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With Schools Reopening Full-Time, What Pandemic-Driven Changes Will Last?

Get 7 story ideas to help you cover K-12 and higher education shifts that may have staying power.

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Despite the many hardships the pandemic caused, the COVID-19 disruption also sparked – or in some cases accelerated – changes to K-12 and higher education that leaders say should stick.

The speakers pointed to the power of flexibility, the need to focus energy and resources that will serve the “whole student,” and how increased outreach and new communication strategies with students and families could be transformative during a plenary at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar.

“This will be a new normal for us moving forward,” said Robert Vela, the president of San Antonio College. The two-year institution in Texas serves 35,000 students, two-thirds of whom are Black, Hispanic, or Native American.

“We doubled our levels of engagement in advising and counseling and academic support simply by providing [online] platforms and availability for our students to connect with our institution,” Vela said during the EWA panel. “Think about it as a lifeline that’s at … your fingertips to connect via your telephone or your lap.”

He added, “That was transformational. That’s when we knew we can’t go back to a pre-COVID normal.”

Rethinking relationships between educators and students, and providing more support, is also top of mind for Joshua Kim, the director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College.

“I don’t think we’ll think of teaching and learning the same way again,” Kim said at the conference. He co-authored a 2020 book, “Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education.”

Kim said, “The most important thing we can do as educators is to build these relationships with [students] as whole people. … We’re going to have to keep that mode of pedagogy, of caring for our students as we go forward.”

Keeping a Virtual Learning Option

Daniel Domenech, the executive director of AASA – the School Superintendents Association – highlighted a number of shifts at the K-12 level that may have staying power.

“A lot of our school districts already are talking about allowing virtual learning to continue, for parents to request it,” he said at the EWA conference.

The pandemic also may lead more districts to rethink the school calendar, Domenech said, and to embrace a competency-based approach to teaching and learning, where students progress at their own pace when they master material. (To learn more, watch this EWA webinar, “Will the Pandemic Propel Competency-based Education Into the Mainstream?”)

“What’s going to happen to Carnegie units [at] the high school level that require [students] to be in their seats for so many hours in order to get credit for a course?” Domenech said. “There are so many things that we do in education that this provides an opportunity to bring about change.”

In April, AASA unveiled a report that details its vision for reshaping public education: “An American Imperative: A New Vision of Public Schools,” based on work by a national commission of “thought leaders” in education and other fields.

Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), said she was struck by the way many families stepped up in new ways early in the pandemic shutdown.

“As districts were really struggling to pivot quickly,” she said, “I was watching the space where parents were jumping in and starting to solve problems and co-produced education for their kids.”

As an example, she pointed to The Oakland REACH, a parent-led group that seeks to empower families from underserved communities.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time talking to families and community organizations that have created pods and learning hubs,” Lake said, “sometimes in a very supplementary, complementary way to the virtual program that’s being offered by the district, but sometimes, really off the grid.”

Her research center is working closely with six school districts and local community groups that are “intentionally trying to use learning hubs to experiment with durable change,” Lake said.

In March, CRPE announced these plans. Oakland REACH created a virtual hub to deliver literacy instruction to children in the pandemic and, in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District, is expanding with a mix of in-person and virtual hubs that provide academic and social enrichment online, wraparound services, and even parent workshops.

Domenech said he, too, sees great value in deepening ties between schools and community-based organizations.

“We now have to open the gates and … work collaboratively with all of these community organizations,” he said. “That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to catch up by involving all of these community groups so that education takes place not only in the school, but after school, over the summer months.”

Pandemic Brings Glaring Inequities to the Forefront

One key thread in the conversation was how the pandemic brought to light inequities, including in education, in a clear and stark way.

“We’ve always known the differences that exist in our country between the haves and the have nots,” Domenech said, including disparities in education funding across school districts. One stark reflection of this, he said, was how some affluent school systems pivoted far more quickly and effectively to virtual instruction than others.

“We’ve been saying this for years: The inequity exists. What are we going to do about it?” Domenech said. “Well, now it’s glaring. Everybody is aware of it, and now hopefully, something will be done about it.”

The moderator, Erica Green of The New York Times, noted, “As an education reporter for a decade, I feel like a lot of what has been exposed we’ve been shouting from the rooftops and writing about forever.”

Three rounds of federal stimulus dollars for education approved over the past year – totaling some $280 billion – provide a unique opportunity to address the education recovery, try out new strategies, and reduce inequities.

Some of the pandemic-propelled changes involve simple but important matters to better serve students and families.

Lake pointed to “technology-enabled” strategies to foster stronger relationships between schools and families, such as virtual IEP meetings for students with disabilities, virtual parent-teacher conferences.

“Just easier ways to communicate, which has got to enable more individualization,” she said. And virtual learning on snow days.

Wraparound Services Needed

The speakers touched on ways schools and colleges should better support students, not only academically but also by meeting other needs, from ensuring they have adequate food to addressing social and emotional well-being.

“At the end of the day, we need wraparound services. We need academic support programs,” said Vela of San Antonio College, which in May received the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. “We have students with housing and food insecurity. We have mental health challenges with our students. If we don’t provide the services, we are going to lose those students.”

Dartmouth College’s Kim said it’s important to listen to students, and ask questions about their well-being. “What are your challenges? What can we do?” he said. “The whole institution needs to really be directed at providing the resources, the support, the flexibility for those students who have the biggest difficulties.”

Vela also highlighted examples of how San Antonio College aids students, including providing child care. In addition, students enrolled in about 30 “high challenge courses,” where many students struggle or drop out, are required to participate in one-on-one, peer tutoring.

“It needs to be prescriptive and needs to be intentional,” Vela said. “Take the word ‘optional’ out, and things really start to move.”

Spending Federal Stimulus Dollars

The panelists also discussed both wise and unwise uses of federal stimulus aid.

Expanded summer learning opportunities and after-school programming is a smart use, Domenech said.

“This is a great opportunity to hire tutors, to outsource programs that use the community to extend the day, to provide summer programs,” he said. “And by the way, spread the money over the three-year period. Don’t try to spend it all that one year.”

At the same time, Domenech cautioned against using the stimulus for across-the-board pay raises for teachers, given that the aid is temporary. “Teachers are underpaid,” he said. “But the way to [address] that is not with” one-time stimulus money but rather building it into federal and state formulas, he said.

“For us,” Vela said, “the smart use of the funds is to get that immediate resource to students, whether it’s monetary, whether it’s a specific service around housing or food insecurity or mental health or a crisis.”

Lake said she hopes that at the K-12 level, districts – which will directly receive most of the education-targeted stimulus dollars – will truly engage with parents and community-based organizations, and use the funds to drive innovative practices to better serve students.

“If the money doesn’t follow the innovators, then we have a real problem,” she said.

7 Story Ideas for Reporters:

The discussion surfaced a variety of compelling stories for education journalists to pursue in their own states and communities. Here’s a sampling:

  1. Follow the (stimulus) money: How are states, school districts, and higher education institutions spending the unprecedented amount of stimulus dollars for education? How are they engaging communities and families in that decision-making? How will they gauge the impact of investments?
  2. Will local school districts continue to offer virtual instruction as an option for families in the fall? What will that look like? How will they make sure the online program is on par with in-person instruction?
  3. Did learning pods and/or learning hubs emerge in your community during the pandemic? What are their plans for the long term? Are these efforts exacerbating inequities in education, or are they deliberately being tapped as a means to better serve disadvantaged families?
  4. Are local districts and higher ed institutions taking steps to ensure a more prepared pivot back to virtual learning if need be?
  5. International student enrollment has decreased at many higher education institutions. What are the short-term and long-term impacts of this on your schools and community?
  6. Are your local colleges or school districts planning to offer more wraparound services for students? Will they hire new staff or partner with community organizations? Will these efforts be financially sustainable?
  7. How did enrollment change at the colleges and universities in your community? Were some more successful in retaining students than others? If so, why?