It’s been a year since the outbreak at Life Care Center of Kirkland set off a wave of school and community closures that we continue to live with today. What lessons have we learned and areas developed during this time?
Context enables or constrains possibility.
Regional context has had such a big effect on our ability to bring students to campus. Unlike most of the country, the west coast has largely held off from resuming any in-person learning this school year. The 74 Million newsletter published an amazing graph that showed how politics, not science, determined school reopening plans. Seattle and surrounding districts remain fully online today, so independent schools have had to proceed one small step at a time. Two weeks from now, we will move to a full-day, 50% hybrid schedule, which most independent schools across the country adopted in the fall.
Emotional well-being is critical to learning.
The pandemic and race issues have revealed that emotional well-being is prerequisite to learning. The SEL movement has argued this for the last decade, but the current crisis has made it more clear to everyone. While many students have done alright this year, others who were previously successful have deeply struggled. Some have even preferred to get away from the social dynamics of school, adding an interesting twist to the return to campus plans. When we do fully return to campus, we should continue to deepen our attention to student social and emotional health at school, including in the classroom.
Teachers and students have demonstrated incredible creativity.
On the positive side, the severe constraints of the crisis have brought forth amazing ideas for how to pursue learning and community within online and minimal on-campus learning. Borrowing from the principles of place-based learning, teachers and students have become so familiar with the new place (online, at home, their neighborhoods) that they have found different opportunities there. These include new learning apps, virtual galleries, online mentoring, virtual community service, finding resources in your neighborhood, completing physical activities by Zoom, and more. Teachers have sent lab and art materials home and welcomed individual students to campus for learning support, robotics team meetings, athletics pods, and music practice. Even our most experiential programs, such as intensives and the senior project have found new opportunities under difficult circumstances.
What students really learn from their classes
The attention given to “learning loss” has revealed differences in the kinds of learning people value most. Some have focused on content and topics, others on skills, and others on habits of mind. Teachers have reorganized their course calendars to cut topics, cover topics less deeply, or both. How far behind will students find themselves compared to a typical year? How much will the missed content coverage or skills practice matter to their subsequent work? These ongoing discussions about provides a golden opportunity to design a more coordinated academic program that drives toward clearer shared outcomes.
How to make up for missed topics
That discussion also determines what strategies will best support students this spring and next year. I have found the following report helpful: “Addressing Unfinished Learning After COVID-19 School Closures” (Council of the Great City Schools). We must take care to keep students at the center of our curriculum adjustments going forward.
Supporting teachers doing challenging work
Teaching is a detailed craft that does not easily pivot with the major changes we’ve sustained this year. Each step toward hybrid learning has necessitated changes to schedule and learning environment in order to meet student and family needs. Meticulous planning is an important part of the professional identity of many teachers, which has taken repeated blows during the pandemic. The teachers who design for student inquiry and leadership have found the shifts less disruptive, since students do more independent and group work when in these modes.
Will the new education models developed during the pandemic stick, or will most schools will return to the prior models? Running online school for a year has reinforced how much people value the personal and comprehensive qualities of campus life. I am sure that some innovative new schools will get a boost, and some of our improved practices will continue, but they will be small compared to how badly many will want to recapture the social and academic benefits of attending school together, in person.