In less than a year, education has been thrown for a loop--here's what school leaders are doing about the fall learning challenges facing their teachers and students

22 education leaders weigh in on fall learning challenges

In less than a year, education has been thrown for a loop--here's what school leaders are doing about fall learning challenges facing their teachers and students

There’s no doubt that the abrupt shift to online learning in the spring was largely an emergency reactionary response to the COVID-19 pandemic–but now, educators are determined to make the best of the “new normal” in classrooms this fall, even as learning challenges abound.

In-depth interviews with 22 educational leaders across the U.S. have been compiled into research from NWEA, a nonprofit assessment provider, and they offer insight into some of the many hurdles educators will have to face as the new school year progresses.

Educators acknowledge that this past spring, the focus was on keeping students safe and engaged, reaching out online and offline, getting devices and internet to those students in need, feeding students, and forging connections whether or not learning was taking place.

Related content: 10 ways assessment reform can guide a new era in education

Now, education leaders are aiming to meet accountability requirements, with a goal of getting students to grade-level proficiency by the end of the school year, regardless of where learning takes place.

Challenges remain: limited planning time, overwhelmed educators, parents who need support, assessment delivery, and ever-present equity obstacles. Social and emotional well-being is of critical importance, too.

Here’s a peek at what some of the findings say about fall learning challenges:

Planning as teams

To tackle fall planning, most districts formed teams made up of stakeholders from across the district, assigning each group a different aspect of planning.
For example, one district established the following teams:
• District-level oversight team: overall planning, representation on other teams
• Curriculum team: scope and sequence, defining essential skills and standards, remote learning that mirrors in-person learning
• Technology and innovation team: learning management system and instructional tools, ensuring instruction and learning drives the tech and not the other way around
• Facilities and operations team: protocols, PPE, facility needs, deep cleaning requirements and resources

Regardless of the team structures, districts are generally taking a collaborative approach to planning so that many key stakeholders are represented in decisions.

Gauging spring learning loss

Whether school is opened on site or remotely in the fall, every district must address the learning loss now commonly referred to as the COVID slide. Districts are working to identify power standards to focus learning on critical concepts
in the coming year. They are working with teachers to adjust the planned scope and sequence of instruction to focus on those critical concepts and scaffold in the foundational concepts from the previous year.

Facing common learning challenges

While every district is facing challenges that are specific to their communities and schools, there are common teaching and learning challenges for the fall that surfaced in conversations with district leaders.

Limited time to plan: Across the board, districts are struggling with the limited time they have to plan. At the time of NWEA’s interviews, no district had received definitive guidance from the state. There was overwhelming consensus that they needed to wait for state guidance to develop their school reopening plans. At the same time, they felt an acute need to move forward.

Teachers’ social and emotional health: “We’ve had some teachers that said, ‘If you ask me to come back to school full face-to-face, I will resign. It’s too dangerous.’ We have some teachers who said, ‘if you tell me I have to do this again next year, and it’s fully virtual, I will resign,’” said an executive director of a large suburban district in the Southwest. While district leaders are confident that teachers will take care of students’ social and emotional health, they are worried about teachers’ own social emotional health. Every district leader NWEA talked to expressed concern about the demands on teachers, the importance of supporting their needs, minimizing their stress, and setting them up for success.

Comparability: Districts are also concerned with equity across the learning modes. Regardless of whether students are learning on site or at home, they need to receive equivalent educational programs with equal opportunity to learn and engage. Districts are committed to high levels of learning for every student.

Managing multiple models: Districts share a common challenge of managing remote learning programs within their current structures. A few districts are considering whether to essentially create a separate division with a remote learning manager and dedicated remote learning teachers to manage all remote learning, or to outsource remote learning altogether.

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