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Our country is shifting before our eyes, from a global pandemic and a movement for racial equity, and it’s time to rethink and recenter what’s important.

Just like with any major historical event, we will have to adapt and look to the future. And that, for me, means how we approach education. While we don’t know what this next school year will look like, there are a few things that are certain: it will be challenging and there will be a lot of unknowns. But on the upside: unknowns can spark innovation.

In Chicago, where I teach, we recently learned that our first semester will be entirely virtual. With cases on the rise locally right now, going virtual is the right decision for the safety and well-being of teachers, students and families. Even so, none of this will be easy.

I worry about hurdles my 12th grade students may face as we return to remote learning.

We’ve made progress in making sure students have computers, but some may still not have access to reliable internet. Then there’s the family aspect: some students are taking care of younger siblings. Some have had a death in their families. Some of their parents have lost work. As all this mounts up, how will these factors impact their learning and grades? How do I keep high expectations for my students while acknowledging and helping them process their trauma?

“How do I keep high expectations for my students while acknowledging and helping them process their trauma?”

This is my reality. And so many other teachers. Yet though everything may seem bleak right now, there’s always hope in the darkness. Even amid my worries, I’m excited to further hone this new way of teaching and develop tools for asynchronous learning, which offers students the flexibility to learn in real-time and at their own pace.  If we can meet students where they’re at, we can better meet their needs.

Related: Schools will look radically different during a pandemic. We want to see your photos and videos of what’s changed.

I would categorize my teaching last spring as “emergency teaching,” as our school routines changed abruptly in a matter of days. I don’t know anyone who felt equipped to jump to remote learning effectively overnight. As I’m preparing for another round of distance learning, I’m now able to reflect on what can be done differently.

This summer, I completed a project-based learning professional development course that taught me techniques on creating curricular materials that emphasize collaborative learning, intellectual inquiry, and student ownership of projects and how to make it all work in a virtual setting. 

I can use this approach this semester to have my students examine historical events through multiple perspectives. As Covid-19 disproportionately affects Black communities, my students will analyze how difficult times can be a catalyst for societal change. They will also have the opportunity to analyze the differences in how various people and communities experience historical events.

We shouldn’t ignore that distance learning can’t replace in-person learning or that our most vulnerable students nationwide will be the hardest to reach during this pandemic. In fact, more than half of teachers nationwide are concerned about their students’ learning loss. But we need to shift our mindset: Instead of guessing when we’ll be able to head back to our classrooms full-time, we need to center our discussions on what supports teachers need right now for their students.

Related: What if public schools never reopen?

That starts with federal funding. It’s in our national interest for students to have access to an equitable education, no matter who they are or where they live. We are investing in our country’s future. Yet, we’re falling short.

Experts say between $175 and $245 billion dollars in federal resources is needed for students to get the education they deserve, which is only a portion of what has been allocated. Federal funding, however, shouldn’t be distributed with a one-size-fits-all approach: flexibility on the local level will be paramount.

School communities need to be able to fund what their students and teachers most need right now, whether it’s more instructional coaches, professional development, or parent engagement efforts.

We need to think long term.We don’t know when a vaccine will be ready or when it might be safe to return to the classroom. I’m nervous about all the unknowns, but I am also determined to embrace new ways of teaching to reach our kids in a time when they need us most.

Regardless of what this school year brings, in June, my students will begin their lives as young adults. We need their fresh perspectives and bright minds to lead the path forward. 

This story about high school in Chicago was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Devin Evans is a 12th-grade literature and history teacher at Butler College Prep Charter High School on Chicago’s far South Side. He graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in Social Science Education and History and is a member of Educators for Excellence.

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Devin Evans is a 12th-grade literature and history teacher at Butler College Prep Charter High School on Chicago’s far South Side. He graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in Social Science...

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