Districts and schools must be prepared to be flexible and ready to pivot if circumstances change significantly. For this reason, districts and schools must plan not only for in-person learning, but also hybrid learning models (in which students learn in-person for some of the time and remotely for some of the time), and also full remote learning. Remote learning may be a necessary option in the fall for some students who are unable to return to school due to underlying medical conditions and potentially for all students if COVID-19 forces widespread school closures in the future. (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Reopening Guidance)
As the school year was ending, I began to hear “this whole ‘distance learning thing’ doesn’t work for my child.” Statements like this make me sad. As an adult, I know that many situations in my life “don’t work for me;” I’m left, each time, with a choice–accept the non-working situation as is, or change the part of it that I can change. What is never a true option is to say “this doesn’t work for me” and to sit back from there. It makes me sad to think about lost opportunities to help students think about what is working for them–a later start time, a shorter school day, having the choice to unmute or to use the chat so participation doesn’t involve a visual, doing work from your bed, having your pet “in school” with you, snack whenever you want!
It’s also a chance to think about what made school in a brick-and-mortar setting work. Prior to COVID-19, I doubt any middle school student ever thought about what he or she would miss about brick-and-mortar school in the event of an extended absence from school! I have had the most unlikely students tell me, unprompted, that they miss school. Why? What do you miss? Why do you miss what you miss? What lessons can you (as a student) take away about your own learning that you can apply as we return to brick-and-mortar education? What can you take away from it if we return to a hybrid structure? How can you make (even) better choices if we return to a remote situation?
How can we use this as a time for learning and growth? This NY Times article came to me through my Quaker meeting. It asks the challenging question–can you gather with God over Zoom?–and comes to the conclusion that, yes, you can. With ingenuity and flexibility and a deeper and wider understanding of what it means to gather, yes. I would ask a similar question of distance learning, then. Can we teach our children to find learning in what felt like the chaos of remote emergency education? Can we use this time, as their parents and teachers, to help students learn about themselves, to identify their areas of need, not to end there, but to seek ways to grow in those areas of need? Can we use this time to identify their strengths, across all learning situations, not just the one, in-person school, that we are accustomed to?
As parents, perhaps we have had a chance to see our children with different eyes during this time of the pandemic. What insights has remote emergency education given you into your child as a person and a learner? What are things that you would work on with your child because he or she will need stronger skills in these areas as an adult? How can you use this time of COVID-19 as a time of experimentation to identify new areas of strength in your child academically, socially, and behaviorally? What information can teachers share with you since they are now seeing your child in a different light as well? What are things that did not resonate with you in the past that you, in your new role of parents-as-teachers, are now seeing? What new aspects of partnership with school would you like to carry forward into your child’s educational experience?
I believe one piece of learning in all of this is that relationships are critical. I loved seeing my kids show up in Zoom each week, even when they didn’t turn on their videos. What can we learn from teaching adult learners? I had the privilege of teaching a graduate class for teachers and staff at a virtual school this year. I found that lots of individual phone calls and a (failed!) Blackboard session (the video never did turn on) added a powerful dimension to my relationships with the teachers, especially when assignments were a struggle. In the course feedback, more than one teacher recommended that I consider having some live sessions….interesting! In reflecting on that feedback, I realized that, when I taught this course in person, we had always offered optional check-ins during the summer, but I had not continued this practice in the virtual course. I see, again, the power of connection. I’m reminded of the fact that, for the past few years, I have tried to call every parent at the start of the school year. It’s a HUGE project and one that is often hard, but it does pay dividends. When I think about starting the 2020-2021 school year, in whatever form, I think I will need to find ways to reach out individually to both parents and students so we can begin the year working together to make it a year of growth, learning, and hope.