A year later, schools are slowly transitioning students and teachers into hybrid school experiences as they await the opportunity for a full return to school. All of this transition is happening within the reality that students have experienced the impact of the pandemic differently in terms of trauma and learning. Neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color have seen higher rates of COVID-19 deaths, and they have had fewer resources to manage the long period of at-home learning. Everyone has an opinion about what educators should do, but the complexity of the American education system is grounded in the reality that every school community is unique, and the solution is not one-size-fits-all. The question, then, is how do leaders strategically and equitably approach reentry and recovery while taking the unique needs of their community into context?
What we learned at Accelerate Institute after a deep analysis of our schools’ data, is that no matter the city or district, school leaders who were able to maintain higher than district average attendance rates and balance social and emotional development needs with academic progress monitoring did five things well:
They focused on student engagement at the center of decision making.
They executed a strategic plan, adjusting plans based on the changing environment.
They leveled up systems by creating innovative ways to respond to the realities of remote learning and responded to what the data was indicating was and was not working.
They managed staff capacity and burnout through strategic prioritization. One advisor stated, “Everyone is exhausted. Some teachers are burning out. It seems leaders whose teachers are NOT burnt out have been very clear about priorities, what is most important right now, and they have put clear systems in place.”
Finally, leaders who were successful persisted with resilience because of their commitment to their students, families, and teachers. They didn’t want to let them down.
In a time when leaders are overwhelmed with tools and resources, it is essential to remind ourselves what effective school leaders have done to guide us through the next phase of this pandemic.
Determine your 80/20 and communicate these priorities to all stakeholders.
This means being as proud of what you say yes to as what you say no to. Leaders need to be clear on what those things are and clear about what staff can let go of without guilt. Everyone is overwhelmed after a year living in a pandemic. Give your people permission to do as Elsa’s anthem encourages us to do - let it go.
Find the bright spots.
In times of high stress, defaulting to focusing on the challenges occurs and brings momentum to a halt. Fight the urge to be solely focused on challenges and find opportunities to celebrate successes with staff and students to refuel the community. Everyone is working hard and doing the best they can under unprecedented circumstances. Recognize these efforts. Find "quick wins" and celebrate every little victory like it is an NCAA tournament win. Pull out all the stops.
Have a hyper-focused strategic plan for the year.
Less is more in your reentry and recovery plan, which is counterintuitive. There are so many urgent issues calling for attention. You cannot solve them all in the first few weeks of school. Gather information from stakeholders to provide specific areas of focus for your school community. But all plans should include a focus on meeting the basic needs of students and families, providing social and emotional learning support for all community members, targeting relationship building with staff and students, and providing engaging instruction to address unfinished learning. Ensure you have a process in place to progress monitor and course correct because no plan ever survives first contact with the school year. Finally, increase communication with parents, an area that parents view as critical for the return to school.
Be prepared to be nimble.
Innovation is born out of crisis. Create new systems that are responsive to the realities of reentry and take things forward that worked during remote school. Ensure your systems can be fluid between hybrid, in-person, and eLearning models going forward. Align the budget to the resources needed to support the plan, including curriculum resources, stipends, technology, and safety.
Educators normally take the "First Six Weeks" each school year to establish relationships and build consistency with routines and procedures. It will take longer during this reentry, but fight the urge to run on day one with academic recovery. The environment needs to be right first so that teachers and students can thrive.
Have a plan to respond to the trauma your community has experienced and may continue to experience.
Advancing equity is needed for healing and it is important to name and address the conditions that were harmful prior to the pandemic. We cannot separate the need for communities to come back together after the pandemic from our work toward more equitable schools. Dr. Howard Fuller demands we listen to kids about how their lives have changed due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Determine how you will gather student input to ensure student voice is incorporated into your reentry and recovery plan. Join forces with guidance counselors, community services and other education organizations such as tutoring programs, afterschool homework help, and counseling services to create a support network. Share information with parents regarding helping children cope with tragedies and ensure teachers receive training and have access to ongoing support on trauma-informed practice.
Be intentional about relationship building.
Accelerate Institute School Assessment Staff Surveys from the 2020-2021 school year make it clear that many staff are unhappy and unsettled. Dr. Charles M. Payne stated that trust building is an essential role of school leaders, and his research contends that trust is the most important factor in staff health and effectiveness. This feels even more important during this time. Leaders need to make concerted efforts to reestablish relationships among adults and rebuild trust among staff, some who have never met each other in person. Take time for team building and consider establishing times to check in with all staff so they feel supported and can voice concerns or seek collaborative solutions as a team. Encourage the importance of and focus on self-care upon returning to the school building.
Set aside time to reestablish routines and procedures for students.
Routine provides a sense of comfort and normalcy. Rethink old routines and ensure those you establish for reentry foster an environment that cultivates a love of learning, where students feel known and cared for. Some students started their school experience in a remote setting, never having been in a classroom or met their teacher or classmates in person. School teams should be asking: How do we foster a love of learning again? What worked well in remote learning that we can continue doing? How do we make content more relevant to our students so they can more readily engage? How do we create an environment that is warm and inviting while following the safety restrictions?
There were many bright spots in classrooms and remote learning spaces this year, moments of pure joy, where a love of learning was thriving as a teacher taught simultaneous lessons. Students embraced the remote learning environment and many soared. Some students who struggled during traditional in-person learning shined in a remote setting. It is also true that instructional pacing slowed and not all students were able to remain highly engaged. It was challenging for teachers to keep a pulse on which students were mastering taught standards and finding effective ways to support individual learning needs when learning was unfinished.
These paradoxical events were true during the last school year and swirled around each other. Pressure on school leaders to address unfinished learning as quickly as possible is mounting, especially in communities of color. The expectations are unrealistic given the inequitable impact the pandemic had on communities. Perhaps the “gap” has gotten larger as some early data predicts, but is the correct response to put the responsibility to make up the emotional and academic losses back on the community, asking them to do more, faster, and with fewer resources? Learning recovery does not mean doubling down on reading and math as soon as possible, not giving staff and students a break, starting the school year two weeks early, or reteaching last year’s curriculum.
Leaders need a plan to go slow to go fast and lay the groundwork for effective recovery. Start by considering how to ensure staff and students are rested and ready for the start of the new year. Then, reimagine schedules to make sure they allow for grade level instruction and recovery instruction for targeted students. Scheduling work is the entry point! Use this as an opportunity to be creative. Finally, identify opportunities to group students with teachers in innovative ways. This could look like multi-grade classrooms, looping teachers with their current students, or walking small groups.
Once the groundwork is laid, leadership and teachers should work together to design a learning recovery plan that includes a strong data cycle and instructional vision. Teachers should be aiming for grade level work for all students and using assessment data to inform instructional decisions.
We have collected a group of resources that will support your planning for reentry and recovery in each category without overwhelming you and can serve as resources for conversations with staff, parents, and boards as you navigate decision making in the next few months.
The resources include selected articles, podcasts, research reports, and planning tools. We want to draw special attention to a panel discussion hosted by Schools That Can and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights which featured Dr. Charles M.Payne, Dr. Howard Fuller and Nicole Williams Beecham. The panel discussion is brilliant and will help you step back and think deeply about how we work collectively to advance equity across all schools.
Keep focused with an 80/20 and celebrate.
Integrate culture building and social and emotional development, being sensitive to the trauma students, families, and staff have been under since March 2020.
Be prepared to innovate and “create what’s next” to respond to unfinished learning with a learning recovery plan, leveraging the data cycle to respond equitably.