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Classroom Q&A

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.

Teaching Opinion

Pandemic Lessons for a Post-COVID-19 Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 31, 2021 13 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What have you learned from Distance Learning that you think will alter your practice in some way when you return to pre-COVID-19 teaching?

We’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic now, but it appears that—with a vaccine—we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Today’s post will explore what we teachers have learned through this ordeal that we think might alter our practice when we return to “normal” times.

Kayla Solinsky, Sarah Said, Pamela Mesta, Olga Reber, and Jason Anderson share their ideas today. Kayla, Sarah, Pamela, and Olga were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

For my teaching practice, the key carry-over will be the creation and development of “leadership teams” in each of my classes. In our full-time distance learning environment, I quickly concluded that I was going to need help to make my classes successful. I identified students who clearly had leadership potential and invited them to join a group who would meet with me weekly to plan and evaluate our class. They would also be responsible for ensuring that breakout rooms went relatively smoothly and that everyone actively participated in them. And they would complete a weekly self-assessment on how they were doing as leaders.

I cannot exaggerate the positive impact these teams have had in my classes. And, after having had a 19-year community-organizing career prior to becoming a teacher, it’s absolutely inexcusable that I didn’t implement this strategy. It’s definitely one I’ll be using when we return to face-to-face instruction.

One-size-fits-all doesn’t work

Kayla Solinsky is head of school at Macbeth Academy, an accredited online school for K-12 students. Before becoming head of school, Kayla was a teacher for 12 years for K-12 and adult learners.

Distance learning is going to be a central part of education for the foreseeable future. I do not believe that the world will return to pre-COVID-19 teaching without some online component. With that in mind, I do think we have learned quite a bit since COVID-19 that we will continue to incorporate in our school.

1: One-size-fits-all doesn’t work for K-12 education: We learned that differentiation and student engagement are vital to student learning outcomes in the online space. Traditionally, teachers create lessons that can be modified for students at various content-mastery levels. In the in-person classroom, this would look like students moving ahead or getting direct teacher time based on their experience and understanding of the material. Online learning allows students to spend a lot more time incorporating their interests into the lesson. Since March, we realized that students can incorporate their interests for deeper learning.

One great example is from a grade 4 writing class in which students practiced writing conclusions to short stories. Each student chose a different genre based on their interests, including horror, science fiction, and historical fiction. Each student also chose a different ending, such as a twist or a circular ending. Teachers noticed drastically higher levels of engagement when student choice and student interest were taken into consideration in these lessons.

2: Ed-Tech Fatigue: We also noticed that teachers and administrators are so inundated with technology that we are ignoring the new technology in favor of one or two systems that work. We call this ed-tech fatigue. Since March 2020, what I’ve heard from teachers is that they do not need more technology, they need more time: time with the ed-tech tools, time to learn the features, and time to understand the scope of effectiveness in their classrooms. As a result, in the 2020-21 school year, we limit new ed-tech to one new system per quarter to give teachers enough time to review how useful it really is in the classroom. Over the course of the year, we are confident this practice will end up saving time and money for the school. We are making data-supported decisions rather than spending resources on multiple systems that we don’t know how to use effectively.

3: Honor our teachers: Teachers are amazingly resilient and intelligent. Administrators must honor teachers if we want to make progress in the online classroom. At our school, we have been implementing more meetings to hear what teachers have to say about the daily educating experience. If any administrator wants to know how effective education policy really is, listen to the teachers.

I have learned that educators are not shy about letting the administration know what works and what doesn’t. We provide a forum for teachers to talk amongst themselves that is led by head teachers. This way, educators feel comfortable sharing experiences while building a strong teacher community. Our administrators have learned so much from our teachers since the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers have provided invaluable suggestions for improving our online teaching effectiveness.


‘We need to do better’

Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:

I love my students. I love the families they come from. I love the communities they live in. And this why I am answering this question the way that I am. Before COVID-19, we really tried to make our schools and communities equitable—but we really need to try harder.

We started this school year off in a hybrid model, and here is what we saw. Many of the families who chose to keep their children home and have their schooling fully remote were families that had the means to get tutors and nannies, have jobs where they can work remotely, and have strong enough bandwidth for multiple children to be at home and Zoom successfully. Many of the students who came to the building on the two days in person we allowed were students whose parents struggled with or could not work from home, had homes that struggled with bandwidth and staying online when it came to synchronous instruction, came from families who struggled with supporting their children at home academically, and were English-learners or students who are supported with IEP/504 plans.

Many of our students regardless of circumstances had a tough time with the day-to-day schedule and keeping their work in place—we tried to do some noncomputer-based paper work. We really had to develop a system for organizing that back and forth. Some used accordion folders, while others kept PDF versions in digital folders kids can print or digitally write on.

We did have students try to go fully remote under many of these circumstances, and they struggled with day-to-day learning. Our families in our multilingual community were hit hard with the virus because of their various professions as front-line workers. There was a fear of sending their children in person because they know the reality. Some did what they could to support children at home—even working third shift to avoid sending students to school in person.

When our school took an adaptive pause from Thanksgiving break to returning mid-January, our dean and I decided to hit the road and to visit families on their porches for a multitude of reasons. Here is what I learned from those porch visits: We can do better by our communities, never assume, and learn from the resilience of children. I loved seeing our students and how they beamed with pride as they opened the doors of their homes and saw us standing outside.

I thought I knew the communities I served and what their needs were, but as I went on 20-plus porch visits from after Thanksgiving break to Christmas break, I saw that I had much to learn. So, how do we educate ourselves and our teams on our students’ communities if we see we are not experts? Have students do the educating as they are at home. We will utilize our Seesaw platform for two student assignments (that I will explain to parents in a video message) where we will ask students to either photograph, film, or draw pictures to give us an explanation of the neighborhood outside of their home. We will assign a follow-up assignment asking students what they would like to see change in their neighborhoods. This will give our team a better insight on our students’ environments at home. Who knows, we may come up with an end product that can have students’ voices heard in their communities. Family and community engagement is key to academic growth after this pandemic is over.

Never assume. Don’t assume a student has less or more than they have, whether what they need is tangible or intangible. Ask the right questions to learn about their needs related to bandwidth and resources in the home. And many times, there are co-parenting situations that we have to respect the dynamics of and learn each home’s unique culture. Help students find ways to keep their resources together as they move to different homes and caretakers.

Learn from the resilience of children. Just because a physical home situation is not what we would find ideal, who are we to judge? Children take pride in their living spaces, and we should allow them to do so. In a pandemic like this, we need to do what we can to keep ourselves resilient but also keep the joy in learning. As tough as your day may be, we have to turn on the joy so that we can move forward from these times.

So what did we learn? Even though it was harder for us as a team, it was important to have some of our students in school under safe circumstances to fulfill various needs—access to learning, academic support, language support, basic needs, affection, socialization, and community. And we need to do better for our students and communities when it comes to equity.


Three lessons

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 an ESOL supervisor in a 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 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 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

Distance learning has had a significant impact on the way we currently educate our students and connect with families. It will be important to reflect on the challenges we have overcome and the lessons we have learned throughout the process. The face-to-face model we return to should include blended learning and opportunities for collaboration among and between classes, schools, and systems.

Top 3 Focus Areas for When We Return to Pre-COVID Teaching:

1. Address Access to the Internet and Devices From the Beginning.

Access is everything. One of the most important things educators and administrators can do is to determine which students have reliable internet as well as devices available for academic use. This information will be critical as we move toward a blended learning environment or in the event of a shift back to distance learning. Advocacy in this area will be key.

Find out what the process is in your school system for connecting families to the internet and devices. Create opportunities for families to become familiar with digital tools and resources to be able to support their children whenever possible. Questions to research include: Are there community resources or partnerships that can provide additional support to families? What school or district resources are available to students and their families? We also learned that much of the digital divide rests in the hands of local municipalities and state legislation to enhance and augment infrastructure to avail access and connectivity.

2. Remove Unintentional Barriers to Blended/Digital Learning.

Once students are connected to the internet, the real work begins. Technology literacy is often assumed but rarely assessed.

Can students access the curriculum or is technology a barrier to learning? Have students been taught how to navigate required online platforms and programs? Are families aware of the expectations? How much learning has been missed during the process of getting connected? Do students have additional instructional needs or accommodations that must be considered and implemented? How much homework is being assigned and how long is it taking students to complete? Which assignments are being graded and for what purpose? Are there multiple assignments that assess the same skill(s)? These are just a few of the questions that should be considered when exploring barriers and the impact on student learning. Remember, equitable practices look different for each learner.

3. Relationship Building Is Critical.

Building relationships with students and their families takes time. Our opportunities to engage with all members of our school community increase exponentially if we ensure connectivity and support structures. Let families know that they are equal partners in their child’s education and that you are walking alongside them. Taking time to make personal connections with each student’s family will help to establish open lines of communication.

Listen to individual families’ needs, struggles, and hardships. Research what community resources might be available and connect them as needed. In a distance or blended environment, it can be challenging to determine what those needs might be. Many students rely on school as a system of support. This is why relationship building is so important. It will be imperative to monitor different patterns such as attendance issues, late assignment submissions, and behavioral changes and the impact these have on students’ grades.

Celebrate small wins and keep moving forward. Reflect on challenges and solutions. Take time to recognize and focus on student engagement, effort, and progress, no matter how small.


Thanks to Kayla, Sarah, Pamela, Olga, and Jason for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

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