When the Students Return

| Elisa Warner

COVID-19 Pandemic Ushers in New Challenges for U.S. Schools

Students in a classroom

With schools shuttered across the nation, public school administrators and teachers find themselves in uncharted territory as they try to mitigate the instructional, social-emotional, and even nutritional impacts to students. At some point in the future the collective risk of infection will recede, and our school buildings will again open their doors to students. As we look to the future with trepidation and uncertainty, it is difficult to foresee the myriad of effects this pandemic may trigger in the world of education. Some potential impacts may include the following:

Recognizing the Need for Accessible, Rigorous Digital Learning Programs

With nationwide school closures spanning weeks or months, the COVID 19-outbreak has proven to be a major disruptor to traditional American educational delivery approaches. As a result, there has been a rallying call for districts to offer online instruction as a viable alternative for meeting state instructional requirements. Such programs have the potential to provide students with valuable self-paced learning opportunities and facilitate social interaction through digital platforms.

That said, there is great variability in schools’ ability to make the shift to online instruction. Some institutions have rigorous online learning programs and a 1:1 student/device ratio allowing them to hit the ground running. However, for districts struggling with funding challenges, aging infrastructure, and institutional barriers, digital learning has been little more than an afterthought. Similarly, many district are unable to release online learning programs as required instruction because they cannot comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and be accessible to all students. Sadly, many schools also cannot ensure that all students will have access to the required devices and/or Internet access, further widening socioeconomic disparities in students’ ability to participate in digital learning programs.

The current circumstances, however calamitous, present an opportunity for districts to begin laying the groundwork for rigorous online learning programs that are accessible to all students regardless of location, socioeconomic status, or ability levels. While the coronavirus pandemic has revealed serious cracks in current distance learning structures, districts now have the opportunity to bolster and expand such programs to the benefit of all students moving forward.

Rethinking Standardized Educational Assessments

For years, many educational professionals have questioned the value of standardized assessment tests in measuring learning outcomes. Although intended to provide a standardized benchmark for student performance, such tests inevitably constrain instructional approaches, encouraging rote memorization over immersive learning experiences such as project-based activities or design-thinking exercises.

In spite of widespread criticism of standardized testing, it has stubbornly endured as a fixture of public education. Similarly, college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT serve as litmus tests to gaining college admission. Mass school building closures during the spring testing season have prevented the administration of annual K-12 state tests and resulted in the cancellation of scheduled SAT and ACT test dates. In an unprecedented move, on March 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education announced that federal K-12 standardized testing requirements would be waived this year due the widespread school closures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on the duration of the pandemic, the Class of 2021 may be challenged to complete SAT and/or ACT examinations prior to early admission deadlines, forcing colleges and universities to potentially reconsider the role of such scores in admissions decisions.

It will be interesting to see if these disruptions crack the seemingly immovable foundation of high-stakes standardized testing and catalyze alternative approaches to measuring student learning. Such a shift would have major facility implications; for example, if student learning was assessed through project-based activities demonstrating concept mastery, a traditional “cells and bells” school design model could prove to be an obstacle to effective implementation of this approach.

Bolstering of Social-emotional Supports for all Students

The COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be a defining moment for a generation of students. When students finally return to school, they will arrive having endured months of anxiety, economic upheaval, social isolation from friends and extended family members, and disrupted routines. Some will have been personally affected by the coronavirus through the illness or loss of a friend or loved one. All students will in some way be affected by the seemingly inevitable economic recession; those most impacted will face the extreme stress of parental unemployment, bankruptcy or even homelessness.

Many students may feel discouraged by “academic slides” resulting from the extended school closures. Special education students that lacked vital support services during the closure will be transitioning back into a structured school environment. Perhaps more than ever, it will be crucial for schools to have the proper social-emotional supports in place to help students recognize and process their feelings in a manner that allows them to constructively re-engage with their teachers and peers. This may require reallocation of spaces within school buildings to accommodate de-escalation rooms or to provide office space for additional staff and/or community partners to provide a wider range of support services to students.

Possible Extension of School Calendars

It is still unknown how individual districts will address the lost instructional time caused by the pandemic. Approaches will vary across the nation as states consider whether to temporarily waive or amend their minimum required instructional days. However, one possible outcome is that some districts may be faced with extending the school calendar into the summer months. This would create a number of facility-related challenges for districts.

Many schools in the nation are not equipped with air conditioning; summertime use of such buildings would subject students and teachers to extreme thermal conditions that are not conducive to positive learning outcomes. These conditions are particularly aggravated in regions of the country with a propensity for summer wildfires, where schools would not even be able to increase natural ventilation by opening windows.

Additionally, most school districts use summer break as an opportunity to tackle disruptive construction, renovation and/or maintenance projects when students are not on campus. The loss of this window could delay greatly needed facilities improvements for a year or more.

Moving Forward Together

As our nation comes together to weather this unprecedented disruption to public life in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to envisage how this experience will affect educational policies, programs, and practices moving forward. Educational leaders will face new opportunities and challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic, potentially spurring significant changes in the way we approach instruction in this country. This could prove to be the catalyst that encourages districts across the nation to earnestly consider how best to provide students with the educational, cultural, and social experiences that create engaged, empathetic and inquisitive global community members.

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