As we conclude one school year, our thoughts naturally begin to drift to the next. There are still many unknowns with respect to the 2020-2021 school year. Much of the guidance is yet to come and is dependent on how the virus continues to be contained and managed. All final decisions will be made by state and local governmental authorities, taking into account the guidance of health officials. The priority will be on keeping students, teachers and the community healthy, as has been evidenced by the actions taken thus far. That said, schools are beginning to plan for the fall and there a few options that are being considered for how schools will run, the three main ones under consideration being:
- Continuing distance education, which students have received since schools closed and continuity of learning plans were enacted
- Using a hybrid approach in which a reduced number of students are in school each day (say, half of the class) and are doing distance learning the other days.
- Resuming a standard school schedule with reduced class sizes, enhanced safety and cleanliness protocols and social distancing procedures.
Regardless of which option — or combination of options — schools must follow next school year, they’ll need to invest greatly in order to prepare. Each public school district is likely to face a reduction in their funding, making it even harder to operate. Right now, each district receives about $8500 per student from the state; this funding will likely be reduced by 10 to 25 percent ($800 to $2000). The rest of the funding for each district comes from local taxes and varies by district. The federal government has allotted each district some funding through the Cares Act, which can help, but most likely will not make up the loss from the state funding. Despite these funding realities, schools should prioritize investments to make learning more effective in our new normal.
That might include infrastructure — everything from increasing technology access to reconfiguring classrooms to allow for students and teachers to remain 6 feet apart. Districts will also need to invest in professional development for teachers, providing them with additional support on how to best use online resources and tools, how to motivate and give feedback to students learning outside of the classroom, how to teach in classrooms in which students can no longer be near each other and how to enforce any rules or policies while still educating the students in the classroom. Additionally, students themselves will need some direct training on how they are expected to operate under these new conditions and how they can best serve themselves.
Unfortunately, students and teachers were taken by surprise, when overnight, all of the rules they had understood and mastered were changed. They were expected to be able to respond immediately and know what to do, though no one had prepared them for these changes. It’s easy to blame teachers for providing too much or not enough work and easy to blame students for lack of effort, but blaming gets us nowhere. Everyone is trying their best to cope and manage. That said, we do have the benefit of our experiences from March to June and an entire summer in which to prepare for the new norms of school. As parents, you can help in many ways:
Provide your teachers and school with feedback about your and your child’s experience thus far. In my work, I have heard a range of responses to distance learning. Some people feel like it is too easy and worry that their children are not being adequately prepared to meet future expectations. Others have complained that there is too much work and that parents do not have the time or skills to help their children. Still others feel as though there is not enough (or too much) student-teacher interaction. Parents and students have the opportunity to provide feedback about their experiences so that schools can plan better for next year.
I am advising districts that are my clients to actively solicit feedback, but even if yours does not ask, don’t feel shy about letting them know what worked, what did not work and what ideas or suggestions you have. It’s important to provide feedback in a productive way and focus on the action, not the person, as much as possible. For example, you might say something like, “The work provided was not clear to my child and she would have benefited from more explanation” rather than “The teacher did not explain things and my child was confused.” You want your feedback to be heard and to be considered; putting people on the defensive through blame and anger or making unreasonable demands will not help you or the school.
Ask schools to clarify what students are expected to know when the new school year begins. Many parents and students have complained that they are unclear about what students are actually expected to do and learn during this time of distance learning. Some of this confusion has arisen because Governor Whitmer’s executive order stated that students could not be failed or held back due only to performance during the school closure period. This statement was made to protect students who may not have access to learning tools or who may not be able to complete their work for other reasons beyond their control.
However, this statement led to new and conflicting policies from school districts. Some said that no distance learning work counted for grades and that students’ grades as of March 13 would be their final grade. Other districts said they would not give any grades this term and would simply issue credit or incomplete based on student performance during this time. Still others are grading on participation and engagement, but not on quality of work — simply turning something in earns credit, regardless of the quality. While the order was never intended to turn the work done this period of time into enrichment or optional, some students have interpreted it that way and have disengaged. Students may feel anxiety about being prepared for the next level. As your child enters the next grade, it is important that they understand what they will be expected to know and be able to do.
Talk with your own child about how you can better support them at home, what they need to sustain the different forms of learning and how they feel about this experience. As parents, sometimes the only feedback we get from our kids is when something is wrong or when they are unhappy with something that’s happened. Take a few minutes to reflect with your child about what this experience was like for them and how you can help make it better moving forward. It may be something simple like getting a second monitor for them to do their work or hiring them a tutor to help with content that they are struggling to learn. It’s also important to hear how they are feeling. The last few months have been hard on all of us, no one more so than the children. As adults, we have developed coping skills and know how to express our feelings. Many children, especially young ones, do not have those experiences or skills. Attend to your children’s mental health by talking to them and indicating that you are there to listen.
Prepare yourself for a completely new experience. Schools are familiar, emotional places. In many ways, they have not changed for generations and each of us has a very strong idea of what school is supposed to be, because we experienced it ourselves. As we get ready for a new school year, it is important to understand that it will be different and that some of what we cherished in our own experiences will be missing from our children’s experiences. We’ll need to prepare for the possibility of continuing to support student learning at home. As we think about what classrooms look like with social distancing, we have to accept that students will have little to no physical contact with their peers. That means no playing tag on the playground, no huddling together over a microscope to watch bacteria replicate, no group work in which there are shared items or resources, no leaning over to ask a neighbor how to do a problem while the teacher helps someone else, no sitting together at lunch and trading items from lunch boxes.
As my own daughter prepares to enter kindergarten, I realize that she won’t be giving her friends hugs or cuddling with them while they read a book together. She won’t be sitting close to classmates during circle time and sharing a quick giggle while the teacher’s back is turned. Most likely, my social butterfly will be sitting in her 6-foot bubble, finding a way to throw a note to her neighbor six feet away. The intimacy that physical contact creates will be greatly diminished if not completely gone from classrooms. While students will still learn and find new ways to connect, part of me is sad for the loss of what we had.
As parents, we will need to help our children use new skills to build relationships and friendships and help to encourage them to develop their own sense of belonging. From them, we will also learn how they are making their way in a new dynamic. In order to be at our best as parents, we should acknowledge that things will be different, deal with our own sense of grief and accept these changes. Whether they are beginning kindergarten or college, our kids will be OK. They are resilient, creative and have a natural drive to connect. They will navigate this new world just fine and with your support, find ways to thrive.