Heinze: How to Give Kids a Quality Education While Tending to Their Social & Emotional Needs in This Pandemic? Some Lessons From Districts Nationwide

(Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

The politically and emotionally charged debate over whether to open schools has left little room for discussion about equitable, high-quality teaching and learning.

While the health and safety of staff and students must remain the top priority, the stakes around instruction for the 2020-21 school year have never been higher. Despite educators’ herculean efforts in the spring, internet access issues, families’ varying capacity to support their children, language barriers and the need to shift to remote learning on a dime resulted in disrupted and unfinished learning for students across the country.

The impact is not yet known, but participation data are bleak. More than 20 percent of Boston Public Schools students did not log in to the district’s online learning platforms, and on an average day, 40 percent of middle and high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District did not engage in virtual learning.

Preliminary estimates suggest that students will return in the fall with roughly 70 percent of the learning gains they would have achieved during a normal school year in reading, and less than 50 percent in math. Research shows that if left unaddressed, the impact could be profound and lasting, with lost learning in the early grades having the greatest impact.

What can districts and schools do to ensure that every student receives engaging and rigorous instruction that is sensitive to their diverse needs, regardless of whether classes are remote, hybrid or in person?

First, it is crucial to prioritize equity by striving to deeply understand the experiences of all students and provide the resources necessary for each to succeed socially, emotionally and academically. To identify every student’s academic needs, educators should use assessments and diagnostics that directly inform instruction. Reliable measures are essential, as research showed that learning loss among students impacted by Hurricane Katrina could not be predicted by family income, prior schooling, age or grade level. Educators who taught students post-Katrina emphasized the need to continually assess and adjust instruction, sometimes for years. Understanding where each student is in acquiring prerequisite skills and knowledge is essential for prioritizing and accelerating instruction.

To recognize each student’s social and emotional needs, educators can invite them during lessons, whether remote or in person, to share their stories, to recognize and acknowledge their own feelings and to listen compassionately and build empathy. One-on-one conferences and self-reflection can provide ongoing checks on students’ social-emotional and academic health.

Second, setting an instructional vision with input from teachers and families can help school communities remain grounded as they plan for and navigate transitions between learning environments. This vision elevates what is important, outlines expectations for a high-quality education for every student and demonstrates a commitment to equity.

In Delaware, for example, Dr. Monica Gant, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, worked with local superintendents, school leaders, teachers, parents, students and union representatives to develop recommendations guiding every district to set an instructional vision explicitly stating that:

  • Every student will receive access to grade-level instruction and high-quality materials.
  • Every student will be assessed on understanding of prerequisite skills and knowledge.
  • Every student’s social-emotional needs will be recognized and addressed through the integration of social-emotional learning, the strengthening of relationships and culturally responsive teaching.
  • Every educator will receive support and professional learning that results in the effective implementation of instruction.
  • Every educator will receive feedback on their practice, with specific attention given to acceleration strategies.

Highlighting what is essential builds a common understanding and improves alignment among the stakeholders, especially if a transition between in-person and hybrid or remote learning is necessary.

Third, the incorporation of SEL and technology into instruction is more necessary than ever before. Both need to be embedded meaningfully into all instructional plans and lessons. Students who are starting the year remotely need to feel connected to their teachers and classmates even though receiving instruction online, while teachers, who may start the year in a hybrid model or in person, need to remain prepared for a transition to remote learning by continuing to incorporate technology into all aspects of their practice.

Schools and districts should offer formalized professional development so educators can learn and share knowledge about cultivating and strengthening relationships with students in a virtual environment. In Michigan, districts and schools are partnering with TRAILS, an organization that supports student mental health, to offer guidance on adapting their SEL curriculum and modifying lesson pacing for a virtual environment. Robust training on how to best leverage technological tools, online platforms and digital resources could support educators in including culturally, socially and emotionally responsive activities and routines in their instructional practice.

Fourth, parents must be seen as partners. Last spring, when schools shifted to remote learning, parental involvement intensified in unprecedented ways. This year, as more districts and schools decide to begin the school year with remote and blended learning, parents and guardians will continue to play an integral role in their child’s schooling while facing their own challenges. To help support families, the Alabama Department of Education, for example, shared a range of resources in its state reopening plan to assist parents and guardians in learning about grade-level expectations and instructional strategies to use at home. Some districts are planning training sessions for parents on the technological tools and online platforms their students are using, and workshops to boost parents’ digital literacy.

Two-way communication between parents and teachers will be key to the ongoing monitoring of and support for students’ progress and needs, and to building trusting relationships.

Uncertainty looms around the upcoming school year. Preparing for and providing an equitable, engaging and rigorous instructional experience for this school year is vital to our children’s future.

Juliette “Cricket” Heinze is an adviser at Opportunity Labs, where she spent the past five months supporting states, districts and schools on instructional planning for the 2020-21 school year. 

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