Planning for Back to School

Early research suggests school administrators need to develop several strategies as they evaluate options and prepare to reopen schools.

In recent weeks, our K-12 team has been talking with administrators, educators and teachers about the issues facing schools in the wake of COVID-19. As the focus shifts from the immediacy of reaching students in remote learning to considering how to re-open in August, districts are at different stages in the planning discussions.

In a recent LPA survey of administrators, curriculum leaders and facilities staff across Texas and California, 64 percent said they were beginning to develop guidelines, while others were still focusing on the needs of the current school year. We’re seeing a growing sense of urgency, as districts explore new ideas and innovative approaches to meet the challenges. There is a feeling that they can’t wait any longer for help. “You’ve got to lean in, at this point,” one client commented.

As districts start planning for the return to school, educators are examining every element of their operations, looking for the best ways to serve students. In our research, key themes are emerging. These areas are quickly rising to the top of the priority lists.

Recognize the Campus as Community Center

The last few months have highlighted something we’ve known for a while—the school campus serves an essential role as form of community center. It’s a necessary component in the ecosystem of a community to exist. As a society, schools support so much more than simply the academic growth of students. School districts are sometimes the largest workforce provider in a community. They serve as resource centers and support structure.

From food service and access to the digital world to aiding family well-being, the crisis has made it clear schools play a pivotal role in the community. The planning process will need to consider this large role, which goes far beyond the classrooms. Re-opening schools is everyone’s concern.

Focus on Outreach

Each district should be considering how they connect with their students and parents. Are they ready for what’s next? What are families comfortable with? What are they not comfortable with? Who aren’t we reaching?

Outreach and engagement are really a form of building confidence within your community, listening and setting the tone for change management strategies. It takes a high level of trust for parents to send their children back to school during an epidemic. Strategies need to take multiple forms. One size won’t fit all. Every district is unique. It’s about mixing methods and strategies to reach every student and their families.

Technology Won’t Solve Everything
While districts have made great strides in remote learning, research shows technology doesn’t replace teaching. Teachers are consistently shifting their teaching based on informal cues and behaviors to connect with students. Technology doesn’t allow you to do that. You can’t read body language. You can’t seamlessly shift between asynchronous and synchronous teaching. Some students simply don’t respond to distance learning or an online approach.

As school leaders consider different hybrids of in-school and at-home learning, they will need to account for both the human and technical scale of the undertaking. The lift on the part of teachers has been incredible, one principal shared during a recent discussion. Teachers will be facing long hours of additional preparation and coordination time as they develop content in either synchronous or asynchronous learning.

Planning for back to school Side Bar

Prepare for Permanent Change
It is all too clear we’re going to experience permanent shifts in the way that we live, learn, work, socialize and gather. The challenge for educators and administrators is to plan for those permanent shifts, rather than for a temporary fix. Things will change. In our survey outreach, more than 80 percent of respondents agreed that there will be a permanent shift in educational delivery due to actions and lessons learned during this time.

Districts are expressing the need for a long-term element to the planning process, even if the immediate focus is on short-term issues.

Listen to Students

We all need to keep in mind that this has been very hard on students, whether those impacts are yet to be realized. The traumas they may be experiencing from stress, physical distancing or learning gaps will have an impact. If students are disconnected from their learning, educational gaps will grow.

Trauma-related issues will have a lingering impact, and shouldn’t be ignored, research shows. Educators will have to be acutely aware of that and stay very connected with students and families. Districts need to take extra steps to link with families of students who are learning from home to offer empathy and strengthen social and emotional well-being.

Don’t Go it Alone

Reducing the spread of the virus is a regional effort. Every district is facing a shortage of resources. Partnering and sharing ideas with other districts, businesses and local agencies will be more important than ever before. We are already seeing the benefits of administrators working together as they plan and develop scenarios for the next year. Task force teams are growing within Districts, as well as regional and national levels.

Many of the challenges ahead will be about change management, helping educators and staff better adjust to their shifting roles. The lessons we are learning at every level will help others as they plan for the future.

More than anything, this planning process is going to be about keeping an open mind to multiple strategies and being prepared to pivot from one to the next, as districts learn how to better support families and build confidence within the community. Everybody is going to need a wide lens, as they tackle the issues and look for new opportunities.