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School & District Management Opinion

‘Futures Thinking’ Can Help Schools Plan for the Next Pandemic

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 20, 2021 17 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What should schools do, if anything, to prepare for another pandemic in the future? What lessons have been learned so that schools can do a better job next time—if there is a next time?

In Part One, Robert S. Harvey, Shaamar Samuel, Hilary Kreisberg, and Helen Vassiliou provided their reflections. Robert, Hilary, and Helen were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Meg Riordan, Ph.D., Sally J. Zepeda, Philip D. Lanoue, Michelle Makus Shory, Stan Williams, Emily Rinkema, Pamela Mesta, Jason Anderson, and Olga Reber share their ideas.

‘Futures Thinking’

Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at The Possible Project, an out-of-school program that collaborates with youth to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and provides pathways to careers and long-term economic prosperity. She has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a middle and high school teacher, school coach, college professor, regional director of NYC Outward Bound Schools, and director of external research with EL Education:

What does education need to look like for all learners to thrive? How can technology promote increased economic mobility without exacerbating opportunity gaps? These questions reflect futures thinking, a way of imagining possibilities and planning scenarios that help design desired futures.

Imaginingand shapingthe future is a critical skill, and one that could have benefited us prior to the pandemic. It means considering macro-trends, thinking years out from now, and inviting multiple perspectives to interrogate assumptions.

While it’s too late to turn back the clock, let’s explore how schools, programs, and educators can employ futures thinking to plan for events (pandemic or otherwise) that emerge. We can also mine for, harness, and scale successful innovationsinstructional, curricular, and technologicalthat during the pandemic supported students’ learning and growth.

Shaping Schooling Ahead of the Next Pandemic:

Applying futures thinking, I propose two “What if we …” ideas that would position schools for pandemic learning to address inequalities rather than perpetuate them by interrogating the usual ways of doing things and creating a positive disturbance in service of all students.

1. What if we ... prioritize well-being for all?

The science of learning illuminates the impact that stress can have on learners’ abilities to focus or engage. Educators, too, even prepandemic, faced mental-health challenges and continue to struggle with their capacity to manage stress. Plus, many communities experienced increased food insecurity or other stressors during the pandemic, including heightened racial injustices, trauma, or jobs losses.

In our futures thinking, to shape education that prioritizes well-beingspecifically mental health and social-emotional developmentschools and programs should leverage relationships and provide access to nonstigmatizing mental-health services. Relationships, paramount to learning, can be sustained through models like EL Education’s Virtual Crew, a structure that supports students and adults in processing emotions, sharing joy, building community, and thinking-learning-and talking critically about experiences. This recurring opportunity for connection provides a touch point that students need to feel a sense of belonging despite physical distance.

Additionally, we know from data that students and educators are experiencing mental-health struggles as a result of the pandemic. Imagine a future where legislation requires and funds implementation of mental-health services to meet students’, educators’, and families’ needs, and mental health and wellness is integrated into schools’ curricula just like math class or professional learning: accessible and expected for all. This might include: counseling services for staff and students and mindfulness or meditation courses. We also need to support educators and families with tools and learning opportunities so that they are equipped to be resources for students, especially our most vulnerable.

2. What if we … leverage technology effectively to support engagement?

Recent data points to wide disparities in online learning and engagement throughout the pandemic, suggesting that fewer students from underresourced backgrounds log in to remote instruction. Under usual circumstances, “students who miss more than ten days of school are 36 percent more likely to drop out.” In Boston, 40% of Boston public school juniors and seniors were chronically absent in the past year.

The long-term impacts of disengagement are significant, and rethinking technology is essential to shape learning that stands up to the pandemic test. Schools and programs (with support from legislators and policymakers) should ensure now that students have connectivity and computer hardware needed to engage in remote learning. We should provide educators with professional learning and opportunities to practice using technology and clear policies for how to operate during remote learning so that transitions are less frenetic.

Applying futures thinking, schools and educators can reinvent how they typically operate in order to pivot without disruption. They might, for example, adopt flipped learning approaches that promote deeper experiences outside of classrooms, leveraging community assets and flexible time; this concept, which expands on the flipped classroom idea, includes a later start to the school day and increased interactions with local businesses (even virtually). At The Possible Project, a youth entrepreneurship and work-based learning program with a mission to advance economic equity, students engaged in virtual consultancy projects with businesses, learning key professional and technical skills (e.g., design, website development, and digital storytelling), and continued to expand their networks and social capital. We must avoid the temptation to re-create tech-enabled didactic teaching and learning experiences that rarely work, even in pandemic-free times.

A recent Brookings report asserts that “strong and inclusive education systems are essential to the short and long term recovery of society.” We know from our pandemic experience that schools and programs can transform themselves and pivot to respond to crises. We are capable of ingenuity, innovation, and creativity under the most challenging of circumstances. Through futures thinking, we can put our learnings and imaginations to use to design, not only for recovery but for a preferred educational environment and experience for allone that prioritizes well-being and technological access so that students and educators thrive.

schoolsandprogramsmeg

Not Returning to ‘Normal’

Sally J. Zepeda is a professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy at the University of Georgia.

Philip D. Lanoue is the former award-winning 2015 AASA Superintendent of the Year, and he is CEO of PDL Associates and a founder of Kadem Education with a focus on developing culture to give teachers voice and agency.

Sally and Philip co-authored the book, A Leadership Guide to Navigating the Unknown in Education: New Narratives Amid COVID-19:

Looking to the near future to post COVID-19, conversations by educators and community members have been about how we can return to “normal” or the way we were before schools and schooling changed. However, returning to a normal as we knew it before COVID-19 is simply not a realistic approach. Our new normal must center on what we learned from COVID-19 so we are prepared to pivot for future disruptions and the strong likelihood there will be a next one.

However, while schools prepare to end this year and gear up for next year, there will be two critical contexts of teaching and learning that will exist. The first, of course, is the understanding that there will be other disruptions to schools and their systems. School leaders will need to keep what they learned and implemented updated and ready. Considerations include:

  1. Expanded coordination and shared responsibility with community agencies.
  2. Flexible learning options that include in-school and out-of-school opportunities to promote personal learning pathways.
  3. Clear health and safety protocols.
  4. Two-way and transparent communication systems.
  5. Recognizing the complexities of teaching and the role of teachers and school leaders.

The second context of what was learned during COVID-19 is about flexibility and a rethinking of instructional delivery and the social-emotional support children and the adults needed as they transitioned through schooling.

To be ready to meet the unknown challenges and opportunities, we believe that schools are in a solid position to reimagine their work based on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 experiences. To recover and to rebuild our commitment to public education, schools can:

  1. Continue hybrid learning options so that they become normalized by building independent student choice through student-centered instruction.
  2. Create flexible and hybrid models of professional learning to continue building on what teachers, leaders, students, and parents learned during COVID-19.
  3. Devise support systems for teachers and leaders—they need to be able to regulate efforts, balance, and well-being as they undertake the work of educating students.
  4. Be attuned to new emotional needs of students and teachers by recognizing unprecedented psychological needs for safety and inclusion in an uncertain world.
  5. Redesign induction and mentoring opportunities for new teachers whose first year might have been a virtual one.
  6. Rethink the use of time and place for teachers and students.
  7. Refocus system priorities.

Since March 2020, public education has been in a space never experienced before in educational history. While other crises in the past have disrupted schools, never before have schools been able to quickly pivot their learning environment using new technologies to engage students outside of the schoolhouse walls.

The new normal for schools has tremendous opportunities if we can see beyond what is at today’s educational doorstep … as we plan for the future.

As we wrote in our book, “The COVID-19 pandemic may, in fact, have the greatest impact on our education systems than any planned reform could expect. The pains of children, parents, teachers, and school leaders have been like no other in the history of public education. However, these hurtful times may lead to educational reform that can truly meet the needs of all children in this country. The future of education and its success lies solely on how we move forward in this journey.”

However, we can no longer predict the future based on what we did in the past. We have experienced instructional freedom during the last year as teachers created new and different ways to engage their students, in a volatile environment. While much lies ahead of us, the ability to innovate and to take risks must become paramount in our educational cultures to move our practices and our systems forward.

wecannolongersally

Supporting ‘Vulnerable Learners’

Michelle Makus Shory is a veteran language educator with 25 years of experience in five states. She is currently a district ESL instructional coach in the Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. Michelle helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville:

The COVID-19 pandemic widened many of the inequities we had already seen in schools around the country. The idea of closing school buildings for more than a year seemed unfathomable—and yet, it happened in many districts around the country. When reflecting on the experience, I think there are lessons to be learned and ways to be better prepared for any potential closures in the future.

First of all, we saw how difficult it was to contact students. Many phone numbers and emails were outdated, making it nearly impossible for teachers to reach students missing from their online classes. Moving forward, we must ensure that we are updating contact information regularly—and that we are providing updates to families in a way that is convenient and accessible for them. This might include utilizing local radio and TV stations, Whatsapp groups, and social media in addition to the typical email or mailed newsletter.

Additionally, we need to be sure that all learners have access to devices and reliable internet. We cannot teach online when many of our students are unable to access the internet. We also need to have tech support that is accessible to families. We have learned that kids will lose chargers, drop their devices, and not know how to perform software updates. We need to have a team ready to assist students and families in need of support.

We need to have additional support in place for vulnerable learners who might have learning differences or who might still be acquiring the English language. Creating learning hubs, hotlines, or extra tutoring hours for these students is essential. We’ve learned that vulnerable learners can be lost during a stressful time like a pandemic and that it can be challenging to get them back in school.

Finally, we were reminded that relationships really are the glue that holds a school together. Teachers who were able to create a sense of community online had greater participation on and offline. We also saw that social-emotional learning is not a waste of time—it’s essential. And ultimately, we found out that kids (no matter how cool) actually enjoy school and learning with their peers.

relationshipsreallyshorty

Standards-Based Grading

Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema have been teaching in Vermont for 25 years. They helped transition their district to a standards-based system and continue to support teachers and administrators as proficiency-based learning coordinators. In addition, they are the authors of The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal (Corwin 2018) and consult with schools that are transitioning to standards-based systems:

In March 2020, our district, like almost all others in the world, was forced to make some decisions quickly. We’re not saying it was easy, but when the pandemic hit, we were ready to pivot. We had an agreed upon and understood focus on transferable learning already, and our community had spent years grappling with big questions about grading. The motto of our school for over a decade has been, “Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of this place,” and on March 15, when school as we knew it changed completely, we went to work behind the scenes trying to figure out how to live that motto.

We have been standards-based for almost a decade, and our standards (which we call learning targets) are all transferable skills. At the high school, each yearlong course has a total of 8-12 targets, and teachers use a variety of content to instruct, practice, and assess these targets throughout the year. In our four middle schools, disciplines have between five and eight learning targets for the year at each grade level, with the majority repeating from grade to grade.

From a practical perspective, our use of learning targets allowed us to quickly pare down our curriculum in a way that prioritized the most essential skills and content. All teachers have course K-U-Ds, published curriculum documents that articulate what students will know, understand, and be able to do by the end of the course. Within weeks of going remote, teachers had revised those KUDs, clearly communicating to students and families what was most essential.

From a philosophical perspective, our community already valued learning over compliance, which made the necessary shifts in grading last March logical and relatively simple. Having a standards-based grading and reporting system already in place allowed us to tweak existing practices and policies but meant that we did not have to make significant changes in order to ensure equity, compassion, and accuracy.

As we head into the future, our schools need to be ready to pivot on short notice. We live in an unpredictable world, and it’s our job to ensure that our students learn and grow in this unpredictability. While that may not be easy, we believe having a simple, flexible, and transferable standards-based foundation allows us not only to be ready for whatever the world throws at us, but ensures we are ready to take care of ourselves, each other, and our places.

ourschoolsneedtostan

Family Engagement

Pamela Mesta’s experience includes district-level administration, ESOL, bilingual, elementary, early childhood, educational technology, professional development, interpretation/translation, and higher education. She works as the supervisor of ESOL in a large public school district.

Jason Anderson’s experience includes school/district-level administration, educational publishing, and higher education. He works as the chief of academics, equity, and accountability in a large public school district.

Olga Reber’s experience includes ESOL, EFL, professional development, interpretation/translation, and higher education. She works as an ESOL resource teacher in a large public school district.

Pamela Mesta and Olga Reber are also the authors of the book: The Classroom Teacher’s Guide to Supporting English Language Learners:

The success of an instructional program is hugely reliant on a healthy family/school relationship. One of the greatest lessons learned as a result of the pandemic is the importance of establishing and maintaining a strong sense of community and trust with students and their families. Opportunities for togetherness and belonging help to combat feelings of isolation and disengagement.

It’s important to have a solid plan for family engagement prior to the start of the school year, and also what it would look like in the event of a shift back to some type of virtual learning. Learn about your students and families early and establish regular channels of communication with them. Determine who has technology and internet access and who might need support in that area. Explore all available community and school resources and connect families to them. Find ways to keep students and their families engaged while also building their capacity.

Sometimes this means thinking outside the box. This could be made possible through virtual learning events, technology-support nights, community-resource fairs, game nights, block parties, home visits, or material deliveries. The majority of learners do not have the maturity and independence to be successful independently. We will need to spend more time building skills together and placing both students and their families in a position to be more successful in the event of a return to virtual learning. It will be critical that we walk alongside one another as we continue to move forward.

itsimportantpamela

Thanks to Meg, Sally, Philip, Michelle, Stan, Emily, Pamela, Jason, and Olga 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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first ten years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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