Students, teachers, and parents have been dreaming about schools reopening, and each passing month brings us a little closer. According to an April CDC news release, almost 80% of teachers and staff have been vaccinated for COVID, and some states are working on vaccine eligibility for students.
In March the American Rescue Plan Act provided $130 billion in aid to schools in addition to the $53 billion already provided last December. Funds can be spent in myriad ways, from buying cleaning supplies to improving ventilation, but 20 percent must be devoted to addressing learning loss.
Further Reading: Wearing a Face Mask in the Classroom
Education Week recently interviewed school leaders and business officers regarding how they planned to use Rescue funds in their districts. Their top five priorities included making up instructional time, adding mental health services, expanding technology access, improving facilities and safety, and providing more special education services. Of course, needs will vary across school districts.
As a result, there's palpable optimism about schools reopening in the coming months, and it's tempting to imagine that it will be like walking from a black-and-white film into rich, beautiful color. But when schools reopen and welcome everyone back, they won't be as we left them—and kids will need more than academics when they start the new versions of their former lives.
Teaching and Learning
Determining the progress that kids have made during the pandemic will be daunting even within the same grade level. Teachers may have to review curricula and excise anything inessential. They will need to be flexible—the benchmarks at each grade level aren't set in stone.
The grades that students received during remote learning might primarily reflect the difficulties kids experienced with the platform. Consequently, some schools adopted a pass-fail system instead of grading on an A-to-F scale. Many teachers have substituted incomplete grades for Fs and given kids more time to make up missed or incomplete assignments. At the elementary level, teachers will likely need to provide additional time on the specific reading and math skills that kids need to succeed.
Finding the Lost
Tens of thousands of children haven't been seen in virtual schools since the pandemic began, USA Today reports. Hillsborough County, Florida, started the year down 7,000 students. Los Angeles kindergarten enrollment dropped by 6,000. My school district, which has 10,000 students, recently announced that more than 700 of them hadn't been present for school.
Where did these students go?
Many of them couldn't access the online learning environment. Some went to work; some looked after younger siblings. Some were homeschooled by parents skeptical of remote learning. And some moved in with relatives in different cities.
Whatever the reason for the students' absence, schools must reach out to them and encourage them to return. Letters and phone calls might not do the trick. Some schools have found that school social workers or teachers are more effective at connecting with kids about returning to school than attendance officers are. It's less about compliance and more about assurances that students will be welcomed back and that teachers will work with them.
Some school districts are developing evening boot camps that will run parallel to regular classes. The camps will focus on the essential skills and knowledge that students need to rejoin regular classes. Other schools are considering weekend classes and summer school sessions to catch kids up.
Rebuilding School Life
It might not be possible to bring all extracurriculars back at once, but schools must start to offer the activities and sports that students dearly missed. Band, theater, art, soccer, and clubs—these things really aren't extras at this point. They're essentials, because they can boost kids' mental health.
"We know that there has been a significant loss of learning," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators on CBS This Morning, "but I'll tell you, we're less concerned about that than we are about the social and emotional factors."
Sharing Domenech's concerns is Teresa Thayer Snyder, a retired superintendent of schools in Voorheesville, New York. NYU research professor and education historian Diane Ravitch posted Snyder's essay about "children of this pandemic" on her blog. While Snyder recognizes that kids have experienced learning loss, her biggest fear is that schools will focus only on how to "catch them up."
"When children return to school, we will need to listen to them," Snyder wrote. "Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times."
Snyder believes that kids need ways to express themselves and what they experienced during the pandemic. She suggests that writing, art, music, theater, and discussion are natural outlets for kids to process what they've experienced, connect with others, and learn they're not alone.
And, she reminds us, they missed their teachers.
"They missed you," she wrote. "They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you."
A Sense of Belonging
When schools reopen, there will be myriad safety protocols. Teachers and students will have to wear face masks, stay three to six feet apart from each other, and wash their hands frequently.
But kids will be reunited with their classmates. Teachers will have colleagues next door. Students will be able to work together, learn together, laugh together, and, yes, complain together. Teachers and students can rebuild the essential relationships that eluded them when they were separated by screens.
Further Reading: What Kids Love—and Hate—about Remote Student Learning
So when schools reopen, there will be plenty of reasons to rejoice, especially if we focus not only on academics, but on all the connections and experiences that are part of the full life of school.