There is no one answer for what the coming school year will look like, but it won't resemble the fall of 2019. Wherever classrooms are open, there will likely be some form of social distancing and other hygiene measures in place that challenge traditional teaching and learning. Future outbreaks will make for unpredictable waves of closures. Virtual learning will continue. And all this will happen amid a historic funding crunch.
American education has long been full of innovators practicing alternatives to the mainstream. When the giant, uncontrolled experiment of the pandemic rolled across the country, certain approaches proved their mettle in new ways. Here are some ideas that seem newly relevant given the constraints of 2020 and beyond.
1. Support families to help teach children.
Recently, parents told the U.S. Census Bureau that teachers were spending about four hours a week in online contact with their children, while they, the parents, spent an average of 13 hours a week helping children with schoolwork themselves.
The debate over equity in emergency remote learning during the pandemic has centered on the lack of equipment like computers and hot spots. But access to home support is arguably even more important. A national survey by the advocacy group ParentsTogether found big gaps by income in the ability to access emergency learning. When asked about barriers to children's participation, lower-income families who took the survey were more likely to name issues such as "school resources are too complicated" or "it's hard to get my child to focus" than they were to cite a lack of equipment.
"Never in the modern history of our education system has the importance of family engagement been more apparent," says Alejandro Gibes de Gac, the founder of Springboard Collaborative.
Springboard is a social enterprise that looks at families as the "single greatest resource" for helping struggling readers. In pre-pandemic times, it offered a series of hourlong workshops to family members, mostly in low-income communities, coaching them to set goals and practice specific reading concepts with elementary school-age children. In just five weeks, on average, 3 out of 4 of their participants get to the next reading level or even further. And these strategies work even though one-third of Springboard's parents, grandparents and other relatives are unable to access the text their child is holding, because of language differences, their own literacy gaps, or both.
Now that parent-assisted learning has become the default across the country, Springboard has created an app for the 10,000 families they already work with. They've offered professional development webinars for teachers, through unions and other organizations, on engaging families. And they've recently announced a partnership with Teach For America. This summer, 3,000 fresh TFA recruits will offer a remote version of Springboard's reading strategies workshop for up to 9,000 pre-K through fourth-graders nationwide.
Gibes de Gac is excited about the impact this experience will have, not only on families, but on the pre-service teachers themselves: "I expect to look back on this as a turning point in how America prepares teachers to partner with families not as a peripheral responsibility, but as the very essence of teaching."
2. Give teens one-on-one support.
In this time, as in previous educational disruptions, teenagers are most at risk for being knocked off course. One April survey found 4 in 10 U.S. teens weren't logging on to classes at all.
But not Christian Perez, 15, a sophomore at South Fort Myers High School in Fort Myers, Fla. He stuck with his schoolwork online even though his father, a plumber, sent him to stay with his family in Puerto Rico. "I want to keep up my grades so I can stay on the baseball team," Perez tells NPR, in Spanish.
His ESL teacher, Nelson Aguedo Concepcion, is the one who really kept him on track. "I'm in touch with my students two, three times a week," by text, phone, Google classroom and Zoom meetings, Concepcion says.
There are devoted teachers everywhere, but the relationship between Concepcion and Perez didn't come about by chance. South Fort Myers High School follows a dropout prevention program called BARR, which stands for Building Assets, Reducing Risks. The program, which is supported by randomized controlled trial evidence, focuses on building strong positive relationships between students and the adults in a building. It groups teachers and other professionals like counselors for weekly meetings where they compare notes and make plans to help students in trouble. Costs associated with the model are relatively small, related to scheduling and staffing. At South Fort Myers and other schools using the BARR method around the country, these regular meetings have continued over Zoom during the pandemic.
It's unusual for faculty in a high school to meet regularly to discuss student success, rather than curricula or administrative details. South Fort Myers High School Principal Ed Mathews credits BARR's "team approach" with helping his faculty keep the vast majority of his high school students engaged. "The first week that we did virtual education, we missed 350 students," Mathews says. "And then the following week we got it down to 125. And then the following week we got it down to two. And then out of the two we were able to get a hold of the one. And then unfortunately the other young lady was a runaway."
BARR is not the only education success model that prioritizes relationships. Marquise Pierre, 20, is finishing his degree at a small public "transfer" high school in Coney Island, N.Y., called Liberation Diploma Plus. Pierre tells NPR that on lockdown he hears from one of the faculty members every single day: "The school is more like a family than staff and students."
And in King County, Wash., 15-year-old Osvaldo Riva Santiago is staying motivated with the help of an incentive plan created by his education specialist, Dani Erickson. Erickson works for Treehouse, a nonprofit with a successful track record of helping foster youth like Santiago graduate from high school. Through Erickson's incentive plan, Santiago earns prizes, such as Amazon gift cards, for keeping up with his schoolwork and doing self-care activities, such as jigsaw puzzles. "She's been helping me emotionally," says Santiago.
3. Use online systems to assess, remediate and individualize learning.
One study of the "COVID-19 slide" estimates that children will be returning to school this fall with 70% of a typical year's reading gains and only half a year's gains in math. But those are averages; most experts believe we can expect to see much wider variations in progress than usual, because of equity gaps.
"Obviously going into this back-to-school, if you already had some variance pre-COVID, the variance is going to be that much larger," Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, the free automated learning site, tells NPR. "And we're going into a world where there's been no standardized testing this past spring. So there's even less information to go on in terms of where kids are and what they need."
Khan Academy has seen traffic nearly triple since the pandemic began. In a typical week, says Khan, 30 million students are now spending 80 to 90 million minutes practicing everything from multiplication to AP U.S. History. As students answer questions, the site tracks their progress, which allows teachers or parents to easily see what areas they need to work on.
Khan says his team is working on preparing what he calls "getting ready for grade level" courses for this coming fall. For students beginning sixth grade math, for example, the course moves quickly from basic arithmetic onward, in a combination of review and assessment. "The kids are learning, hopefully, while they're doing it, they're getting practice. But then over a few hours you can actually form, in some ways, a more granular view than you would in a traditional assessment."
Barry Sommer is director of advancement for Lindsay Unified School District, which serves Spanish-speaking migrant agricultural workers in California's Central Valley. The district has been lauded for its technology-driven approach where every student follows an individualized learning plan. Starting in 2016 it created a community Wi-Fi project, which meant when school buildings closed for the pandemic, there was little interruption in learning. Sommer says that what worked well wasn't just the technology but the social and emotional competencies that come when you create a culture of putting students in charge. "Our learners have agency. They're taught to set goals, be responsible and resilient. They transitioned really, really well."
4. Form microschools and home-school co-ops.
A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 60% of parents are "likely" to continue with home-based education through next year, and 30% said they would be "very likely" do so even if schools reopen. By contrast, about 3% of children have been home-schooled in previous years.
Some of these families will team up to share the work and allow children some safe company, or if budgets allow, even hire a teacher to help. Enter the coronavirus home-school co-op or microschool.
Matt Candler is the principal of NOLA Micro Schools in New Orleans, which currently plans to reopen in the fall as a one-room schoolhouse, with about 25 K-12 students, in a former cider house that allows ample space for social distancing. Candler says what defines a microschool from his perspective is not size alone, but a focus on empowering the learner to pursue their own interests, which made his school's transition to remote learning unusually smooth. For example, his high schoolers organized their own morning "huddles" online, where they share progress and goals for the day. "[Microschool parents] have greater trust in the child's ability to self-direct and the school's ability to adapt," he says.
Krystal Dillard is the co-director of Natural Creativity, a center for self-directed learning that supports home-schoolers, who generally attend between one and four days a week. She serves a diverse community in Philadelphia. She says the interest in the alternative they offer has exploded since the pandemic: "I can't tell you how many [traditional school] parents who have reached out to me to say, 'This isn't working. I don't feel that my young person is being served through this virtual learning world that they're sort of being forced into.'"
Parents are also forming networks and pooling resources to keep their kids happy, occupied and, hopefully, learning.
Homeschoolcoop2020.com is a site where children ages 6 and older can tune in to live video classes. It's volunteer-run and free. Karen Miller, a historian at LaGuardia Community College, started the project to help occupy her 12-year-old son. "What I found is that the things that were most helpful for me were the things that were synchronous because the asynchronous stuff required a lot of my attention and support." On Homeschool Co-op 2020, you can learn about the solar system, DNA or poetry, usually from practitioners in the field. But the most popular session — led by Miller's partner, Emily Drabinski, five mornings a week — is Cat Chat.
5. Take education outdoors.
Evidence suggests that coronavirus transmission is much less common outdoors.
A forest kindergarten is generally a group of eight to 10 children between the ages of 2 and 6 who spend the majority of their time outside. "We always trot out this phrase:, There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing," says Kimberly Worthington, president of the American Forest Kindergarten Association.
Worthington says there are currently about 60 forest kindergartens all over the country, most having formed since the early 2000s, based on a Northern European model. But interest in the idea is way up during the pandemic, says Worthington. "This pandemic has us all separated and in our homes. And just walking outdoors and getting a little bit of nature is so beneficial," she says. Plus, it's safer.
"There's more physical space for children to be together and learn together at a safe distance. And have less shared materials, because most of the materials for learning are natural objects. And I can safely say that there's no shortage of sticks."