Aug 02 2021

Lessons for K–12 Districts as Students Return to the Classroom

District leaders who reopened schools for in-person learning in the fall of 2020 share solutions and best practices for reconnecting.

As schools prepare to reopen this fall, many students and teachers will be reconnecting in face-to-face environments for the first time in 18 months. School leaders have a lot to consider in addition to keeping everyone safe and healthy. High among their priorities lists are how best to transition back to in-person instruction and how to support students’ social and emotional needs after a period that has been traumatic for many.

While some districts stuck with remote learning for the entire 2020-2021 school year, others opened their doors to students and teachers last August. These schools can offer lessons for school leaders around the country who are reopening for the first time since March 2020.

Ector County Independent School District in West Texas, for one, surveyed families in summer 2020 and found that 86 percent preferred to send students back in-person. As the school year progressed, that percentage ticked up to 91 percent, Superintendent Scott Muri says. A huge factor in that decision, he adds, is limited broadband access in his rural district of 34,000 students.

In Florida, Martin County School District reopened in mid-August 2020, with a synchronous hybrid learning model for both students in classrooms and those connecting remotely from home, Chief Academic Officer Tracey Miller says. With this setup, even as students had to quarantine, the continuity of their instruction was preserved.

Of course, the pandemic didn’t come with a playbook for how to operate schools, so “the more that we hear from others about what worked in districts and what their struggles were, the better,” Miller says.

“Sometimes it’s just nice to know that you’re not alone,” she adds. “And other times you definitely can pick up something that might make your world a little easier.”

WATCH: In this Twitter exclusive, we ask a few of our 2021 K–12 IT Influencers about the ways they’re Ready to Reconnect this fall. Check out the video below, and follow us on Twitter @EdTech_K12 to stay up to date on the latest content.


Schools Should Establish Clear Routines from Day One

One of the most important reopening lessons Martin County School District learned last year was to establish clear routines for students from the first day of class.

“We have no idea what students’ routines may have been,” Miller says. “Understanding how they’re coming into our classroom, what they’re prepared for and what they’re able to handle emotionally” is crucial to a successful year.

Establishing routines includes setting clear expectations for the use of devices and making sure everyone understands that the purpose of technology is to enhance and support teacher instruction, not replace it, Miller says.

When the pandemic began, the district had an existing one-to-one device program for fifth through 12th graders and was able to distribute school-owned devices to all students by August. Teachers who weren’t already using Google Classroom last year were asked to adopt it, and everyone in the district will start using the same learning management system this fall, which creates continuity districtwide.

Structure combined with flexibility has been the district’s mantra, Miller says. This year, the approach remains the same even as the district ends hybrid learning and shifts to full-time in-person instruction.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover classroom and AV design trends emerging from pandemic learning.

Tech Can Support Social-Emotional Learning for Students and Staff

At the Muskego-Norway School District in Wisconsin, strict contact-tracing routines made all the difference to a smooth re-entry last year, CIO Tony Spence says. This helped the district safely offer in-person co-curricular activities, which went a long way toward supporting students’ social and emotional well-being.

“We think those activities were just as valuable as in-person instruction because there was a bit of normalcy that came with it, and they had an opportunity to get into activities where they were bonding with coaches and fellow classmates,” Spence says.

Not all districts have the resources for strict contact tracing. At the very least, Spence advises, administrators should develop collaborative, communicative relationships with local health officials and elected leaders so they can stay informed and respond quickly as guidance changes.

For districts to be ready to reconnect, adequate staff training and curriculum to support students’ social and emotional well-being is paramount. Ector County ISD’s Muri says when the majority of his district’s 34,000 students returned last year, staff learned a hard lesson.

“While we anticipated the trauma that the pandemic had brought to some of our kids and families, I think we underestimated the amount of trauma that our staff and our students were dealing with,” he says.

Scott Muri
While we anticipated the trauma that the pandemic had brought to some of our kids and families, I think we underestimated the amount of trauma that our staff and our students were dealing with.”

Scott Muri Superintendent, Ector County Independent School District

At the time, the district didn’t have a social-emotional learning plan. Guidance counselors were overwhelmed with the volume of social and emotional issues students brought to them, Muri says, and teachers were underprepared to address it in the classroom.

While the district is still grappling with a staffing shortage, this year will be a big improvement over last year, he notes. All teachers are being trained to integrate SEL principles into instruction.

Ector County ISD is also leveraging technology to fill in some gaps, tapping vendors to provide virtual instructional coaching for teachers and virtual tutoring for students. A few things make this possible, Muri says: The district already had wireless infrastructure in place before the pandemic; it launched a one-to-one device program in May last year; and it’s partnering with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service to connect families without access to broadband.

Districts Need the Right Mindset Paired with the Right Technology

Technology is, of course, crucial to reconnecting staff and students, but administrators who managed reopening last year learned that mindset matters more than any one tool.

Muskego-Norway School District would have been in trouble if not for its collaborative, experimental approach to implementing new tools for remote learning, Spence says. For instance, teachers shared that a successful initiative — 4K livestreaming of classroom instruction using existing Epson BrightLink projectors and newly purchased HoverCam Solo 8Plus document cameras for students who chose virtual learning — wasn’t suited for long-term use.

As productive as the livestream setup was during a crisis year, “we were creating a high-burnout situation for teachers and students if they continued,” Spence says. “Even if it’s something technologically you have the ability to do, it doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

Instead, teachers are continuing to use the new document cameras separately, making the investment sustainable. The auto shop teacher, for example, is recording mechanical repair lessons using the camera to shoot underneath a car on a lift, then sharing them on Google Classroom.

Martin County School District’s Miller says the importance of mindset hit home for her staff last year too.

“The willingness to be flexible was just paramount. You could have the greatest technology in the world, you can have the greatest programs or materials, but if it’s not going to be embraced and utilized, if parents and teachers aren’t willing to have a productive struggle through the learning, we wouldn’t be successful.”

DISCOVER: The products and services you need to reconnect this school year are at your fingertips.

Gabriel (Gabi) Bucataru/Stocksy

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