Mnookin & Freeman: As Educators Figure Out Distance Learning, Now Is the Time to Plan for Students’ Return to School. Some Things to Consider

As the unexpected Great Distance Teaching Experiment of 2020 extends into its second week, teachers and administrators have, for good reason, been heroically focused on creating some semblance of normalcy for their students. This has meant organizing laptop distribution, arranging internet access for families that were not previously connected and ensuring that all students have access to meals that they would otherwise have eaten at school and might not otherwise get.

School leaders have been working to wrap their arms around the current reality, often working 14-hour days, seven days a week. As a result, most have not had the opportunity to think about what comes next. What happens when students return to school, whether that is in a month or in the fall? One big lesson we are learning from the coronavirus is that it is vital to be overprepared for an uncertain future so that when unforeseen crises arise, we are best positioned to respond swiftly, calmly and from a place of strength.

With that in mind, we believe school leaders would be well served by dedicating some small amount of planning time each week to thinking about what happens next within four categories:

Social-emotional well-being of students

For many students, school is a place of calm, of stability, of safety. In a world of uncertainty, school provides welcome structure. The past two weeks, and the foreseeable future, are terrifying for those students. In some instances, home is not safe, so the prospect of being quarantined in that environment is particularly scary. In other instances, students experience food insecurity. And with the pandemic currently spread to all 50 states — and poised to explode in both the number of infected and the number of fatalities — students will experience the loss of loved ones (and in those instances will most likely not be able to say goodbye in person or give a final hug), as well as concern for infected family members.

Even as adults, we are seeing firsthand how terrifying this pandemic is. None of us have ever experienced anything like this. We are ourselves feeling an increase in anxiety and uncertainty; it is impossible for us to truly understand the toll that will take on our students. With that in mind, it is imperative that schools plan for welcoming students back who have experienced serious trauma and be prepared to help them work through that.

Key questions to consider:

  • Will our current roster of social workers be sufficient to meet the social-emotional needs of returning students? If not, how do we increase the number on a short-term basis?
  • What additional training do we need to provide for staff to identify students in crisis? What protocols do we need to create or revamp in order to help them?
  • What’s a simple, straightforward diagnostic tool we could use to help identify students who need extra support?


Schools have been doing their best to make the most of online learning. Early reports show that although there were initial hiccups, teachers and students are quickly getting the hang of it. Many free resources are available to help teachers make the most of remote teaching. The reality, however, is that we are all experiencing, in real time, the limitations of distance learning. While technology has made what was once unimaginable suddenly possible, it is not the same as in-person teaching, and the fact that educators and schools were not prepared ensures that it will not be the same anytime soon. In addition, many teachers have had to juggle learning how to teach remotely with caring for their own children who are suddenly at home.

Therefore, when students are able to return to school, we need to be prepared for even wider variations in academic performance among students. Some will have done every online lesson that was offered and even supplemented that with instruction from their families or other resources. Others will have done little. If this continues for weeks or months, that disparity will have a lasting impact. Assuming students return in the fall, the solution can’t simply be to spend the first half of the year teaching (or re-teaching) what should have been taught in the second half of the previous year; students will never catch up that way, and it will only exacerbate current inequities in academic achievement.

Key questions to consider:

  • When students return, how will we determine where students are academically and what gaps exist?
  • How will we determine what content needs to be reviewed? How will we review that content while still teaching new material that students need to learn?
  • What impacts will that information have on scheduling? On tutoring and intervention time?

Staff culture and well-being

The focus has thus far been on students, and rightfully so, but there are also staffing and human resources issues to consider. Many teachers in large cities that are particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, such as New York, have self-isolated outside the city. It seems probable that some of them will choose not to return, making staffing for the upcoming school year that much more challenging. In addition, many schools ask teachers who are applying for a job for the next school year to do demo lessons with their students and participate in interviews with teachers and administrators. Prospective teachers want to see the school building in person and get a sense of what their classroom would be like. None of that is currently possible as we head into what is traditionally the busiest hiring period.

Finally, just as many students will likely be returning to school with additional mental health needs, school leaders need to be thinking about how to support staff through these traumatic times. Although teachers do their best to present a strong face for their students, they themselves may be struggling with many of the same issues. Perhaps a partner was laid off and finances are uncertain. Perhaps a loved one got sick or died. Schools need to be thinking about the mental health supports that can be offered to staff.

Key questions to consider:

  • How can we get a sense of which staffers will be returning when in-person schooling resumes?
  • What are best practices for hiring staff remotely?
  • What resources can we provide to staffers who may be struggling, whether from depression, anxiety or the loss of a loved one?

Finance and operations

Many schools immediately provided laptops and Chromebooks to families who did not have them. Some will not be returned or will come back broken. That will have a budgetary impact that should be accounted for now. It could also impact in-person classes, once they resume, if all of the needed technology is not immediately available on-site. The pandemic also makes clear that schools will need to rethink their cleaning routines.

There is no telling what the economic impact of the coronavirus will be when all is said and done, but it will be unprecedented. State budgets, which schools rely on for funding, will undoubtedly be hit hard, which will have a trickle-down effect. Whether that is felt in 2020 or 2021, schools would do well to prepare for seemingly inevitable budget cuts.

Finally, schools will need to examine their emergency protocols, particularly their communication systems. An after-action report of what worked well in the days immediately before and after the decision to shut down will help leaders make improvements for future emergencies.

Key questions to consider:

  • What percentage of technology that we lend out to families do we expect to lose? How can we budget to replace it?
  • What changes will we make to our cleaning and disinfecting protocols?
  • What did we learn about emergency communications, and how can we apply that knowledge to improve those protocols moving forward?
  • What changes do we need to make to our long-term financial models to account for probable budget cuts?

Educators are on the front lines in addressing the coronavirus head-on. They have demonstrated incredible flexibility and dedication in getting remote teaching up and running with almost no advance planning. There are many great leaders in education and support organizations that help those leaders. More than ever, this is not a time to reinvent the wheel but rather to pool resources and aid one another. Support organizations should identify school leaders to form a task force to meet weekly for the foreseeable future to help identify questions such as those posed above about how to restart school once it is deemed safe to do so. Once schools reopen, challenges will undoubtedly arise. A task force that focuses on planning for that eventuality would greatly help mitigate those challenges and provide the greatest likelihood of a smooth restart, which our students will desperately need.

Jacob Mnookin is the founder and former executive director of Coney Island Prep, a public charter school in Brooklyn, New York. Lindsay Freeman was the school’s founding principal and first chief academic officer. 

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today