Schools are reopening for in-person learning, but many educators will keep some COVID learning practices as they resume face-to-face instruction

8 COVID learning practices this district is keeping

Schools are reopening for in-person learning, but many educators will keep some COVID learning practices as they resume face-to-face instruction

As educators across the U.S. enter their classrooms for a new school year–one that is still a bit uncertain given concerns over new COVID variants and how to safely bring students back to school–many are bringing new strategies, tools, and practices with them.

While COVID presented educators with myriad challenges, it also prompted many to discover new ways to teach, to lead, and to inspire. In fact, many educators are starting this new school year with so-called “COVID learning practices”–tools, mindsets, and strategies they never used or knew about until COVID forced their hands.

One important–arguably the most important–lesson? Learning cannot return to how it was pre-COVID.

“I joke that it took a pandemic to get us to implement 21st-century learning. I almost feel like there’s almost a growing mindset to say, ‘OK, now that we’re moving past the pandemic, let’s get back to the old,’ and I think it has to be a blend,” says Dr. Jeff Gorman, Deputy Superintendent of Schools in New York’s Mount Vernon City School District (MVCSD). “And if it’s not, we’ve missed an incredible lesson. I would be so sad to see it missed and squandered.”

MVCSD was among the first districts in the nation to be impacted when COVID began its rapid spread, and as a new school year approaches, Gorman says the district is moving forward with some valuable lessons after a year and a half of pandemic learning. A big part of that is combining successful pre-pandemic learning strategies with lessons learning during COVID.

“I think what has to happen is we have to model a combination of this blend,” Gorman said. “We have to have critical conversations with people to get them to process and understand that a lot of these practices should have–and could have–been in place years and years ago.”

For many, COVID brought with it a chance to advance learning beyond what’s “always been done.” Going back to pre-pandemic practices will waste valuable learning opportunities.

Here are a few of the COVID learning practices and mindsets MVCSD educators will carry with them this fall:

1. Blend professional development when possible. During MVCSD’s yearlong PD series, teachers have 2.5 days where they can choose professional learning opportunities based on goals and needs within their buildings. Most are taught by the district’s own teachers and educators, while some taught by vendors. Instead of putting everybody in one building for traditional “go get professional learning,” the district will deliver content in the morning and then set up one-on-one or small group meetings with those who need it in the afternoon. Learning can be asynchronous, and at the end of the first day teachers will take their outcomes, compile them into a plan to implement, and reconvene the second day to share.

2. Face-to-face parent-teacher conferences are changing. A blend of virtual and face-to-face parent-teacher conferences accommodates working parents’ schedules and adds more flexibility. The option for virtual conferences also increases parent engagement, which can be challenging in a high-poverty district, Gorman said. Parent liaisons in each school make phone calls and go door-to-door to ensure parents are aware of events and are participating when possible. The district’s 8th graders usually select a high school to attend–choosing from a STEAM academy, a comprehensive high school, and a performing arts academy–in a traditional face-to-face presentation process. Last year, this process was held over Zoom with teachers in virtual rooms to answer questions and give information, and roughly 1,000 parents participated. In the past, maybe 50-100 parents attended, Gorman said. “This is 100 percent more effective.”

3. Find alternatives to suspension. “Suspend a kid, and do they get any learning? No. They get a day off,” Gorman said. The alternative have a student participating in class via Zoom, having access to the classroom but with other restrictions to enforce disciplinary processes. “That’s something we never would have done before,” he said.

4. Grow AVID’s tutoring program to connect students to learning opportunities. Twice a week, AVID students work with college tutors through a program called Tutorology. The district is exploring blending the college tutors to accommodate tutors who might be out of state or not able to drive into a classroom. Tutors facilitate an inquiry-based process where students figure out their problem and talk them through, primarily in math and science. “While it’s awesome to have the college kids in our schools working in role models, we often fall short in getting enough tutors because kids are in college navigating their schedules,” Gorman said. Adding new ways to reach tutors helps students in the AVID program reach their goals.

5. Focus on one-to-one. Up until last year, the district was not one-to-one. “Now, it’s like second nature. I could have gone another 10 years without the pandemic and I would not have been able to get a computer in every kid’s hand,” Gorman said. “But last year with funding and creativity we got every single kid a device and access to internet.” Through state and federal funding, the district also offers devices students can use to access the internet–and students can keep them for the year. “We’ve cut the digital divide by default with this pandemic. We can’t go back, no matter what,” Gorman said.

6. Continue using technologies and resources to take learning to another level. “All these technologies we brought in–interactive techbooks and resources that Discovery Education was a big part of, different software like Nearpod, Padlet, different software that promote content creation and sharing–we have to continue to use that in the classroom setting when kids are there. So when people talk about differentiation and small group instruction, we have a menu of so many possibilities, and I think that’s the real task for us: to have the conversations with teachers and help them find their patterns and find out what works for them,” Gorman said. “I think we have to have so many conversations with teachers about how can you use your new improved toolbox with all the other things to maximize learning and close the gap from what happened last year.”

7. Recognize that high-quality teachers are the backbone of technology in the classroom. “I guess my warning is: bad digital learning is worse than regular learning,” Gorman said. “Good teaching is still good teaching no matter what. All those curricular and instructional practices are still 100 percent in; we just now have an incredible way to use what we learned in the last 1.5 years, [combined with] face-to-face practices, and put it all together. and I think that’s a challenge and I think people will be confused, but you have to show the model to help people see the way.”

8. Find a way to make time for virtual extra help after school. There’s definitely a big achievement gap, or regress, that developed,” Gorman said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if, after school, we could find some type of compensation or some kind of incentive if a teacher was able to identify kids and hop on a Zoom to offer extra help after school?” The idea of making extra help virtual respects teachers’ time and allows them to go home, and it also makes it easier for parents to coordinate without having to pick up their child from a physical location after regular school hours.

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Laura Ascione
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