The largest group to remain remote when Palacios Independent School District reopened this fall in Texas? High school seniors.

That opened the eyes of Superintendent Bill Chapman, who knew many 12th graders worked jobs — even full time — and are sometimes the main breadwinners for their families. He realized allowing them to stay remote also let them to stay in school. And they were the most successful of all students who remained virtual, he said.

“That may change the way we educate our students,” Chapman told Education Dive. “Are we doing what’s best for kids by sticking them in the classroom all day long when the whole goal as a school is to provide a chance for kids to become contributing members of society?”

This fall, some districts have returned to in-person learning or hybrid schedules where students come in for a few days a week while learning remotely on others. Some students, like those in Chapman’s district, also decided to remain fully remote.

Many district leaders say the shifts made over the past several months to accommodate all options, both at the administrative and academic levels, are likely to remain after the pandemic wanes — and that these changes are for the better.

Tech adoption shifting curriculum delivery

Previously, Chapman said, a lot of his teachers weren’t using tech tools in the classroom. But now, the district is focused on making sure there’s a device for every student, and teachers seem less wary of handing them out — probably because they know students can handle them.

Palacios ISD’s seniors who are remote are a case-in-point, handling their responsibilities at school, including navigating online work and its requirements, with aplomb, he said.

“They’re taking care of business, logging in everyday, turning in assignments,” he said. “It’s kind of eye-opening.”

Remote learning may even transform when and where learning takes place during a single day. Robert Dillon, the director of innovative learning at the School District of University City in Missouri, said studies, such as a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, have shown students often need more sleep as they get older. Yet most schools start around 7:30 a.m., he said, with students needing to be up long before that to ensure they get to school on time.

Virtual learning shifts that model, allowing students to perhaps start morning classes from home or with asynchronous options that let them log in when they want or can. In this way, learners could log a bit more sleep,but maintain a full class schedule and show up to the school building later in the day.

“We have to return to a place that’s more flexible in how we schedule, and that includes kids starting and finishing the school day at different times,” Dillon told Education Dive. “We are definitely seeing benefits in schools where kids aren’t starting until 9 or 10 am. And we knew that. Now we have a huge data set that says start times can’t be based on when we have buses, which has been a huge factor.”

Online learning spuring ‘a pedagogical shift’

Shari Camhi, superintendent of the Baldwin Union Free School District in New York, also said technology is going to change the way her district teaches students. Particularly, these tools won’t be used to measure productivity necessarily, but to crack open barriers to new kinds of learning she’s seen flourish among students and teachers.

“The minute we weren’t standing in front of a row of students and what we asked students to do changed, the technology changed with it,” Camhi said. “The technology that supported independent learning, creative and collaborative learning all of a sudden became a commodity. So the use of technology and the way we use technology will absolutely stick.”

Camhi, who did her doctoral dissertation on learning and technology, said she is particularly excited to see student-led work expand, especially among upper grades where students go into Google and Zoom rooms to direct their own learning.

“Teachers are seeing students rise to the occasion, and students are taking charge of their learning, and I think that will stick,” said Camhi. “That’s a pedagogical shift.”

Learning environments evolving

Dillon said the way physical classrooms could change, up to and including the design of the school building. As facilities age and need updating, he said he thinks educators will reconsider what a learning space should look like — opting not to continue constructing rooms with desks. 

“There is a deep desire to really have spaces that are caring, that are compassionate, to students and teachers,” he said. “I think schools will transform their space to be where people come together to learn, and not so much classrooms going forward.”

Even the traditional concept of what happens in schools is open to reinvention, said Camhi. Take lunchtime, where students crowd into giant one-room spaces. Due to the coronavirus, some districts now have students eat lunch in their classrooms, while others continue to do so in cafeterias where they sit 6-feet apart.

And Camhi said while that social distancing is certainly safer, it’s also been appreciated by children. Older students, for example, have been allowed to eat in the cafeteria in her district, but in a socially distanced environment, they often spend that time listening to music and podcasts, “enjoying the quiet time,” she said. And while younger students eat lunch in their classrooms, that’s also less chaotic.

“The kids get along and there’s less disruption,” she said. “It maintains a family environment.”

Families better preparing for home support

Families are also getting renewed attention for their involvement with their students over the past eight months.

Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington, saw the way families stepped up to help support their children’s education throughout the pandemic. And that’s a connection she said she’s determined to maintain.

At the district level, that will means communicating weekly with families, emphasizing translation and interpretation services, and focusing on supporting home internet access. Enfield also wants to encourage parents to constantly reach out to teachers and principals, even the ombudsperson in the district, when they need help and support.

“Families realized how much they need to partner with their child’s teacher, and teachers with families,” Enfield said. “I’d like to see the two continue that, and I sense we are engaging with families in a more genuine and less formal way. I would hate to lose that coming out of this.”

Chapman also wants to see that connection between families and schools maintained. He’s seen, for example, the way video conferencing has helped get people together. He said he’s even seen attendance rise among certain school teams, as members no longer have to drive to meetings but attend online.

That’s why options like videoconferencing, for example, may help parents check in more often with teachers, whether for an informal update or a formal parent-teacher conference. For parents, having meetings while still at the office or at home with a younger child will be easier than finding a babysitter, leaving work early and getting in a car to drive to the school, educators say.

To Chapman, these changes happened rapidly because they had to. But now they may stick around because they’re  the better choice.

“There are things we had to do the same way because that’s how it was always done,” he said. “We’re creatures of habit, and maybe we were resistant. But COVID has made us do different things differently.”

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