Bouncing Back: Predictions for a Post-Pandemic Return to School
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2021 Issue
By Adam Stone
We won’t be going back to “normal,” post-pandemic. A year of profound disruption promises to reshape K–12 education, bringing new advances to the fore while also prompting teachers and administrators to rethink the fundamentals of how education works.
Here, a range of experts weigh in some of the key changes likely to emerge with the return to in-person schooling in the fall.
An Ongoing Mix of In-Person and Remote Learning
“For many school districts across the United States, hybrid learning models are here to stay,” says Svetlana Savova, sales director at VEDAMAO, a virtual learning platform.
“As a former teacher myself, I understand first-hand the strain the last year has put on educators,” she says. Going forward, “teachers and students alike are going to need additional training and adaptation methods to ensure a more seamless learning experience.”
Now that we’re no longer in crisis mode, she explains, there’s an opportunity for teachers to “create more thoughtful approaches to virtual learning, based on their pandemic takeaways.”
Others echo this call. The COVID-19 pandemic “provided the unique opportunity for classroom teachers of all grade levels and content areas to explore unique, innovative, and engaging approaches to both synchronous and asynchronous learning,” says John Almarode, executive director of teaching and learning at the College of Education at James Madison University.
He suggests that teachers may need to take an individualized approach as they consider how best to leverage both virtual and in-person learning opportunities.
“Some learners thrived in remote learning environments, while others did not,” he says. “Providing learning environments that capitalize or leverage the strengths of the learner will, in the end, create a more inclusive and equitable education system.”
More Students Will Have More Devices
As schools look to leverage their pandemic-driven investments in 1:1 computing, “teachers will have opportunities to implement personalized, competency-based learning environments in ways that were not previously possible,” says Dell’s Senior Education Strategist Tara Nattrass.
Schools should make the effort to support teachers who are seeking to make the most of this opportunity. “In order to use newly available devices to enhance learning experiences, teachers will need increased opportunities to collaborate with one another and engage in meaningful, personalized, professional learning,” Nattrass says.
Some note that 1:1 computing alone doesn’t ensure positive outcomes. “What matters most is how those devices are used by the teacher and student,” says Almarode.
When devices are utilized “to engage learners in the editing and revising of assignments, giving and receiving feedback, accessing virtual field trips, collaborating with peers in their class and across the globe—then the impact goes up,” he adds.
New Policies Around Sniffles and Colds
With heightened sensitivities around wellness, “schools will have new and different health policies for the foreseeable future,” says Dr. Ashlee Hover, assistant professor and program director for the Curriculum and Instruction MEd Online program at Middle Tennessee State University.
“New strains of the COVID-19 virus are being discovered, and while vaccines are available, response to the vaccines has been widely varied. In addition, students are not all old enough to receive a vaccine,” she says. “Out of an abundance of caution, schools will continue to monitor for students with multiple symptoms.”
This may be for the better, some say. A continued focus on wellness could spark some much-needed changes.
Even prior to the pandemic, “I felt strongly that attendance policies were long overdue for an overhaul,” says Dr. Jeannine Jannot, author of The Disintegrating Student. “COVID turned many long-held student and staff attendance expectations on its head. My hope is that going forward schools will shift policies and resources to protect the physical and mental wellness of both students and staff.”
For example? Most attendance policies in the past may actually have perpetuated the spread of viruses “because students feel compelled to show up while sick and contagious, in order not to miss something or lose some perk for continued good attendance,” she says.
“It’s time we stop chasing data and metrics and focus on well-being, learning, and growth. This will require thinking outside of the box with more flexibility and responsiveness to the ever-changing needs of educators, students, and families,” she adds.
Virtual Field Trips
“One of the positives that came out of this pandemic is that it has opened the door to many more opportunities to participate in virtual field trips,” says Nicole Hunn, principal of Steele Elementary School in the Baldwin School District on Long Island.
“We were able to find many innovative experiences, such as visiting zoos and museums across the country that we normally would never get to visit,” she says. “Teachers and students will certainly continue to take advantage of these virtual visits in combination with local trips.”
Such virtual field trips likely will persist post-COVID, Hover predicts. “I used them prior to COVID-19 and plan to continue doing so,” she says. “I’m not sure whether or not places will continue to update their websites, but I hope they will because teachers will continue to use them as a way to expose their students to a world that may never be personally experienced.”
A Shift to Competency-Based Learning
Some predict the changes that we saw during COVID will cause teachers to rethink the ways in which success is measured. They anticipate a shift toward competency-based metrics, a form of evaluation based on students’ demonstrated mastery of specific knowledge or skills.
“Teaching to children’s strengths and interests is going to be the way educators work in the future,” says Timothy Bellavia, assistant professor at Touro College Graduate School of Education. “Students will reach their learning goals faster because the teacher’s plans will be differentiated for each student.”
Bellavia has done research on competency-based education as a means to help students use their strengths and interests to develop their learning skills—for example by combining music with math. ”One student who was having trouble focusing on the lesson and understanding the math was able to decode note sounds through the puppets and animated characters,” he says. “This was evident and noted both in person and in online synchronized lessons.”
Almarode likewise foresees a shift in this direction. “A competency-based approach provides the language and guidance for us, as teachers, to design authentic assessments that let us know what learners know, understand, and are able to do,” he says.
“As we welcome our students back into the classroom, we will have to focus on where they are in their learning and where they are ready to go next,” he adds. “Given the variance in learning growth experienced and measured across the globe, we will have to be prepared to differentiate instruction on a daily basis. As an immediate and direct result, we will have to… design intentional, purposeful, and deliberate tasks that support them meeting competencies or success criteria.”
The pandemic highlighted digital inequality, as many schools struggled to provide equal access to devices and bandwidth during the rush to remote learning.
Hover notes that this issue needs to be a top priority going forward. “Having grown up in a rural area, I’m very familiar with digital deserts,” she says. “Schools must remain aware that not all students have equal access to technology—especially when assigning work or providing resources to families.”
Some see an opportunity here to address several persistent gaps in equity.
“With the digital divide… families may not have enough bandwidth or computer devices to ensure consistent and seamless education,” Bellavia says. “Schools must seek funding through corporate foundations, non-profits, and donors to increase digital bandwidth and make equity possible. Additionally, they may need to incorporate non-digital or analog communication when necessary.”
Schools will need to address the digital inequality challenge “just as they are attempting to address the diversity, equity, and inclusion challenge,” says Marilyn Carroll, author of Diary of an Online Professor. “It’s all part of the larger challenge within education.”
To meet that challenge, teachers and administrators will need to engage in a conversation that extends well beyond the classroom. “This is a state-level problem,” Carroll says. “To address school equity challenges, each state and its school districts will need to reposition how they run and operate schools to take advantage of the many technology opportunities available.”
A Path Forward
Looking ahead, it’s clear that much will be changing on the K–12 landscape as schools and teachers seek a path forward in the wake of a disrupted school year.
Despite the challenges inherent in these changing times, some see cause for optimism. “When there is crisis, there is opportunity,” Bellavia says. “COVID-19 taught me and many other educators that anything is possible.”
Others echo this view, noting that many educators were able to pivot successfully to meet the complex demands of the pandemic school year.
“If there is anything we’ve learned during the pandemic it’s that schools actually do have the capability to flex and adapt when they are forced up against a wall,” says Al Kingsley, the CEO of educational technology provider NetSupport.
“My sincere hope is that that entrepreneurial spirit, that sense of nimbleness and flexibility, has soaked into the DNA of schools—because this is the nexus of real change,” he says.
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.