Equitable access to meaningful learning is the way to build a brighter future. Ensuring that every young person has the opportunity to achieve their potential is not only the ethical imperative of our time, it is the way to prepare for the era of accelerating change that is now upon us. Empowering all of us as lifelong learners who act with purposeful agency, meaningful collaboration, and the ability to solve real-world problems is a shared purpose that brings us together during a time when we are physically separated and socially-distanced. In a time when we are politically divided, we must come together to support our youth.
The scope of the challenges for our young learners is unprecedented. COVID-19 has massively disrupted education, beginning last spring with the closures of schools across the world. While there were some attempts at “emergency remote instruction,” vast numbers of students were completely disconnected from school. This trend has continued in the fall, where K-12 school enrollments are down across the US and failure rates are gaining headline attention. New terms such as “learning loss” and “COVID-slide” are becoming commonplace as we are recognizing that there are going to be enduring adverse impacts if we do not make adjustments and design new systems of support.
The experience during COVID-19 has been described as having a “k-shape” meaning that some have had positive, growth-oriented opportunities. Others have had a downward trajectory and this variation is resulting in increasing inequality. Given current trends, this variation is likely to get worse during the winter as experts are projecting rising infection rates that are already at record levels.
For school leaders, the daily problem-solving and challenges related to health, safety, staffing, facilities, and communication are overwhelming. Yet school leaders must be looking forward and planning ahead. As we enter into the holiday season, it is hard to put our minds into any sort of futuristic headspace. With that said, if we want to actualize the promise of education and to ensure that every student has the opportunity for success, we need to be clearing the path now and reimagining how we might ensure meaningful engagement and learning for all.
One very likely change on the horizon is the opportunity for students to attend year-round school. After months of closures and disruption, adding summer learning is a common-sense strategy that can be supported by one-time revenue which we can anticipate in the form of federal stimulus funding or creative use of state finances. In short, we should be anticipating and preparing now for year-round school for the foreseeable future.
Having run summer programs throughout my career as an administrator, I know that there are well-established and familiar program options for summer school. I also know that the world has changed and that now is the time for us to reimagine what is possible. More urgently, we should be testing new models now through small trials in anticipation that they may be scaled more broadly during the summer.
I have previously shared the insight that the pandemic requires at least five models of schooling: full-distance learning, pods, microschools, hybrid, and full in-person options. Most schools have experience now with full-distance, hybrid, and in-person models. Now is the time to deploy a small number of pods and microschools, learn from those pilots, and be prepared to launch them more broadly to create year-round learning options.
For school leaders, here is what I recommend now:
- Identify one-time funds that can be used to plan, create, implement, and evaluate pilot programs for pods and microschool experiences.
- Use the funds to support a planning team, including administrators, teachers, classified staff, families, and students. The planning team should review district vision, mission, values, and goals to identify a clear set of learning outcomes and their plan must include an evaluation of success tied to those outcomes. Ideally the evaluation plan would also include surveys of all participants to get qualitative feedback.
- Develop a plan to be implemented between January and March to launch a small number of pods and/or microschools that would take place on Saturdays, intercessions, “ski week” or other non-student days.
- Set a “stock take” review at the end of March to determine and document lessons learned. Use these insights to develop a plan in April for summer program options that may include the full range of all five modes of schooling. Full-distance learning, pods, microschools, hybrid, and full in-person will likely be available options to expand access and opportunities for all learners.
The time to get started on this process is right now. By thinking ahead, we can set the path for meaningful learning for all students.
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