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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

The Pandemic Revealed Several Truths About School Districts

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 22, 2022 14 min read
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(This is Part Two of a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

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

In Part One, Chandra Shaw, Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., Paul Forbes, and Andrea Honigsfeld shared their commentaries.

Today, PJ Caposey, Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., Stepan Mekhitarian , Ph.D., Holly Skadsem, and Lana Peterson answer the question.

‘We Can Go Further and Faster’

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of eight books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the nationally recognized Meridian CUSD 223 school district in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

I am not sure I am in a position to tell anyone what they should or should not have learned from the pandemic because I sure have made my share of mistakes trying to lead my district through the past couple of years. That said, I will share the three things that I will never forget after having lived and led through something I would not have imagined just a few short years ago.

REVEALED, NOT CHANGED

First and foremost, I think the pandemic has revealed more about us than it has changed. To be clear, I mean “us” as individuals, people, families, society, and yes—even schools. I think when we look at it through that lens, it helps us to distill our issues much more pragmatically instead of reflexively.

For example, the decreasing morale of the education populace is not new. Yes, it was amplified, but it was revealed more than it was changed. Likewise, the segments of the population with contempt for the “indoctrination” system or teachers’ unions did not stumble upon that conclusion during the pandemic. Instead, the pandemic gave them an opportunity to share their true feelings.

Why is this important? It should reinforce that the issues that have emerged NEED SOLVING. We cannot simply brush these off as unique outlier situations as a result of the pandemic. Instead, these were festering wounds that now need intense problem solving.

BETTER TOGETHER

As a superintendent, I have never relied on my team, my staff, or my colleagues more. Prior to the pandemic, I could go weeks without talking to my neighboring superintendents. Now, we talk every day. Likewise, I did not do daily check-ins with each of my direct reports—but this has now become the norm. Extending this, my conversations with faculty and staff have been much more “real” and transparent on both sides.

While not every iteration of communication has been pleasant, almost all have allowed me to expand my perspective and have made me a better leader. My sincere hope is that when things calm down (I do not believe the old normal is ever coming back so I have extinguished that phraseology), we continue to rely on each other and communicate in the manner ushered in since March 2020.

WE CAN GO FASTER THAN WE THINK

Now, I am not sure I ever want to turn the battleship around in the harbor like we were forced to do in March of 2020, but let’s not lose sight of what it taught us about the speed of which we could change when we had a moral imperative to do so. Hear me out, I do not think the rate of change that educators have been faced with over the past two years is sustainable. However, I do believe that the change accomplished in six weeks in 2020 would have been an ambitious five-year plan before that time.

So, our lesson is that change is exhausting. But we can go further and faster than we may have ever thought possible. This should inform our practice and give us hope for the future as we continue to evolve in the way we do business in order to best support our students and communities.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I do have a fear that we are so anxious to move past this experience that we will not take the time to learn from what we have learned—including our mistakes. I simply hope that we take the time to reflect upon the past two years and find ways to problem solve instead of simply wanting to blame the pandemic and not strategically improve.

ithinkthepandemicpj

‘Schools Can Be More Flexible’

Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., is a lifelong language educator who has taught grades K-12. She currently serves her district as an instructional lead for digital innovation, adjuncts for local universities, and co-creates weekly resources for educators at bit.ly/ell2point0:

We All Thrive When We Feel Connected

Districts learned that technology could replicate many experiences but can never replace human connection. During the pandemic, what students missed most was their friends. Pep rallies, assemblies, field trips, dances, or even a weekend movie with friends were nonexistent. Sure, assignments could be posted in a learning-management system, and online meetings could continue, but classroom discussions were stilted, and informal hallway conversations disappeared.

Hopefully, school districts have learned the importance of ensuring that connection is present in learning. This means that classroom discussions, interaction opportunities, and meaningful experiences like labs and projects will be present in classrooms and computer programs where students work individually on skills will go away. It would be a shame to return to silent classrooms where students do their work individually without much feedback from their peers or teachers, especially when research tells us that struggling students do not fare well in courses that are 100 percent online. Still, they do just as well in blended classes with a mixture of online and in-person experiences, so it is vital to make the best use of class time with engaging and interactive experiences.

Flexibility

Districts should have learned that schools can (and should be) more flexible. Many students struggled with remote learning during the pandemic, but some thrived. One reason might be the flexible pacing. When students can move at their own pace, they can avoid boredom from moving too slowly or frustration from moving too quickly. These students also likely benefited from additional sleep. Many districts are still wrestling with proposed schedule changes based on countless research studies citing the need for later start times for secondary students.

The Importance of Educators

Another lesson districts have learned is that teachers are the most powerful in-school influence on student learning. John Hattie’s 2003 report on teacher quality traced 30 percent of student achievement to a teacher’s knowledge, influence, and actions. However, the pandemic highlighted the flexibility and resilience of educators who learned new platforms and strategies to engage (and often just find) students. Teachers went to great lengths for their students and continue to do so. While many workers have remained in remote or hybrid work environments because of COVID numbers, most teachers have returned to classrooms full time and endured highly stressful working conditions.

Currently, the NEA reports that more than half of U.S. teachers are thinking about leaving the field because of burnout—a form of extreme exhaustion caused by physical, emotional, and mental stress. How schools respond remains to be seen, but educator recruitment, preparation, professional learning, and support should be top of mind for districts. If school districts have not learned this lesson, the teaching shortage will be an issue of national concern.

districtslearnedshory

Taking Differentiation ‘to the Next Level’

Stepan Mekhitarian serves as the director of innovation, instruction, assessment, and accountability at Glendale Unified school district in California. He is a Google-certified trainer, a Microsoft Innovative Educator, Blended Learning Universe expert adviser, regular speaker at the California Assessment Conference, and an author for Corwin and Routledge.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a full-scale transition to distance learning which necessitated a sudden and dramatic increase in expertise with instructional technology for all education partners. These shifts in how we approach learning all have one thing in common: They were implemented as a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic but can now serve to enhance learning if transferred effectively to the post-pandemic environment. The big takeaways are that we all learn differently and technology can popularize opportunities never before thought possible:

  • Teachers can maximize learning by differentiating using real-time formative data. In the absence of traditional summative data points that were put on hold, an increased reliance on formative data gave teachers timely access to student progress to inform next steps. We rely on real-time or on-demand data in our lives to make decisions (live traffic, weather, stock prices just to name a few), so why shouldn’t we strive to increase formative-data use to help us make data-informed and timely decisions to support student learning? Instructional technology can help us get there.
  • Differentiated instruction can be taken to the next level. The flipped-classroom model, which was used as a necessity during distance learning, can now be used to help students access content in different ways. Students can pause and rewatch lessons to increase comprehension and to access lessons during application. They can also find new ways to access content and to demonstrate mastery through instructional technology, creating new ways to bring UDL to life. Online collaboration in breakout rooms can transfer to in-class collaborative projects, demonstrating yet another way the skills and resources developed during distance learning can transfer to in-person instruction.
  • We can differentiate learning experiences for educators. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed organizations to think of new ways to offer professional development, and a variety of formats such as live online, hybrid, and webinars emerged. Though some applications may not be as effective as in-person learning, the recording of trainings for future access and online organization of resources and sessions is likely here to stay. This cataloguing can help build a collection of resources and supports that increases access and facilitates reflection on the effectiveness of the offerings.
  • Community partners can have increased access and agency. The shift to distance learning led to the heightened use of and comfort with videoconferencing programs such as Zoom for educators, students, and the community. This in turn resulted in increased parent/guardian attendance and involvement as they were now able to join parent conferences, school events, district information sessions, board meetings, and other functions remotely from anywhere. As school and district events shift back to an in-person format, we are seeing continued use of a hybrid model to facilitate access to as many community partners as possible.

These lessons will stay with us even as we return to in-person instruction if we recognize their benefits, reflect on their application after distance learning, and incorporate them into our organizational cultures. There needs to be a focused, systemwide effort on identifying and retaining these lessons to ensure they are preserved and utilized. While there may be instances of “technology fatigue” after two years of distance learning, recognizing some of the benefits of this experience can have a lasting impact on increased personalized learning and equitable access.

technologycanpopularizestepan

Online Learning

Holly Skadsem, the digital learning and online elementary coordinator for the Bloomington public schools in Minnesota, and Lana Peterson, the director of community engagement at the Learning + Technologies Collaborative, are the authors of Elementary Online Learning: Strategies and Designs for Building Virtual Education, Grades K-5. The book is a practical guide for school leaders and educators based on the experience of launching New Code Academy, a K-12 online school within the Bloomington district:

District leaders need to know that online learning is here to stay! Most families, students, and teachers experienced a taste of learning online through emergency distance learning—and for some—this is a preferred modality for part or all of their learning. Families have shared that they chose online school for safety from COVID or bullying and the flexibility of geography and time, as well as the personalized approach to meeting their children’s needs.

When building online programs within brick-and-mortar schools and districts, leaders will need to be open to new ways the programs impact budgets, human resource and union policies, professional development, food and transportation, and program structures. For example, while New Code Academy saves the district money related to building and grounds, we have additional expenses for materials, shipping, and staffing. The financial algorithm used to plan across the brick-and-mortar schools does not work for our online program. Online learning is (and should be) different, and these programs will not always fit neatly into the current structure of district and school systems.

Prior to the pandemic, K-12 online learning primarily took place in for-profit charter schools. More public school districts and charter schools are starting to create online schools or programs, but the field of K-12 online education is still evolving. District leaders may know that K-12 online learning is growing and yet may not have the capacity, budget, or vision to build online programs within their context. Additionally, the trauma and negative impact that emergency distance learning caused may cloud district leaders’ understanding of the possibilities of intentionally designed and high-quality K-12 online schooling—the two are not the same. Building a new and technology-dependent program within a traditional education system requires local change agents who can navigate barriers and build cross-department solutions.

districtleadersholly

Thanks to PJ, Michelle, Stepan, Holly, and Lana 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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