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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

9 Lessons School District Leaders Should Learn From the COVID Pandemic

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 15, 2022 13 min read
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(This is Part One of a three-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders should learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?

Last year, I wrote a piece headlined 13 things that should happen in schools now — but most probably won’t and was not surprised that many districts made that title come through.

This series will feature the perspectives of other educators—some who share my pessimism and others who might be more optimistic.

Today, Chandra Shaw, Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., Paul Forbes, and Andrea Honigsfeld share their commentaries.

People, Not Programs

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. She is a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber:

Some of the most important lessons that school district leaders should learn from the COVID pandemic are that it’s the people and not the programs that make the biggest difference in the education and achievement of students and that students and teachers’ social and emotional health is vital in maintaining a positive school culture.

While some students thrived during the isolated, all-virtual conditions necessitated by the COVID pandemic, the vast majority of students lost academic grounds and, perhaps even more importantly, social and emotional skills during the school shutdown. The end of the 2019-20 school year saw districts scrambling to quickly transition to online learning. What ensued was a half year of lackluster “instruction,” which could more accurately have been described as the “mass assigning” of work to be completed with very little instruction actually taking place. In many instances, students were assigned work on online platforms, removing the social component of learning. I say this not to place blame on anyone but to simply share an observation that technology and computer learning programs could never replace the interaction and discussion needed for most students to truly learn.

The entire 2020-21 school year, still plagued by sudden shutdowns due to rises in COVID cases, was arguably the most difficult year of teaching and learning in modern times. The number of teachers who were feeling burnt out was at an all-time high. Schools have yet to recover from the large numbers of educators who left the profession for good due to the sporadic schedules and seemingly uncaring administration who continued to add more to their plates in the form of teaching both hybrid and face-to-face classes.

Even the 2021-22 year, touted as “a return to some normalcy,” proved almost equally as tough for teachers and students alike, as teachers were faced with students who’d essentially spent the last 2 ½ years being home schooled and totally isolated from the normal social interactions and communication development they would have experienced at school learning with their peers. Teachers I’ve spoken to report more behavior issues, angry outbursts, and a general lack of maturity among their students.

Have schools learned the lessons the COVID-19 pandemic presented? Not likely, as I’ve already noticed a hyperfocus on academic acceleration to fill “learning gaps” and a return to testing as usual. Districts continue to enact initiatives, which undoubtedly place more of the actual “work” on the shoulders of an already weary teaching staff, while failing to remove any previous requirements.


‘Glimmers of Hope’

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., joined the Leadership Academy in 2015 with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, mentor, curriculum designer, and coach and currently serves as executive director, curriculum development and equity. She is the author of an untitled book to be published in 2023 by ASCD focused on leaders of color and can be found on Twitter @mriceboothe or by reading her newsletter:

As some district leaders scramble to “return to normal,” there are valuable lessons learned as the COVID pandemic completely changed how we do school and cemented for many, especially those who have been minoritized by the education system, that “normal” never worked. Three important lessons that district leaders should take away from the past few years:

  • Keep families at the center. The need for family members to be active and oftentimes primary educators during school closure underscores the importance of family partnerships and power of collaboration. In my home district, most assignments were given asynchronously with some video direct teaching. As the primary educator to my children in Texas, I was given the liberty to change and adapt to the needs of my children. Whether they did their work all in one sitting or gradually over the course of the day, when to eat and when to take a break were all individualized. The differentiation and adaptation that I did for learning to continue for my children was in collaboration with their teachers but also unique to each of my children. Beyond the classroom, school personnel went into the communities to ensure that every student had a laptop and wireless access. Collaborations with social services for family access to food, health care, housing, and employment were not additional connections but central programs to keep students and families connected to the schools.
  • Stay nimble. As safety protocols changed by state and by district, district leaders had to continually change their approach. In a matter of days, whole school systems had to move from in-person schooling to virtual to hybrid then back to in person again. These shifts required flexibility in all aspects of the school system from transportation to food services to janitorial services to teaching. In a bureaucracy that is used to “the way it has always been” and belief that systems-level change takes years to happen, we saw it happen in days. School systems do have the ability to change to meet the needs of their communities quickly and efficiently. The question is whether we can take the nimbleness we’ve learned and apply it consistently to make sure students and families’ needs are being met in real time and based on just-in-time needs as opposed to “the way things are always done,”
  • Academics and social-emotional learning are equal. As students returned to in-person learning, morning circles, breathing exercises, yoga, journaling, and other exercises became more common practice. This is because the trauma students and teachers faced throughout the pandemic could not be ignored. For students to be successful, they need to feel seen, heard, and valued. This is the same for adults. School districts have spent many dollars on SEL services, but the caution is to not make it a separate, add-on experience. Instead, it should be on how schools and classrooms are going to be reimagined to equally center the social, emotional, and academic needs of each student.

There are glimmers of hope that districts have learned these lessons. Districts in Texas continue to connect with families in unique ways, while N.Y.C. took deliberate efforts to bring their curriculum and instruction and social-emotional-learning departments together in order to ensure a positive return to an in-person learning experience. However, the challenge to stay nimble continues to be a test for districts.


Creating a ‘New Normal’

Paul Forbes is a New Yorker and the founder of Leading with Hearts and Minds:

In April of 2020, a month after the pandemic caused New York and the rest of the country to shut down, during a meeting with my team at the New York City Department of Education, I said, “Let’s not go back to normal, instead let’s create a new normal!” At that time, no one could fathom the tsunami of grief, loss, fear, and death that would hit this country and the world, but I repeatedly heard the question, “When can we get back to normal?” My response to that question never changed. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed and taught me many lessons. My hope was that district and central leaders in N.Y.C. were also learning lessons and then moved to create a new normal.

In my opinion, the most important lessons were:

  • Virtual technology is here to stay, and we should embrace it: Shifting to a remote space was challenging for many reasons, but if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that folks were forced to embrace technology in ways that we have not previously considered. Terms like “Zoom” and “Microsoft Team” became part of our lexicon, and we began to realize how efficient and effective virtual meetings can be. I also saw the increased awareness and usage of “audience-engagement platforms” like Kahoot, Mentimeter, and Padlet. What caught my attention was how comfortable our students and young people were using technology and online platforms. In the age of TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and influencers, I should not have been surprised. Our youngsters have been engaging in this manner long before the pandemic. Too many of our educators and educational leaders have spent time and energy trying to keep this kind of social media and technology out of classrooms and schools. We now had to scramble to catch up.
  • Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not just for our students and young people: When we introduce initiatives and programs to educators, usually they learn about how to implement with fidelity with and for the students and young people. During the pandemic, I saw the love and empathy as educators, support staff, and administrators were there for their students, but too many times, I wondered about the adults. I wondered about the structures and systems that were created to support the emotional wellness of the staff. We have heard the instruction on an airplane: “In the event of an emergency, be sure to put the oxygen mask on first before helping others.” I get it … the instinctual reaction is to help others, but you can’t help them if you yourself are in crisis. We created space to check in on our young people, but how intentional were we about checking in on peers and colleagues?

After all that we have been through and all that we continue to go through, have we learned from these lessons? Unfortunately, I do not believe so. I feel like there has been some tinkering around the edges and folks have “gone back to normal” even though “normal” was not that good for so many. Are there challenges with remote learning? Sure, there are challenges, but I know of many young people who thrived in the remote space. Why not build out a parallel system where hybrid learning is part of the “new normal”? When we are in person, there are also ways to increase engagement by utilizing some of the online platforms that our young people are using.

At the end of the day, if after all that we have been through, if we have not changed our practices, policies, procedures, and behaviors, then I don’t know what it will take. Creating an ethos of empathy and checking in with each other does not cost any money. We shouldn’t be expected to do it for the students while we neglect doing it for each other. Let’s create a new normal!


‘Equitable Opportunities for Multilingual Learners’

Andrea Honigsfeld is a professor in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy University and provides professional development primarily focusing on effective differentiated strategies and collaborative practices for English-as-a-second-language and general education teachers. Her books include From Equity Insights to Action (Corwin, 2021) and Digital-Age Teaching for English Learners (Corwin, 2022):

The pandemic has provided a unique context in which equity had to be front and center in every conversation and every action educators (both teachers and administrators) took for so many reasons. We have witnessed how many leaders made the following commitments:

  • Challenging the notions of a learning loss, pandemic slowdown, or a COVID slide because they create or reinforce a deficit mindset, which, in turn, may result in falling back on perpetual cycles of remediation and interventions for many of our multilingual-learners (MLs) and other vulnerable students. Instead, they have called for equitable opportunities for MLs that begin with recognizing their strengths, abilities, and talents; that engage them to contribute to curricula that is culturally, historically, and linguistically responsive and sustaining; and that ultimately draw them to partake in instruction using multimodal and multilingual representations and nonlinguistic expressions so that MLs have full ownership of their academic, linguistic, and social-emotional growth.
  • Challenging the notions of going back to normal, accepting the pre-pandemic curricular and instructional practices, inequities and more. Instead, they engaged their faculty in critically reexamining their current beliefs and practices and setting clearer pathways, better protocols, equitable learning opportunities for MLs to fully develop their agency and autonomy to be recognized as bilingual and biliterate or multilingual and multiliterate future leaders.
  • Challenging the notions of defining MLs by labels, describing them as struggling readers and writers, at-risk students, or slow learners who cannot seem to close the achievement gap. Instead, they worked to create equitable opportunities for MLs to tap into their identities, interests, cultural, familial, and individual knowledge and use all their gifts, talents, rich cultural backgrounds, and full linguistic repertoires, as well as newfound skills and competences.

Thanks to Chandra, Mary, Paul, and Andrea for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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