The AASA COVID-19 Recovery Task Force involved continuing discourse concerning the ways in which the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced and, in some cases brought to the surface of public education, major inequities, inequalities and disproportionalities inherent in our national system. Participants were united in their assertion that the reopening process can launch a transformation of public education as we know it. Specifically, we now have the opportunity to ensure students’ equitable access to quality education that is personalized, differentiated and consistent with the rigors and demands of the technology-driven and change-dominated world of 21st century education.
Task force participants revisited the following themes related to this transformation process. They agreed about the importance of these themes becoming guiding principals for all educational districts and organizations, regardless of the design and approaches taken during the reopening process.
1. The Importance of Educating the Whole Child:
- Traditional education in the industrial age emphasized conformity, consistency and predictability related to core academic outcomes and basic student proficiencies.
- In contrast, 21st century education must emphasize a holistic approach to teaching, learning and assessment, including monitoring and supporting student health, well-being, interpersonal and social interaction and collaboration, efficacy, and academic progress.
- Task force participants strongly emphasized the value of ensuring that students experience schools as inviting, engaging and authentic places of learning in which they feel valued, known, respected and encouraged to succeed and thrive.
- Students’ education must emphasize John Dewey’s priorities for the purpose of education, including ensuring that all students become life-long learners, ethical citizens, and capable of success in chosen career pathways.
- A Whole Child approach is also culturally responsive and sensitive to students’ backgrounds, cultural traditions and perspectives.
2. The Imperative of Addressing Inequities That Impede Student Achievement:
- Task force participants were united in their assertion that the COVID-19 crisis and school reopening offers us an opportunity to address the significant inequities at the heart of public education. A recurrent discussion, for example, centered around the need for all students to have access to hardware and internet access more readily available in many suburban districts.
- The high incidence of COVID-19 cases and related mortality rates associated with highly diverse communities and regions finds parallels in patterns of underperformance and underachievement by many minority students.
- School and district leaders must work closely and consistently with community partners, including post-secondary education, governmental agencies, nonprofit service providers, early childhood, and health services to ensure that all students receive the care, support and resources needed to ensure their well-being and physical growth and development.
- The economic disproportionality evident in a range of districts and regions (including urban centers, rural locations and tribal settings) necessitates that educators unite in bringing resources and services necessary to bridge the inequity divide (including universal broadband/internet services, health services, and psychological/counseling services).
3. Health and Safety as Key Focus Points in Public Education:
- As suggested previously, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed a multitude of educational and resource inequities. These inequities have consistently highlighted the radically differing access students and their families have to medical services and health support systems.
- Participating superintendents were adamant that geography should not determine the quality of education a student receives or the adequacy of health and safety services they can access.
- Superintendents were also clear that the range of traumas experienced by students and their families reinforces the necessity of a more coherent and consistent integration of health and safety education into students’ curriculum.
- It also affirms the growing importance of community schools in which students and families can access on-site health and safety services and supports as part of school operations.
4. The Power of Clearly Articulated Communication Involving Policies, Practices and Funding:
- An effective educational system benefits from leaders within the district and those in local, state, and federal agencies sending clear and consensus-driven messages and information concerning policies, protocols and funding streams.
- Superintendents in the task force emphasized that a major problem in facilitating responses to the COVID-19 crisis and the reopening of schools involves the confusing and sometimes contradictory information and requirements given them by different organizations.
- Transforming public education in a post-COVID-19 world requires effective communication that articulates a consensus-driven body of information that is timely, appropriately updated as data and requirements change, and coherently designed to ensure understanding by a range of education and community groups.
- It is especially critical that when a national pandemic or other crisis occurs, all levels of government are in agreement about messages communicated and protocols to be followed.
5. The Need for Social and Emotional Learning as an Integral Part of K-12 Education:
- The task force superintendents unanimously agreed that social and emotional learning is an essential part of both school reopening and the future of public education as we know it.
- They recommended that staff receive meaningful professional development involving strategies and techniques for building a welcoming and engaging learning environment for all students.
- Schools and classrooms as true learning communities must incorporate SEL-related proficiency standards and related progress monitoring into the assessment of student progress.
- Key SEL focus areas should include supporting students to become self-aware and self-regulating; display effective in interpersonal and collaborative interaction and communication; monitor their emotional reactions, ensuring appropriate responses to conflict resolution and problem solving; and demonstrate the behaviors and habits of mind consistent with ethical citizenship.
- Direct instruction and coaching of students as they develop and apply SEL skills and competencies should be integrated into all levels of the curriculum.
- Similarly, professional development should include a focus on preparing educators to understand the importance of SEL and ways they can reinforce students’ ability to apply SEL skills as life-long learners.
6. The Necessity of Schools and Districts Becoming Trauma-Informed and Trauma-Skilled:
- The COVID-19 crisis and related school closures has resulted in a range of trauma-related responses and reactions among students, staff and families.
- Research confirms the long-term effects of trauma (from physical and psychological abuse to health and food scarcity issues) on student achievement.
- Schools become trauma-informed when all staff members understand the nature of trauma and its impact on the individual, including long-lasting effects on learning, well-being and efficacy.
- They become trauma-skilled when educators are prepared to provide services and interventions necessary to address students’ behaviors and issues extending from trauma they may have experienced.
- Professional development should also include ongoing emphasis on the importance of educators becoming both trauma-informed and trauma-skilled.
7. Virtual/Distance Learning as an Organic Component of Teaching and Learning:
- Provide ongoing professional development to reinforce staff members’ understanding, skills and confidence in the design and implementation of distance learning.
- Explore with staff strategies to ensure that virtual/distance learning is engaging, interactive and varied in its teaching-learning approaches (e.g., establishing purpose and clarity of lesson objectives, involving students in warm-up activities to activate and review prior learning, minimizing didactic/lecture-focused instruction in favor of cooperative learning structures, and using a range of student sub-grouping practices to reinforce connectivity and interaction).
- Integrate into virtual learning a range of social and emotional learning strategies, including virtual morning meetings, advisories, small-group coaching, and opportunities for group as well as individual reflection and self-assessment.
- Highlight examples of elementary, middle and high school virtual lessons that capture the criteria used by the district for exciting and engaging online learning activities.
- Incorporate range of feedback and progress monitoring tools and practices to help students monitor their progress toward standards proficiency, including reflection checkpoints, use of scoring rubrics, opportunities for peer feedback and coaching, and one-on-one and small-group feedback sessions.
8. The Power of Collaboration:
- Encourage school-based and district-level staff to engage in ongoing opportunities for discussion, problem solving, and decision making.
- Reinforce the value of differing voices and perspectives as a vehicle for moving through reopening, including dignifying feedback and offering a variety of channels and platforms for staff to provide it.
- Continue to reinforce the value of cross-functional partnerships involving representatives from community organizations, parents, government agencies, businesses and college/university partners. They are vitally important in ensuring a holistic and consistent approach to school reopening in the face of ongoing community and regional health and safety concerns.
- Explore opportunities for using cross-functional team collaboration to apply for funding sources (e.g., federal grants and recovery funding programs), highlighting the ongoing effectiveness of community partnerships and public education.
9. The Need to Ensure That Every Student’s Education Is Personalized, Differentiated, and Engaging:
- Expand your district’s efforts to incorporate social and emotional learning as a priority during school reopening and the coming academic year.
- Emphasize the value and necessity of addressing students’ needs in a holistic way, including their health, physical growth and development, nutrition, emotional and interpersonal needs, as well as their academic achievement.
- Personalize students’ educational experience by encourage options for choice concerning content and approach to demonstrating proficiency, alternative forms of assessment aligned with individual student learning modalities and varied and engaging learning strategy options.
- Encourage students to express their voice and perspectives as members of the learning community, including holding regular class meetings to discuss individual and group progress relative to community building and academic success.
- Whenever possible, differentiate instruction to address students’ varying readiness levels, interests and learner profiles.
- Make learning engaging by emphasizing varied learning strategies, interactivity, construction of meaning, cultural responsiveness, and focus on experiential learning.
- Adopt the “10-2” rule: no more than 10 minutes of direct instruction or lecture without at least two minutes of student debriefing, interaction and experiential application.
10. The Importance of Anticipating and Preparing for Predictable and Unanticipated Change as a Part of Continuous Improvement and Strategic Planning:
- Reinforce with staff and students the value of the change process as well as the inherent stresses that accompany it.
- Model techniques and strategies aligned with facilitating the change process effectively, including design thinking, action research, instructional rounds, and peer coaching and feedback.
- Acknowledge that the change process (especially change associated with traumatic or unanticipated issues such as COVID-19) inevitably involves varying Stages of Concern and Levels of Usage. There is no single or unitary response: Change represents a continuum.
- Incorporate rituals, ceremonies and opportunities for celebration as students and staff move through the change continuum, including encouragement and reinforcement of positive, pro-active responses and attitudes related to the changing school environment.