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What's the Plus?

Policymakers: Now, More Than Ever, Plan for Next Year With Teachers

By Josh Kaufmann and Mark Sass

When school buildings closed in Colorado because of COVID-19, the calls to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline plummeted 50 percent. This was not a surprise: Typically during the school year, educators see their students on a daily basis and can detect signs of neglect or abuse.

The Governor’s Office turned to teachers for help. A group of Teach Plus teacher leaders, working in partnership with the Colorado Department of Health Services, created toolkits for teachers to engage with students remotely to try and identify those who might be at risk. The toolkits are just one example of how teachers, who are closest to students, are reinventing teaching and learning during COVID. They are providing social and emotional support and crafting curriculum and lessons in their remote classrooms.

More than ever, it is imperative that teachers are involved in planning the policy responses to COVID-19 as we begin to plan for the next school year. Now is the time for federal, state, and local policymakers to hear from and plan with the teachers who are closest to the work and who have seen what has worked, and what hasn’t, in remote learning. During this critical planning period, policymakers should:

  • Include teachers and parents in the decision-making process. Creating an advisory cabinet, whether at the state or district level, is a good place to start. The cabinet should include teachers from different grade levels and content areas who work in schools serving a wide variety of student populations. This will ensure that special populations are incorporated into the planning process.
  • Focus first on students’ social and emotional needs. We know that there will be large learning gaps, but we also know that students cannot learn if they are traumatized. Ensure that school staff have the appropriate training to identify and support their students and if necessary, refer them for additional help.
  • Address academic challenges in a positive way. Rather than speaking of academic “gaps” (though they will exist), or “learning loss,” talk about how to build on the work that happened the previous year, both in school and at home. Students will need to know that their teachers are working to support them — not identify where they are “deficient.”
  • Plan now for remote learning. Teachers have had widely different experiences and preparation to shift toward remote learning. Prepare teachers with the technological tools they need now and create times for teachers to work with their peers to learn how to best connect with and educate students who they don’t see every day. Spring 2020 has taught us that continuity of learning is critical, so if districts need to switch again to remote learning it needs to be seamless this fall. If possible, districts should plan on setting one or two “practice remote days” when school buildings are open to pilot remote leaning and address issues BEFORE school buildings might be forced to close. Just like practicing for a fire with a fire drill, we should practice for remote learning.
  • In the fall, provide opportunities for teachers to continue to collaborate and drive the response to the pandemic. With the probability that students will see interruptions in their schooling, teachers will be firsthand observers of the impact on their students. Because of this, teachers will need to lead practice and policy responses to ensure timely and adequate supports for students.
  • Integrate cultural responsiveness and anti-racism into curriculum and policies. The murder of George Floyd has resulted in communities deciding what role, if any, police departments play. As school districts look to remove school resource officers, it is paramount that teachers are lead collaborators on ways to ensure the physical and emotional safety of students and adults in school buildings. This work should be included in the school’s broader plan.

In some states, involving teachers is already happening. The state superintendent in Illinois, for example, engaged over 20 teachers to help create a set of Remote Learning Recommendations in March, right at the beginning of the shutdowns. These recommendations are infused with common sense guidelines from teachers―such as expecting that first graders are only able to do 45–90 minutes of remote learning each day. In California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New Mexico, thousands of teachers participated in Teach Plus surveys to help guide the state superintendents in their decision-making process. Teach Plus teacher leaders in these states are bringing their recommendations into conversations where they matter most.

As we plan our return to school in the fall―however that may look―we urge policymakers to include teachers in their decision-making now more than ever. For a majority of schools, districts, and states, remote learning was thrust upon them with little to no planning. Leveraging the experiences of those who were engaged in remote learning and building off of those experiences should be one of policymakers’ first acts to ensure all students have high-quality learning opportunities.

Josh Kaufmann is Senior Executive Director of Teach Plus Illinois.

Mark Sass teaches high school history at Legacy High School in the Adams 12 Five Star School District and is Teach Plus Colorado State Director.

We empower teachers to make an impact in the classroom and beyond.

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