Before each new school year, educators and administrators must strategize new approaches, assess the efficacy of old solutions, and chart a course for students and teachers that considers a constantly changing landscape.
Following years of upheaval, preparation for the 2022-2023 school year presents unique challenges. We spoke with school leaders about how they’re preparing for the next school year and how they’ve approached ongoing challenges from COVID. Read on to learn their insights and how you can apply the lessons they’ve learned to your school or district.
School leaders’ biggest takeaways from COVID's impact on schools
For the educators we spoke to, COVID completely changed the educational landscape—and those changes will be long-lasting.
For one thing, COVID highlighted both the importance of schools and the need for adequate education funding.
“Schools are a critical component in societies,” said Amy Grosso, PhD, Director of Behavioral Health Services at Round Rock ISD in Texas. From daily meals to mental health services to medical screenings, Grosso said that the experiences of the pandemic proved that schools provide students with far more than just education.
Anthony Padrnos, Ed.S., Executive Director of Technology at Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota, agreed: “COVID highlighted [and] amplified the disparities that existed in our system and created a greater prioritization of resources towards strategies that have an impact in reducing those disparities.”
But he said the pandemic also helped all educators re-assess how they teach—and showed the potential of instructional technology to create personalized learning for all students.
In the same vein, Steven Langford, Chief Information Officer at Beaverton School District in Oregon, said, “We need to not ‘get back’ to learning prior to COVID, but take what we have learned to design new ways for students to learn.”
Teachers, students, and administrators rapidly implemented and adopted new devices and methodologies for remote and distance learning on a never-before-seen scale. “The speed and scale of change reset our assumptions of what was possible and how fast we could accomplish change,” said Langford.
But there are still changes students are adjusting to.
Nicole Allien, Instructional Technologist at Caddo Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, said that transitioning back to the routines of in-person education has been a challenge for students, many of whom grew accustomed to the greater flexibility of learning from home.
“Since the return to in-person instruction, we have seen issues similar to those found in any district across the country,” she said. “We’re still working with our teachers on ways to provide opportunities to be successful in this new normal.”
As this shift in the learning environment continues, Allien notes Lightspeed Classroom Management™ has helped with that transition. “Classroom has provided more opportunities for our teachers to have firmer boundaries and expectations as it relates to student interaction with devices and technology. We can be proactive instead of reactive.”
Initiatives districts implemented during the height of COVID and remote learning that they’re planning to keep
For all the initial challenges COVID presented to the learning environment, it also showed the potential virtual learning offers to schools. And the educators we spoke with agreed that virtual in some form is here to stay.
“COVID removed limitations in our thinking about how to support students and parents when they are not physically in school,” said Langford.
For example, to make family access more equitable, schools are moving to make virtual—rather than in-person—parent education sessions permanent.
“We had such a better response to parent education sessions when they were virtual and this is something we will continue to do,” said Grosso. “Parents can jump on a virtual session so much easier than physically going somewhere. I really feel this increased access.”
Other schools noted keeping online learning options available for their students.
“Even after most classes returned [to] face-to-face, our district implemented an All-Virtual Academy,” said Ethan Dancy, Technology Support Manager at Iredell-Statesville Schools in North Carolina.
Padrnos said Osseo Area Schools will keep their full-time online school at their district. “The full-time online school provides scholars an opportunity to engage in a learning environment that best meets their needs,” he said. “It provides options for families as they look at what learning for their students looks like and [what] supports them [best].”
Other lasting initiatives include:
- The implementation of IT help desks for students
- In-person tech helpdesks for both students and staff
- Emphasis on creating and maintaining a Learning Management System
- The adoption/reimagining of SEL plans
Districts look ahead as ESSER begins to end
Schools worked strategically to apply ESSER funds to their most immediate pandemic-related needs, while also trying to create change that wouldn’t necessarily be dependent on them once that funding dried up.
“Preference has been given to using the funds to bridge pandemic-related gaps,” said Kirk Langer, Chief Technology Officer at Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, “rather than creating conveyors to cliffs by making purchases that cannot be sustained without the funds.”
As ESSER funding winds down, schools are assessing which programs have worked and which have fallen short of goals. That has led some districts to look for alternate funding sources for successful programs. When possible, districts are looking to incorporate the most effective programs into their operating budgets going forward.
The educators we spoke with said that moving forward after ESSER will involve complex analysis and discussion weighing the relative success and failure of each program against the goals of the district, each department, and even each content area.
How have schools been addressing COVID’s impact on learning loss?
To tackle unfinished learning because of disruptions in recent years, schools have had to find ways to reach those students who were most greatly impacted.
Accurate assessment and pre-assessment of students has been an important first step toward ensuring that teachers can provide the most effective interventions and learning extensions going forward.
Then, seeking new ways to reach those students outside of traditional school hours. This includes:
- Earlier start dates
- After school tutoring
- More robust summer programs
- Expanded school calendars
Some schools have noted that additional social and emotional support for students has been critical to addressing learning loss. Others have said directing funding to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and to minority students has helped their schools get support for those who were affected most by COVID.
What are districts’ top priorities for the 2022-2023 school year?
Mental health was a major focus for many of the educators we spoke to.
“Safety, security, and mental health,” are top of mind for the coming school year, said Dancy, summing up what many school leaders we spoke to said. To address this, schools are investing in:
- Support programs
- Extended summer programs
- Renewed focus educating and supporting the “whole” student
- Rolling out SEL programs to further support students’ mental health and wellbeing
Teachers were another area of concentration for the school leaders we talked to.
Allien said Caddo Parish is “investing heavily in our teachers so we can invest heavily in our students.”
For the schools we talked to, that investment means:
- Additional teaching training in math and ELA content
- Instruction from model peers
- Workshops on strong pedagogy and content strategies