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Looking Ahead: Schools in the Fall of 2021

Aside from dealing with the many losses brought on by COVID-19, as schools reopen, educators must also consider how to capitalize on the opportunities for change the pandemic has presented.

Okay, bear with me for a moment as we jump ahead in time. It’s September 2021. Schools have just reopened for in-person instruction, and masks and social distancing are commonplace, if not required. Most teachers have been vaccinated, and plans are in place for K-12 students to receive shots over the coming months. High school sports and after-school activities have restarted. Kids are reunited with their friends.

With cautious optimism, American society is emerging from a prolonged funk, and that’s partially thanks to schools. Their return to a revised normalcy has prompted a widespread sigh of relief.

But the pandemic has taken a definite toll. Some kids fell behind during their time in remote learning, special needs students had real difficulties getting the services they needed and other kids suffered serious emotional traumas. Many teachers, even after a summer break, are still tired from the previous grueling year. And some of their colleagues have retired sooner than planned, or quit teaching altogether.

But aside from dealing with the many losses and ordeals of the past year, school leaders and teachers have also had to figure out what to do with the changes they put in place during the pandemic that are worth keeping – as well as those their students and families have demanded they not push aside in a rush back to business-as-usual.

In schools that moved to remote or hybrid learning, most students have laptops they used all day, every day during their virtual classes. Prior to the pandemic, these devices weren’t considered essential classroom tools for most teachers and were seen as a nuisance by some. But during remote learning, these same teachers used their schools’ instructional technology systems to post their lessons and materials; to collect, grade and return assignments; to communicate with their students; to videoconference with them and to administer assessments.

And though the learning curve in doing all of this stretched many teachers and kids, they got good at it, and found a range of new teaching and learning opportunities. So, what now? Are students relinquishing their school-owned laptops while teachers revert back to their previous print- and paper-based classroom routines, where laptops and online resources get little use?

And those students who thrived in remote learning, what about them? Having discovered a means of schooling that better met their needs, are they returning to a system that served them poorly? Or did their schools ensure that remote learning continued to be an option, even now that the pandemic is no longer a factor? And if not, did these families look outside of their local districts and enroll their kids in other online school alternatives? Moreover, are schools asking themselves the hard questions about why such a high percentage of Black students have chosen not to return to their schools, preferring to continue in online learning from home?

Students became accustomed to more autonomy during remote learning – completing work at their own pace, taking breaks as needed, working with teachers to tailor some of their assignments to their personal interests. Now as their schools reopen, are teachers continuing to offer students this increased level of agency?

And what of the daily school schedules that had been adjusted since early start times weren’t needed during remote learning? Are high school kids, who spent a year not beginning their school days until a time better aligned to teenagers’ biological clocks, now grumpily returning to a 7:30 a.m. first period? Or did their schools recognize the inherent problems with this model and adapt their start times? And when the first snow days and other unplanned school closures hit, are classes canceled even though both teachers and students are well-versed in remote learning?

And let’s not forget the societal issues and inequities the pandemic exposed in new and glaring ways. Have school districts, and especially federal and state governments, made a serious effort to address the 25 percent of K-12 students who don't have the at-home Internet connectivity required for remote learning, or for fully participating in a digital society?

The pandemic's disruptions of American life have been pervasive, so it’s really important that schools are reopening and providing a familiar safe haven for students and families. But have educators taken stock of what’s been learned and revealed during this extended period of trial-by-fire, and put that wisdom to good use?

Let’s hope so.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.