Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD
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How to Prepare for Reopening Schools
Summer has barely started and we are already thinking about schools reopening in September. There are many unanswered questions about whether kids and staff can safely return to in-person schools for the year. Parents are already in a panic at the thought of school-from-home continuing into next year. There are many things that can be done to improve the education for children in the coming year, but we need to get started right away.
States and local school districts are struggling with balancing the need to provide kids with a robust education that takes place outside of the home while also making sure that schools are safe for everyone. Many child psychologists, myself included, are concerned about the impact on social, emotional, and academic skills if kids cannot return to schools. And I agree with others, children of color or those from low income communities are most at risk if we cannot return to in-person education.However, as critical as these things are, we cannot put children, teachers, and their families in harm’s way or re-open schools and offices too quickly and thus increase the number of infected people in our communities. That path will only lead to further lockdowns and that is not good for anyone.
So, are we stuck?
No, we are not stuck, but we do need to plan. Most people, parents and teachers alike, feel that remote learning was subpar this past spring for kids in grades K-12. And parents were completely overwhelmed with school and work happening from home at the same time. However, this pandemic caught everyone by surprise in February and March, and schools needed to create online education without any preparation.
But now we are forewarned. We know to expect that at least part of the year will involve remote learning for most children. Some schools will opt for hybrid models at the start of the year while other schools will try to begin with in-person classes. But one way or another, until there is widespread use of vaccines, schools are at risk for short or long term closures in the coming year. Everyone needs to get ready because we do not want a repeat of the challenges in education that we have just experienced.
We need to prepare starting now. It will be important for systems to be flexible and creative. Schools will also need to engage with parents at a much higher level and include them in the decision-making process. Schools need to be able to quickly shift from one model to another (in-person to remote to hybrid etc) as infection rates change within a community. Here are some essential components to keep in mind as we prepare for school in the Fall:
Start training teachers in remote learning. Districts should provide professional development, mentoring, and resources. Online education is not a new concept, but it is a skill that must be learned and practiced under supervision. Training an army of teachers in each district who will have an expertise in remote teaching is key to any success.
“De-densify” should be everyone’s new vocabulary word. In addition to wearing masks, people should not be in close contact with others for extended periods of time. If school buildings cannot provide space where teachers and students can have sufficient space, they should limit the number of people in each area. Overcrowding, even wearing masks, will be risky. Following the CDC guidelines will be essential.
Programs, such as summer day camps and out-of-school programs, can convert to become remote learning centers for children when they are not attending in-person classes. Schools that opt for a hybrid schedule can work with area programs to develop places where kids can safely go during the day for social experiences and support for their remote learning classes allowing parents to work and tend to family care.
Make sure all students (K-12 in every district across the country) have a usable device for online education. Electronic devices are as necessary as pencils. We cannot educate children without them.
WIFI should be considered a necessary utility (like water and electricity). Students and teachers need internet access. Without access, it doesn’t matter how much time a teacher takes to create a cute Google Doc because everyone needs to be able to see it.
Direct instruction is key. We have learned that providing assignments and pre-recorded videos is not a substitute for human interaction (even if that interaction is virtual). Children must have daily live contact with teachers regardless of whether education is provided online or in-person. Children cannot learn by themselves. They need direct instruction by trained teachers.
Increased social learning is needed to improve remote learning. Education in isolation is not the same as exploring, discussing, creating, and working with others to develop skills and learn concepts.
Frequent contact with parents is necessary to insure that children are actually receiving the education teachers are trying to provide. We need a paradigm shift in education. Teaching children needs to become a two-way street. It is not enough for teachers to provide packets of assignments and activities. Teachers need to provide instruction and parents need to communicate with teachers about what is working and what needs to be changed. There should be a constant feedback loop with weekly communication between teachers and parents.
Special education cannot be an afterthought. If children require a certain type of curriculum, instruction, or support in order to learn, then it does not matter if they are learning at home or at a school building. Schools need to provide the same amount and type of instruction under an IEP regardless of the educational setting. Modifications can be made to facilitate online learning but schools cannot abandon the IEP or reduce the services provided. In fact, many kids may need more services with online learning, not less. And the instruction must be face-to-face (virtual or onsite). Otherwise, kids who are already struggling academically will fall further behind
Although all of these items are critical, we cannot underestimate the emotional toll that pandemic learning has taken on children and families. Our kids faced innumerable losses and are living under health, economic, familial, and education stressors. This level of stress is tolerable in the short run but not for the long haul. We have abundant research on the effects of unmitigated stress on children as they develop. It is critical that we work to address the emotional impact on children or there will be lasting consequences.
I am encouraging parents to implement a 2-3 week transition plan, that will begin in August, to prepare children for a return to school (whether at home or in school buildings). Once schools begin, teachers should also provide direct instruction and support to address stress and anxiety in all students during the first few weeks of school. In addition, parents and teachers should evaluate children to determine who is most vulnerable and provide specifically designed counseling to minimize the impact of anxiety.
Most kids will have some way in which they exhibit stress and anxiety as they transition back to school. As adults, we must intervene quickly with the appropriate help. In addition to assessing for lost learning in academic subjects, all schools should provide assessments of social and emotional functioning which they monitor over time.
Addressing the social and emotional needs of children will be challenging. To a greater or lesser extent, children will experience a sense of anticipatory dread that schools will close again without warning. Behaviorists refer to this concept as one trial conditioning. Children have already had the experience of schools closing without any preparation and many will be waiting to see if the same thing happens again. This anticipatory anxiety can be seen in children’s behavior and we need to carefully assess and monitor signs of stress so that we can intervene quickly when needed.
Many kids, especially younger children, are already exhibiting the effects of being out of school for several months. The impact on both social and academic skills can be limited with appropriate steps.
Schools should be working to address all of these issues over the summer so that they are prepared to educate students next year, regardless of the setting. We have a long road ahead and we need to be proactive. Children cannot afford a lost year of education and parents, who have been heroic this past Spring, need more support from schools in the year ahead.
The path is clear and our children’s future is at stake. There is no time to wait.
If you would like more information or guidance on developing a school transition plan for your child, please send me an email using the contact tab.