouping based on helping students meet specific goals. This might mean less (or no) grade-level grouping and instruction, and instead grouping students at different ages as they learn times tables, learn division, learn two-digit multiplication, learn long division, etc. Students would be in different groups for reading skills, and for other targeted concepts and skills, and students could move groups as objectives changed. Other subjects, such as science, social studies, art, and perhaps other “specials” could still incorporate homogeneous grouping around activities rather than skills.
- Provide“Summer academies” that are specifically aimed at students who were not able to do as much academic work during quarantines. Once teachers and students get vaccinated, they could return to schools and the summer academies could focus on rebuilding social skills, work habits, and academic skills.
- Extend the school day and align it with parents’ work schedules. Also provide before and after school care that provides tutoring and homework help (see below), as well as access to the library and computers. Make the mandatory school day between 9 am and 4 pm. Have supervision available at the school starting at 7 am and going to 7 pm. Doing this would help families get back on their feet and would provide more instructional time and homework assistance for students.
- Provide tutoring programs with colleges, older students, or other volunteers so that students can get more individualized help.
- Allow students to earn their high school diplomas by age 20 instead of age 18. We already let some students with disabilities continue to attend high school until they are 21. We should allow that option for all students — either in regular high schools or in continuation schools. This should be an option through the next decade, so that all students affected by the pandemic have a chance to graduate, even if they are not “on track” when schools re-open next fall.
We Need to Think Outside of the Box
All of the proposals above would require major structural changes and/or significant funding. But schools have needed these for a long time, and the COVID-19 situation has made what was already a slow-motion crisis into a full emergency. If we want to stem the generational impacts of COVID-19, we need to act. We need to think outside of the box because the structures we had in place before won’t be sufficient to address the issues we will all be facing next fall.
What other ideas do readers have? Post anything you brainstorm in the comments.