Right now South Carolina schools are submitting their plans for restarting school in the fall to the State Department of Education. Around the country, similar activities are occurring. Sadly, many of those plans are falling short.
Some districts are recognizing that they are not able to meet the requirements for keeping children and staff safe and have chosen to keep their schools closed to in-person instruction (Los Angeles and San Diego, to name two). Still, the pressure is on to provide in-person instruction five days a week. Even with optimal physical conditions, bringing students back into the classroom is fraught with challenges. Chris Jones shared his real life experience with this in an article entitled, “I Spent 3 Weeks in School, With Kids, Under Covid-19”. It’s well worth the read.
Despite cautions from folks like Chris, though, schools are planning to bring students back for in-person instruction or some blend of online and in-person instruction. The focus for many of these plans, though, is purely on the physical aspects of bringing students back to the classroom. Whether students continue their learning in-person or online, there are other needs that must be addressed in these plans. Specifically, schools must attend to the social and emotional needs of learners now more than ever. Additionally, whether or not predictions like those from NWEA are accurate, we can be assured that learners’ performance levels will be even more diverse than pre-Covid. School plans must account for academic needs, as well.
Charleston County School District’s “Safe Restart” plan is an example of a thoughtful, holistic approach to restarting school. In addition to heeding advice about delaying the start of school to allow the current rate of positive tests to wane after South Carolina’s recent rise to the top, Charleston found creative ways to spread returning students out and implement mitigation strategies when they can’t. They are also offering parents the fully online option. As importantly, though, they have plans to assess each student’s level of performance so that teachers can target instruction to their individual needs. The district has already identified and purchased additional support resources to help teachers fill the anticipated gaps. Instruction to support the social and emotional learning needs has been planned and integrated into the curriculum. They’ve clearly thought about special circumstances for students with disabilities, early childhood, performance-based classes, and extracurricular activities. And, they have planned for teacher professional development aligned with these activities. Further, they have contingency plans in place for when circumstances change and a clear approach for monitoring data and information so that they can be agile in their response to changes when they do occur.
As students return to learning, whether in-person or online, district leadership, school administration, teachers, parents, and learners must understand that now more than ever, learning needs to be tailored to the individual needs of students. Standards-based timelines are plans for teaching the content, not the learners. A mastery-based approach focuses on making sure each student acquires needed knowledge and skills before progressing to the next stage of learning. Failing to ensure mastery is a house made of cards.
School boards and district leadership, have you developed comprehensive plans that are providing for your students' unique learning, social, and emotional needs, as well as their physical well-being? Are you prepared to support your students and staff with a mastery-based learning approach and the resources needed to support students where they are? If not, you are missing some essential school supplies.