School & District Management Opinion

The Pandemic Forced My District to Make One Big Change Worth Keeping

The disruptive change of COVID-19 can offer opportunities even in the face of tragedy
By Erica M. Forti — July 27, 2021 2 min read
A woman looks past the pandemic to the future.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill is widely credited to have said in the throes of World War II. A crisis, in other words, can be an opportunity.

In summer 2020, my district, like all others, found itself in the midst of the COVID-19 catastrophe. We were also in a battle against time, with just six weeks to forge a plan to reopen our schools safely while offering students opportunities to learn and grow.

We prevailed for the most part. Since September 2020, our district has been in a full in-person mode with a remote-learning option. Despite having to quarantine various groups since then, there’s been no break in our full in-person schedule.

About This Series

Over the coming weeks, we will be rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading from home. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

We used the crisis to adopt an approach we had been discussing for years: block scheduling. In our version of block scheduling, we replaced the traditional schedule of seven 42-minute daily periods with two alternating blocks of four 85-minute classes for both full-time and remote students.

What appealed to us about the practice is that it frees up time for hands-on learning and collaboration, while affording deeper levels of teaching and learning with fewer interruptions.

Even in normal times—as everyone reading this knows—changing a school schedule is a complex and contentious business. Coalitions must be built. Contracts must be negotiated. Teachers must be trained. The public must be convinced.

Among the perverse benefits of the crisis was that it forced us into what some corporations describe as disruptive change—a modern version of a “good crisis.” We used the pandemic as an opportunity to quickly adjust and innovate in our determination to safely reopen our schools.

We based our response on the bedrock belief that school is more than a building; it’s where students develop positive relationships with their teachers. Those connections, our experience taught us, make students more likely to engage in learning and have better academic outcomes—far better, we believed, than in online settings with their distractions and lack of oversight.

That’s where block scheduling came in and came through—both for its scholastic benefits and for meeting our safety and health challenges.

Reducing the number of classes from seven to four limited the time that students had to pass in the hallways. Keeping students together in cohorts facilitated contact tracing. The increase in class time in class afforded teachers a greater stretch during which they could balance in-person and remote teaching, as well as schedule mask breaks.

More than that, at a time when the outside world was anything but calm, the schedule gave students consistency and stability—the most salubrious conditions for learning and growth.

Students have reported that the added time has enabled them to learn at deeper levels and to work on projects longer with continuous feedback from teachers. Teachers say they’re able to give students more individualized attention with the increased duration of class time.

There were glitches. We experienced a shortage of teachers. This resulted in too many students consigned to study hall. In addition, safety precautions precluded group work and moving around the classroom.

Such challenges are fixable. We’ve added three additional teachers to next year’s budget. And many of the restrictions, we hope, will be lifted by September, allowing us to maximize the instructional benefits afforded by block scheduling.

Whether you call it a “good crisis” or disruptive change, it’s fair to say that block scheduling for our district is here to stay.

Complete Collection

Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

Related Tags:

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Photo Essay PHOTOS: A Superintendent Who Exudes Joy in All Things
EdWeek photographer Sam Mallon reflects on her day with Richard Tomko, a 2023 Leaders to Learn From honoree.
2 min read
During a visit to the new Belleville Indoor Training Facility, Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools, speaks with Carolyn Guancione, Indoor Training Facility Support Staff, about how the space continues to transform, in Belleville, N.J., on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The new training facility was built to facilitate and accommodate general physical activity and training for sports teams within the school system and the greater Belleville community.
Richard Tomko, the superintendent of Belleville public schools, speaks with Carolyn Gancione during a visit to the district's new indoor training facility, which is shared with the community.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
School & District Management Opinion Your School Leadership Needs More Student Voice
When one Virginia principal moved from middle school to high school, he knew he would need to find new ways of soliciting student feedback.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
3 min read
Illustration of students holding speech bubbles.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management First Latina Selected to Lead National Principals Group
Raquel Martinez is a middle school principal in Pasco, Wash.
3 min read
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.
Courtesy of the National Association of Secondary School Principals
School & District Management Four Things to Know From a State's Push to Switch Schools to Heat Pumps
Installing a heat pump is complex, but the payoff is well worth it, says an expert in Maine who's pushing their adoption in schools.
4 min read
Close up of a heat pump against a brick wall