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Imagine that it’s summer, 2022. The pandemic is a fading memory and data is being released from the first state assessments of student learning in three years.
What will the data tell us? Despite the best efforts of thousands of us in education, I am deeply afraid of the answer — and specifically what it will reveal along lines of race and class.
Educators are painfully aware of the task ahead of us, stretching ourselves to find solutions for the children and families we serve. I am one of those educators.
As executive vice president of the Great Oaks Foundation, I work closely with schools on a model built on high-dosage tutoring, which has demonstrated success in accelerating learning.
Public discourse has vastly understated the challenges of the new normal we will face when schools reopen in a few short weeks. I offer four causes for alarm.
We know that post-pandemic schooling is going to require a new approach. Still, the public discourse has vastly understated the challenges of the new normal we will face when schools reopen in a few short weeks.
I offer four causes for alarm.
First is student attendance. Far too often during remote learning, if a student logged in at all during the day, they were counted as being in attendance for the whole day. Clicking in once gave no indication of whether students were paying attention, doing schoolwork or learning.
At Great Oaks, we focused on how many students were online at least four times a day. We worked hard to keep this number above 80 percent. Few other schools I know of had this kind of measure, leaving a huge gap between official attendance during remote learning and meaningful student engagement.
This is more than unfinished learning. It means that a large number of students did not really attend school at all this last year and a half.
Second is trauma. As our students come back to in-person school, the extent of this year’s collective trauma — hunger, instability, substance abuse, violence and loss — will become clear.
Even in the best of times, schools have not been able to address all of these issues. They were not built to do so. Now, educators must manage their own trauma even as they prepare to support children. If we expect schools to handle this on their own, we will be sorely disappointed. Schools must be just one part of a communitywide response to support the holistic development of children.
Third is student enrollment. Many families are waiting to decide where to enroll this fall. Schools are waiting to figure out if they will grow or shrink. We can expect a late summer rush of final enrollments, which will limit educators’ ability to plan. The result? Many students will arrive in schools that don’t know they are coming and are unaware of their unique stories and needs.
Fourth is student achievement. Every educator I know who has looked at their internal data is worried sick about how many students have fallen behind, particularly those in families who struggled with financial, health and other issues during the pandemic.
The result will be a wider array of academic challenges and differences in every classroom — beyond what even the most expert teachers can handle on their own.
So what do we do? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the solutions must start with wraparound services that support not just our students, but their families as well.
Beyond school allocations, cities and states must invest additional dollars in community-based organizations, mental health services, hospitals and as many other effective partners as possible to meet the broader needs of families.
With those supports in place, schools can focus on understanding and supporting individual students. This year more than ever, we need to make sure that core effective practices are in place: For example, each student should be known well by a caring adult in the school, and every school should have a high-quality curriculum.
At the same time, we must find a way to do school differently. This will require utilizing the muscles we built in the pandemic to increase personalization. The pandemic fast-tracked the use of technology for teaching and learning. After years of discussing it, suddenly all our teachers developed significant skills, and our administrators created different schedules to support increased flexibility. We need to use that knowledge. For example, teachers have become adept at using videos to explain content as homework so that class time can be used to practice, refine, get feedback and improve.
We must also learn from decades of research on effective school models, including the small schools I helped open in New York City and a variety of national efforts.
Those models have much wisdom about what makes schools work, from effective teacher teams to project-based learning, social-emotional support and external partnerships. We must integrate these practices as broadly and quickly as possible.
We should also use high-dosage tutoring, in which a tutor provides consistent, in-school support to a small group of students. It’s a powerful tool to increase personalization and provide specific instruction to students. Importantly, tutors can also serve as near-peer mentors to help students persist in the face of challenges. And, for any young adult whose career was hit by the pandemic, becoming a tutor can be a win-win — making an impact and growing their career simultaneously.
None of these suggestions is a panacea. But if we can have a real conversation about what our students need, I hope we can have a real conversation about what it will take to meet the needs of all our children.
Josh Thomases is executive vice president of the Great Oaks Foundation, where he oversees support for schools and the high-dosage tutoring program known as the Great Oaks Fellowship.
This story about post-pandemic schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.