online graduation ceremony
PHOTO: Mohammad Shahhosseini

Move over New Math and Common Core: some of the most disruptive educational trends of their time have now been dwarfed by our current pandemic issues. As before, we look to our educational professionals to help us adapt. How are teachers helping to manage our collective societal stress while dealing with their own personal impact? What is the role for technology in the equation, and what lies ahead for our teachers, the students and their parents?

3 Generations and a Pandemic

I am far from objective when it comes to our educational system. I studied to be a teacher and hold a dual masters degree in mathematics and education, though I ultimately pursued a business career in technology. 

While I hold strong opinions, they are informed by current stats and studies like the NBC News report on the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic, which profiled teachers across the US. Since this is a subject that at the end of the day is highly personal, I also interviewed members of my own family that I am proud to say includes three generations of educators.

Great Teaching Depends on Great Teachers

Notwithstanding the COVID-19 crisis, teachers have always been the anchor of our educational system. Each and every one of us can point to a teacher who inspired us along the way.

“Studies show that great teaching is the most important booster of student achievement—of larger consequence than class size, money spent, the school building, and quality of textbooks.”  — A Timely Tribute to Teachers

Now the pandemic has upended the educational ecosystem as we know it. Students and parents are trying to adjust to what many are calling our “next normal,” and relying on teachers to help us evolve. Technology will need to be there for the assist, from smartboards and iPads to Zoom and the internet, but it will be our teachers who have to lead us through.

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What a Difference a Year Makes

Just a year ago, Lisa DeLorenzo was applying her associate degree in early childhood education as an intervention specialist. “I was participating as a reading para (paraprofessional educator responsible for concentrated assistance) in an exciting pilot for my school district. I could truly see the difference we were making in our students’ lives,” she said.

Now the district has endured significant layoffs and the pilot is no more. Ironically, the same pandemic circumstances that eliminated Lisa’s role have created a demand that did not exist a year ago. In another district where Kindergarten classes once held in person daily are now hybrid, Lisa is now supporting classes at a private daycare center for the days that students are not in their public school classroom. This is fortunate for the students in her current class, but she is highly concerned about those left behind.

Finding a New Model

In fact the financial uncertainties of the pandemic, as is often the case, are impacting urban districts to a greater degree. Yet each and every student is suffering from what is at best, an unsettling and at worst, a chaotic situation.

As a recent graduate of the College of Saint Rose with a dual degree in special education and elementary education, Sarah DeLorenzo is helping her students navigate a transformed school day. A year ago, Sarah was teaching 100% in person classes, interacting 1:1 and pulling students into groups for learning sessions. Now she spends her days on a computer, as do her students. Every student in her district received a computer and internet service to support virtual learning, and teachers were given tech workshops. Sarah’s perspective is that funding and technology, though important, cannot fully serve the students:

“We cannot continue to use the same approach as we did last year and the year before, while expecting students to sit on a computer all day. We will need to create a new teaching model.”

That new model will certainly need to extend to virtual and hybrid learning environments. At the same time it is imperative that we find safe and effective ways to get our children back into schools.

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Class Is in Session

According to the United Nations policy brief, "Education During COVID-19 and Beyond," the pandemic has created “the largest disruption of education systems in history,” impacting nearly 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries. While governments around the globe grapple with how to provide a quality education to children in the midst of a long-term crisis, school closures caused by the pandemic have exacerbated the already existing educational inequality.

Veteran educator Chuck Smith agrees and, though he believes strongly in the resilience of children, he said we need to prioritize getting back into our schools as soon as possible for the sake of our students and their parents. Smith holds a bachelor degree in education and a masters in education administration, and was one of the founding fathers of ESSAA (Empire State Supervisors and Administrators Association.). While now retired, Smith stays in touch with a wide group of colleagues — both teachers and administrators — across multiple districts. His observation:

“Virtual is not a good model for the vast majority, especially in urban districts. Many teachers cannot or choose not to adapt to virtual teaching, students are lost and cannot overcome the loss of personal interaction, and families simply do not know how to support.”

Relationships matter and so does a return to “normalcy.” Smith’s more than 40-year career as a respected educator, first as teacher and then as administrator, has shown that personal relationships drive learning and students find comfort in the familiar. While we find our way through the current crisis to a new model, we need to keep this in mind.

One New Jersey school district couldn’t agree more, as captured by this Washington Post article that notes the loss of sports, proms and graduations and now laments that the snow day is on track “to become another beloved tradition struck down by the virus.”  When students don’t have to leave home for instruction, aided by the rapid embrace of remote learning, inclement weather becomes inconsequential for school-day operations. But the school administration in the Mahwah Township Public School District have staked out a firm pro-snow-day stance, issuing this statement:

“We have decided that few childhood acts remain unchanged due to COVID-19 and we will maintain the hope of children by calling actual snow days due to inclement weather. Snow days are chances for on-site learners and virtual learners to just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books and watching a good movie.”

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Heads and Hearts

We need to keep a strong focus on the “whole student” as we deal with the pandemic crisis and hopefully as we transition to our future model learning environment. Perhaps our best transformation successes will come by combining technical teaching methodology with cultural sensitivity — a focus on student EQ (emotional intelligence) as well as IQ.

The Kairos Academies may well have found a key element of this new model for us all. Founded by two former teachers, Schiffres and Krewson, this St. Louis charter middle school is a “personalized learning” public school with a vision to have children learn in an environment that reflects the real world: year-round classes, a 9-to-5 day with self-directed scheduling, personalized project-based assignments, and more unstructured time than traditional schools.

Perhaps most critical, the Kairos vision echoes a point made well by Smith on the importance of relationships to effective learning: the Kairos model recognizes that teaching must address both the heads and hearts of students and includes a life coach approach for each student. As a recent Today Show segment on Kairos reported, “According to one survey, 87% of teens say the coronavirus has added stress or anxiety to their lives. But one school in St. Louis aims to help students meet that challenge by pairing them with life coaches, through a model they implement along with nearly 400 schools across the country, via their participation in the Summit Learning program.”

The Role of Technology

Of course digital technology will help take us forward. In my July 2019 CMSWire article "The Google Ate My Homework: What’s New in EdTech" I wrote, “Depending on your perspective, EdTech impact is on the rise and should be heralded or EdTech has missed the mark and should be sent to detention. Either way, the educational technology market — and indeed our schools, educators and students — have come a long way .…”

In her New York school district, Sarah DeLorenzo sees a silver lining to some of the forced advances in applying technology. For example, “recording sessions as we digitally deliver them means they are available on demand and increased use of virtual learning technology will be helpful to make our students more comfortable with tech overall.”

A recent EdTech article highlights successes at Davenport University in Michigan, where a critical element has been the transition to a blended learning model designed to provide students with improved flexibility and accessibility — an effort that actually predates the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to remote learning.

“As a result, students can shift between learning modalities depending on their individual needs and comfort levels,” according to Brian Kowalczk, a Davenport faculty member in the school’s college of technology.  

Finding the Path Forward

The pandemic truly disrupted all aspects of the education system. Financial support was unclear, as were requirements for returning to school in person or providing virtual or hybrid class scenarios. Local administrators and teachers had no guidelines or even guardrails to help them put together an effective plan; they were left to figure it out on their own. Parents had even less guidance.

All these challenges will need to be overcome, but the best of our education professionals are up to the test. As a result of the pandemic we are seeing the pool of teachers changing with increased early retirements and perhaps a different profile for those who now decide to go into the profession. As Smith so aptly notes, “While this crisis has been devastating, it will open an opportunity for the 'next generation' of professionals to make a difference.”

5 optimistic predictions for our next normal in education:

  1. Back to school will be a priority. We are already seeing some countries prioritizing opening schools over businesses, and pressure will increase to create at least a hybrid model as the norm.
  2. Planning teams will extend beyond administrators. The pandemic was a shock that administrators had little time or precedence upon which to base their plans. But as they regroup and examine the path forward, planning teams will include all stakeholders including teachers, students and parents.
  3. Guidance, funding and support will increase from nonprofit organizations. The lack of preparedness from formal government entities in the crisis will inspire educational organizations to take a stronger role. This will help the chaotic financial situation to reach a new steady state and special attention will be paid to those underserved.
  4. Higher education will be forever changed, for the better. The pandemic forced universities to recognize long-standing issues like spiking tuition costs. As a result, interim measures will be made permanent. This includes the shift to online classes but also an increase in work-study programs, making colleges more relevant in the long-term.
  5. EdTech will focus on delivering student-centric learning. Taking a page from consumer and business tech, educational technology will focus on a holistic user experience that includes many-to-one, one-to-one and collaborative learning models.

Author’s Note: Sincere appreciation goes to three generations of dedicated and talented educators in my family for their contributions to this article. Thank you to my favorite teachers: my friend and favorite brother in-law Chuck Smith, his daughter and my niece Lisa DeLorenzo who taught me everything I know about cooking (every teacher has their failures), and granddaughter, daughter and great (in every sense of the word) niece Sarah DeLorenzo.