Necessity may be the mother of invention, but what education innovations will last once the pandemic crisis has passed?
With COVID-19 infections on the decline and nearly all school districts back to in-person learning, teachers and leaders finally can take a breath and look forward. And they think the greater focus (and funding) for things like more flexible learning time and technology integration, mental health, and cultural relevance have led to creative education strategies.
“There was a real acceleration in the last two years of districts trying new things and switching quickly,” said Terra Wallin, the associate director of federal P-12 education policy for the nonprofit Education Trust. “It’s going to be important that we ... monitor to see how that actually went.”
In a nationally representative survey taken this January and February, teachers and school and district leaders told the EdWeek Research Center which of those approaches they think will be sustainable for the next five years and beyond.
“We’re taking what we’ve learned from when we had to [provide services] in a crisis moment, and turning it into an opportunity for a convenience moment,” said Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Ill. The 4,000-student suburban district plans to keep and continue to test in-person and online tutoring options for students.
Technology and more learning time
Expanding learning time and integrating technology—particularly through software platforms that allow teachers to assign and monitor students’ work—have both evolved significantly during the pandemic and are the most likely strategies to stick around for at least the next five years, educators told Education Week.
Nearly 40 percent of district leaders and principals say their schools or districts plan to maintain extended school years or summer sessions, while 10 percent plan to keep longer school days. Just 4 percent expect to continue extended school weeks, like Saturday school.
“We’ve actually flipped a model of time and learning to learning being the expectation versus the [seat] time being the expectation. We’ve allowed our students to work extended times in greater capacity,” said Jeff Dylan, the superintendent of the 575-student Wilder School District 133 in rural Idaho. Rather than having separate summer school, the district has moved to rolling enrollments in secondary classes, so that students can join courses at any time during the year. “The model we have now is, students have the right to content 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Most school districts also invested heavily in technology hardware and software to support students learning remotely, and they plan to keep the technology integration that they spent so much effort honing.
Nearly 40 percent of respondents said their districts will continue widespread use of online learning platforms to support students academically. Canvas, Moodle, Google G Suite, and similar platforms can be used to monitor student progress, and in some cases, support online classes.
“How teachers interact with students has changed forever, because as much as teachers hated teaching in person and online at the same time, they’ve gotten good at it,” said David Law, the superintendent of the 37,000-student Anoka-Hennepin school district in suburban Minnesota. “The ability to say, ‘You missed class yesterday; everything’s on our Google class, so just log on and let me know if you have questions,’—that kind of interaction has stepped up 100 percent and will likely last forever.”
The systems can connect families to schools as well. For example, in early 2020, the learning management platform adopted by the 650-student Northern Cass School District 97 in North Dakota the year before was mainly used as a way to give students access to curriculum materials and assignments while buildings were closed, said Superintendent Cory Steiner.
The district has gotten even more use out of the system now that COVID-19 cases are down and students are back on campus. “Now we’re starting to see the benefit of the whole system,” Steiner said. “Now we are really getting parents to understand how to interact with it, the community to interact with it, … so they can use it to understand the progress their learners are making.”
Help for teachers to tackle controversy
Leaders also reported they are looking for ways to provide better training and supports for teachers to cover controversial topics in developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant ways, amid the current overheated political climate.
For example, teachers and administrators in the 50,000-student Clayton County public schools in suburban Atlanta have developed a regularly updated database of instructional packets for teaching about controversial or newsworthy topics, as well as procedures to quickly hold class-, school-, or community-wide virtual town hall meetings.
“You know, during the pandemic, of course, we had that going on, but everything else was going on as well,” said Regina Wallace, the K-12 social studies coordinator for the district. “So for social studies, it was the Census. It was a major election year. It was voter suppression. It was Black Lives Matter. It was just a ton of issues where we had to decide as a district whether we were going to choose avoidance or awareness.”
“We want to overall make sure that teachers knew that they were supported in discussing these issues with students and let our students know that we hear them,” Wallace said. “We’ve done a lot of town hall meetings during the pandemic, and since the pandemic showed us how to have these town hall meetings virtually, since the pandemic we’ve continued the conversations around some of these controversial issues.”
Mental health supports
With experts, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics, warning of a “national emergency” in child and adolescent anxiety, depression, and other problems, most principals and district leaders (52 percent) say they will continue providing more mental health support for students after the pandemic ends.
Thirty percent of school and district leaders plan to or have hired and plan to keep additional support staff, including social workers, counselors, or parent liaisons. And only a little more than 10 percent say they’ve made no changes to wraparound services to wraparound services for children and their families that they can sustain for the next five years, the EdWeek Research Center found.
“The mental health crisis among youth and adults in our country and in our schools is a big concern,” said North Shore Superintendent Lubelfeld. “I think we’re seeing social workers and counselors are being more normalized, not simply for extreme specialized situations, but for the mainstream. And that’s a good thing.”
In fact, the survey found principals and district leaders who work in districts where the majority of students are low income are more than twice as likely as those in wealthier districts to say they plan to sustain more health-care services and wellness clinics for students on campus (29 percent versus 12 percent)—and particularly providing more mental health services for families (26 percent versus 15 percent).
Ronn Nozoe, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, agreed. “I’ve heard from many folks that [the pandemic] has really opened the door for a lot more focus on well-being—not just kids, but also teachers—and how important that well-being really is to human development,” he said. “We kind of put that on the back burner before the pandemic, when everybody was talking about accountability and standards and evaluations, and we definitely had lost focus on the broader needs of kids. And so I’ve heard from a number of [principals] about the excitement of mental health and well-being in schools starting to take root, and starting to become more of the fabric of how they do things every day in their schools.”
What about the ‘funding cliff’?
Districts split on how sustainable more intensive—and expensive—interventions such as high-dose tutoring, will be in the long run. Forty-seven percent of leaders who work in districts serving a majority of students of color say they are likely to keep in-person, high-dose tutoring programs developed during the pandemic, compared to only 28 percent of those who work in mostly white school systems.
Lubelfeld said his mostly white and middle-income district has found online tutoring helpful in “leveling the playing field” for students and is working to support tutoring via its regular budget rather than using recovery funding, to make it more sustainable.
Yet school and district leaders agreed that financial support—from federal, state, and local communities—will be the biggest hurdle to sustaining innovations after the pandemic.
“For tutoring and after-school programs, [the increased use during the pandemic] is a little bittersweet, because people are struggling with the potential cliff effect” after federal pandemic recovery funding ends, said Nozoe of NASSP. “People like the additional supports for kids, but you can’t always find qualified professionals to provide that service. … People worry that when the money runs out, how do we continue to sustain this work?”
Law, the Anoka-Hennepin superintendent, agreed. While parents and the public in his wealthy suburban community have approved of the district interventions and hiring during the pandemic, they recently voted down a proposal that would have paid for those efforts for the next decade.
“We asked, do you want to keep these smaller class sizes in elementary [grades], keep these social workers and counselors and secondary [grades] interventions beyond the federal funds? But the community said, ‘not at the moment,’ ” he said. “So, you know, for us that will be 60 or 70 employees that we won’t have beyond the pandemic or beyond the [federal recovery] funds.”
Vicki Phillips, the incoming CEO of the National Center for Education and the Economy, said to sustain pandemic-era innovations, education leaders need to consider them in the context of continuous improvement. “We need to think differently about the system so that we don’t just get momentary gains, but we have a long-term, sustainable way of addressing the needs of young people and the educators who reach them.”
Law said districts also need to think of recovering from the upheaval of the last two years as a marathon, not a sprint.
“The only thing that’s going to cure the disruption of the pandemic is time,” Law said. “You can’t sprint mile 11 of a marathon to finish the whole thing faster; people will burn out. … If the goal is to finish [pandemic recovery], we need to be smart about how we look at the capacity of our system and the capacity of our students.”
Natalie Gubbay, Intern contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Teaching Strategies Educators Say Will Outlast the Pandemic