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3 Conversations to Follow in 2021 3 Conversations to Follow in 2021

3 Conversations to Follow in 2021

#Leadership
Erin Werra Erin Werra Optimistic Oracle
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2020 ushered in a new decade with a year of crises. Here’s what we’re sorting through as we begin another year: rebuilding stronger, healthier, and more inclusive schools.

 

The status is no longer quo

After so much abrupt change, a silver lining to the disruption has been revealed. We have a chance to rebuild with new goals in mind. Over the rest of this school year and the beginning of the next, we will continue to look for and invent updates to the way we “do school.”

On the docket for lasting change: the way we track seat time, how teachers grade work, and classroom space design.

Seat time is typically set at the state level, so districts will need to approach their respective department of education if they want to advocate for changes to the system. However, they may be able to make the case that students need less in-person seat time overall. Some students (particularly teens) who have explored virtual or hybrid learning over the past several months have thrived, sometimes for the first time. Heading back to a full classroom may not be the best course of action for these students. It’s an accommodation we now know is possible, at the very least, and perhaps will be embraced longer term post-pandemic.

Grades may be last on the minds of educators these days, but teachers have become even more mindful of the gaps students face. School buildings are a great equalizer for many students. Learning outside the classroom has brought challenges into sharper focus and led educators to question what a fair grading protocol looks like. There’s also the lingering question of cheating during remote learning—how do we really know students are doing the work they say they are? If the point of grades is to measure mastery, there may be opportunities for improvement. The time is ripe to explore.

Finally, how often have we read some variation of “[This] will look different this year”? While we hope to leave certain pandemic-era classroom fixtures in the rearview (looking at you, plexiglass), others may have found a permanent place in schools. Modular, multi-use spaces, mobility, and using outdoor spaces when weather permits have accommodated and delighted students while serving an important health purpose this year. Why ditch that enrichment moving forward? 

 

Equity, equity, equity

By Merriam-Webster definition, equity is “justice according to natural law or right, specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.” Another silver (albeit tarnished) lining to disruption: equity is now in the spotlight and it appears enough folks are finally ready to do something about it.

Earlier in 2020, equity was a core component of considerations for reopening schools. Conversations about how school is going this year have centered around equity for students from very different backgrounds. This summer was marked with unprecedented activism rejecting anti-Black racism and questions about the methods educators can use to discuss the subject with learners of all ages. 

For all this awareness, the data shows the work toward equity is still in progress.

From the beginning, educators have been acutely aware of the COVID slide. We knew there would be an impact on learning, we just didn’t know what exactly it would end up looking like. The good news is this fall’s MAP tests reveal teachers have held the line and managed to prevent a catastrophic slide. The bad news? There’s still a slide, particularly in math, which is harder for parents to step in to teach—and we’re looking at months until a return to normal instruction. 

The ugly news behind the fall MAP tests reveals the unmet needs among the most vulnerable students in schools. Students of color and poor students experienced a worse slide than their peers from more affluent schools. About a quarter of students weren’t present for the test at all, whether due to connectivity issues, health or quarantine, a school’s decision to opt out of the test, or because they aren’t attending school this year at all. One study from Bellwether Education Partners estimates 3 million students are missing from formal education since March. These students are more likely to be experiencing homelessness, have a disability, be an English learner, or live in foster care.  

Tracking the data behind inequities helps pinpoint where to begin the work of rebuilding. The only way out is up, investing resources to identify and serve those who need support most.

 

Healthy schools, teachers, and kids

Public health looms large in today’s schools, but a vaccine is on the horizon. Its completion in mere months is a miracle worthy of immortalization in Disney song, but spoonfuls of sugar won’t distribute this vaccine. 

What will help are deliberate plans for which groups of people receive the first limited rounds of vaccine while more are produced. As of the end of 2020, these groups include health care workers and those who are at highest risk for severe illness, including the elderly. This places school staff somewhere in the second priority group, unless they individually have comorbidities. Younger adults and students will have to wait longer—maybe into the next school year—for their turn, as vaccine trials for children are still in progress or won’t begin until early in 2021. 

What we do know for sure is that at some point, whether in 2021 or beyond, there will be a post-pandemic school year. Still, the sanitized learning environment is going to stick around longer than that. We hope we can leave masks behind eventually (though we may begin to see mask use adopted during cold and flu season, the way folks in other countries have for decades), while good hygiene habits, careful cleaning protocols, and individual-use items such as reusable water bottles and hand sanitizer may remain.

Also here to stay (we hope): frank discussions about mental health and long-term coping. Regardless of anyone’s personal beliefs about what transpired in 2020, the history lessons will reveal a time of great upheaval in multiple areas of life worldwide. Students are far from immune or insulated from it all. Especially for the youngest students, catching up with socialization and navigating the changes in the ways we socialize with peers and neighbors may require some intervention. Some of the pandemic’s effects will stick around for the rest of this generation or longer.  

Reimagining education, equity, and healthy schools are just three of the topics we're tuned into for 2021. Join us throughout the year to stay ahead of the conversation and keep driving that positive, lasting change.
 

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Erin Werra Erin Werra Optimistic Oracle
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