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Last summer, as the Monterey Peninsula district in California planned to go back to school, homeless students quickly became a major focus.

Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh worried about the 200 students without stable housing or the internet. How could they access learning opportunities like everyone else if school remained remote?

The months since the pandemic have spotlighted many such inequities within the district, helping Diffenbaugh’s team see more clearly where they needed to focus when designing a back-to-school experience that could work for students with few resources.

That’s why, when Monterey reopened with remote learning in August, students without homes gained access to supplies and laundry machines as well as a safe physical space to learn.

What happened in Monterey could serve as a powerful lesson for other school systems.

Monterey is one of seven districts participating in a national cohort that has been planning more equitable and resilient approaches to teaching and learning — both for going back to school and for long-term sustainable change.  This network of learning communities, called the Always Ready For Learning Strategy Lab, is  working together to develop school system strategies.

Over the past few months, some of these districts have had their communities threatened by wildfires or had to rebuild after one of the severe storms known as derechos. Covid disproportionately impacted communities of color in this group.

Over the past few months, some of these districts have had their communities threatened due to wildfires or had to rebuild after one of the severe storms known as derechos. Covid disproportionately impacted communities of color in this group.

Related: Teaching among the ashes: It’s not just your house that burned, it’s everyone’s’

All have gone back to school — some fully remote, some via hybrid models that combine remote instruction with in-person learning. In doing so, they are demonstrating resilience and advancing equity in ways that truly improve teaching and learning for all students.

Here are six takeaways from Strategy Lab districts’ back-to-school plans:

  • Prioritize who gets access to in-person learning. When districts made difficult decisions to start school fully remotely, they knew it would be especially challenging for students without stable homes as well as those who needed special services. In response, districts prioritized which students could come in for socially distanced in-person learning. Monterey Peninsula partnered with local nonprofits to provide hundreds of students with space and support to participate in remote learning.  Districts like Indianapolis are also moving toward a variety of hybrid models, with leaders prioritizing which students will be first to return to in-person learning, including those with special needs, the unhoused, and the youngest learners.
  • Get crystal clear on learning objectives. Schools must always set a high bar for rigorous learning, and during the chaos of Covid it has been especially important to have a clear focus on what matters most. Districts like Austin have prioritized a subset of learning standards within each grade, and others like Indianapolis have developed pacing guides that revisit standards from prior years while also ensuring each student accesses grade-level learning. At Phoenix Charter Academy Network in Massachusetts, course loads were decreased to two classes at a time so students could deeply focus and accelerate their progress.
  • Make learning more targeted and available anytime, anywhere. As students continue to learn remotely, many districts have incorporated asynchronous models, where students learn at different times. In Indianapolis and in Austin, Texas, such models meant teachers could lead more small-group instruction, precisely targeted to the unique learning needs of students, instead of trying to meet the needs of 30 students in a classroom all at once. Phoenix students are now able to progress out of courses once they show competence, regardless of time constraints.
  • Know how each student is progressing. Districts recognize that assessment does not have to be rigid or punitive, but can — and should — be flexible and help deepen and motivate student learning. In going back to school, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, stuck to traditional schedules of formal assessments, as did Indianapolis and Monterey. They also increased flexibility in assessments, with a broader definition of assessment that includes other forms of evidence beyond a formal test.
  • Attend to each student’s comprehensive needs. Student’s social and emotional needs must be met, so districts have built ways to foster culture and community virtually. Indianapolis, Monterey, Cedar Rapids and Austin all carved out morning meetings, community circles and advisory groups during remote learning, establishing new routines and expectations. Phoenix paired each student with a caring adult who helps monitor the pupil’s well-being. Districts are also helping students develop skills to thrive in remote, asynchronous contexts and develop individual learning plans.
  • Include stakeholders in the process. Unprecedented times require rapid decision-making, but districts have also strived for transparent and inclusivedecision-making. Indianapolis, Monterey and others established clear reopening frameworks to keep all stakeholders well-informed. Strategy Lab districts sought direct input from their communities as well, engaging with  some stakeholders as co-planners. Renton, in Washington State, connected with parents to inform them of district plans and convened educators to collaboratively design learning plans, while Phoenix established task forces focused on instruction, safety, operations and culture and collected feedback from the broader community.

Over the coming months, Strategy Lab districts will work with those with a major stake in the outcome — students, teachers, and the community — to help consider and decide what an equitable, resilient future will look like.

The back-to-school experiences these districts have designed, in the face of extreme challenges, offer glimmers of what more equitable and resilient teaching and learning can look like for all of us.

Lauren Schwartze is a senior associate partner with  Bellwether Education Partners  in the Strategic Advising practice area, which advises leaders and organizations on their most pressing strategic and operational issues.

Nate Kellogg is a partner at The Learning Accelerator, a national nonprofit working to connect educators and leaders with the knowledge, tools, and networks they need to transform education.

The Always Ready for Learning Strategy Lab is a networked learning community from The Learning Accelerator, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners, working to accelerate the development of a more resilient and equitable education future.

This story about Always Ready for Learning Strategy Lab was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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