As 2021 kicks off, a significant number of districts across the country continue to deliver some or all of their instruction virtually, with only 60 percent of districts offering fully in-person instruction to elementary students and less than 50 percent of districts offering fully in-person instruction to secondary students. The challenges with virtual and hybrid instruction are myriad—particularly for students with disabilities, English learners, students with limited access to technology, and younger learners. Some are optimistic that COVID-19 vaccination efforts will enable more schools to reopen in person, particularly in places where teachers are prioritized for vaccination. In the meantime, districts should start thinking now about the significant work ahead to address learning loss, social-emotional and wellness concerns, and student and family re-engagement. Here are four ideas that should be top of mind for district leaders:
- Extend instructional time to address learning loss. The estimates regarding learning loss are staggering, with reports of students of color being as much as 6–12 months behind, and their White peers as much as 4–8 months behind by the end of the 2020–21 school year (see also here and here). While there is little research on the benefits of expanding K–12 virtual instructional time, we know students will need additional time and support to catch up once they are back in the classroom. Some educators are beginning to call for extending the school year, or even providing “year-round school” to address learning loss, as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recently suggested. When schools are able to safely operate in person, districts should strongly consider extending the school day or the school year to alleviate pressure on teachers to “make up for lost time.” Such an extension will permit teachers to provide additional “just in time” review, accelerated instruction, and differentiation to meet the needs of all learners. An extended school year would also alleviate the financial burden of summer camps and childcare for working parents, many of whom have had their children home with them for prolonged periods during the pandemic.
- Implement an intensive, large-scale tutoring program to support learning recovery. While extending the day or the year is a step toward expanding instructional time, what we do with that time will be important to drive learning recovery. To provide differentiated instructional supports, districts should consider offering intensive tutoring to students based on results of diagnostic assessment data. Some researchers are calling for a “national tutoring corps” program to provide federally funded tutoring supports, with others suggesting how the federal government might effectively scale tutoring across the public school system. With an extended day or year, some of the additional school time could be spent implementing tutoring programs to alleviate the burden on teachers to work a longer day.
- Provide comprehensive social-emotional and wellness supports. Student mental health and wellness concerns pose a major concern during extended school closures, with students experiencing social isolation, withdrawal from their routines, and lack of access to health and wellness services that schools typically provide (see also here and here). Some students may also be experiencing trauma resulting from housing or food instability, or death or prolonged sickness among family or friends. While many districts continue to provide access to free meals to students throughout school closures, schools will need to be prepared to meet growing mental health and social-emotional wellness needs as students return to in-person learning. Potential aids for this purpose include universal social emotional learning (SEL) screeners; SEL resources; and increased access to counselors, social workers, or other services. If schools extend the school day or school year, some of the time can be used to provide these services along with extracurricular programs such as sports and arts, which have shown to be associated with improved student wellness.
- Engage in a robust student and family re-engagement effort. Along with the concerning numbers on learning loss and student wellness are significant drops in student enrollment (in particular for kindergarteners whose parents may have decided to delay enrollment by a year) and skyrocketing rates of chronic absenteeism. Outside the well-documented research indicating attendance is an important predictor of student success (more on that here), when students are persistently not present in school they are at a higher risk for dropping out and are missing critical access to academic, social, and other supports. A recent survey by the National Association for Elementary School Principals found 82 percent of principals indicated the pandemic had hurt student attendance, including students who were chronically absent prior to COVID-19, students lacking internet or device access, or students with disabilities. A survey of 790 educators by EdWeek found absences have nearly doubled during the pandemic. Reengaging students and families will require a robust communication and outreach effort to restore trust in the safety and importance of attending school regularly. This might include home visits; welcoming community events; frequent district, school, and teacher communication; and more intensive outreach efforts for hard-to-reach students. Resources are also available to help districts think strategically about student attendance and engagement during and beyond school closures.
As districts look ahead to slashed budgets, dropping enrollments, and challenges with teacher morale, it will be extremely important for them to strategically allocate resources to programs with a strong evidence base and to use federal stimulus funds or other funding streams to implement these programs with fidelity. It is only January, but the time is now for districts to start planning how they will support students when they return fully to classrooms.