Education in a post-COVID-19 world: Technology to play prominent

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When schools shut down, Peoria Unified School District hustled to adjust to the situation, delivering more than 5,000 laptops to students who needed them while training teachers to educate in a fully online environment.

Since then, the district has pivoted toward an unchartered new normal, but what will this new face of public education look like, both in the short and long term?

There are still many questions left to be answered, and some experts say now is the time to usher in a new way of educating students.

PUSD officials and educators across the state are working together to formulate what the 2020-21 school year will look like, and how the “classroom” of the future will take shape.

Finishing this school year

With the official end to this school year nearing quickly, many schools are still facing different obstacles and challenges, meeting immediate needs, managing school closures and planning for summer school.

Heidi Vega, spokeswoman with the Arizona School Boards Association, said each district has their own specific obstacles they are dealing with but most districts are waiting to hear from the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for direction before back to school plans are made.

Ms. Vega said many member districts are concerned about the learning gaps some students will face returning to schools in August.

“What we are hearing are discussions regarding sustaining extended learning until end of school year, and plans for summer classes, credit recovery, graduations, commencement/promotion ceremonies, etc.,” she said. “Many member districts are trying to sustain the extended learning models as of right now which may look different in every school district community.”

Next year

Task forces across the state are being created to formulate plans for the coming year, as well as future health disruptions.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has created a task force to discuss the reopening of schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

This group will work together to develop a framework for the future —  guidelines for how schools can safely resume operations in the coming months.

The first meeting was held May 1.

The task force is working with the Arizona State Board of Education, the Arizona Department of Health Services, and the governor’s office. It is made up of educators, principals, school nurses, superintendents, charter organization leaders and education stakeholder groups, along with input from parents.

The group will first develop guidance and identify which essential supports will be needed for the new school year, with its initial guidance to be completed by the end of May. The group will also focus on recovery planning, tracking schools’ on-going needs, and strengthening infrastructure for distance learning, with a focus on technology for all students.

“While it is impossible to predict the future of this virus and what our public health situation may look like in July or August, teachers and schools must have a roadmap in order to safely plan for different contingencies,” Superintendent Hoffman said in a statement. “This group is committed to supporting students, educators, families, and school leaders as we navigate the ongoing COVID-19 situation together.” 

Closer to home, PUSD officials have created a number of task forces to consider the pandemic as a whole, including one to deal specifically with the challenge of the new school year.

Deputy Superintendent Jason Reynolds said the group is specifically focused on the physical and social emotional well-being of students and staff, as well as the academics of all grades, and what a new online learning platform might look like in Peoria schools.

He said the group is focusing on three areas as to how the new school year could look: a somewhat normal, pre-pandemic situation with some social distance parameters, a blended model with students coming to school in small groups with students learning face-to-face as well as online, or lastly a similar scenario to what is happening right now, largely online-based. There could also be a scenario mixing all three of these areas, he said.

“They are planning for the unknowns and that is so incredibly hard to do,” he said. “They are working on a variety of scenarios. For example, do we start normally, like we did with the 2020 school year? What will that look like? What happens if we need to start the new school year with some of the same social distancing requirements that we are facing now? What might that look like for our schools and for learning and our staff? And what would it look like if we need to delay the start of the 2020-21 school year? And remember they are planning for every other scenario that they can think of in between those.”

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the strengths of the public education system — hundreds of PUSD educators transformed the system nearly overnight. But it has also exposed some weaknesses.

Jan Ogino, a National Board Certified Teacher at Heritage Elementary School, said aspects of distance work and learning will stay for the long term, and it will reveal who is good at distance teaching and who is not; students who excel at distance learning and those who don’t, which will impact less need for physical space and time and better training on communication.

However, she said the pandemic shows that inequity has become a glaring flaw in society that can’t be ignored any longer.

Ms. Ogino said learning at home puts poor students and families behind, and schools will need to close the gap by providing free Internet and devices.

Highly qualified and experienced teachers, as well as technology infrastructure and adaptable devices will be more important than ever, she said.

“The income divide has been laid bare. Our economy is more interdependent, inter-related, integrated and global than we realized. The virus shows our cracks and flaws in a system that wants to operate in silos,” she said. “We will need a better understanding of equity and the consequences to the lack of it, equity for our low income, special needs, racial and gender marginalized students in resources like free and low cost Internet and digital devices.”

Other schools

Some schools have already made decisions as to how to handle the coming school year.

California State University, Fullerton officials are already planing to start the fall semester with virtual classrooms and gradually ease restrictions when it is safe to do so.

Provost Pamella Oliver said the 40,000-student university must be able to ensure adequate physical and social distancing and also take into account there could be spikes of the virus in the future that would require flexibility, according to reports.

When the school does fully open, masks, gloves and other protective gear will be required or highly encouraged, and workplaces and classrooms will be configured based on social distancing. Additionally, faculty and staff may be required to work on a rotation or staggered hours or days.

Denmark schools among the first in Europe to implement closures and social distancing and it was among the first to remove those restrictions.

During the country’s first phase of opening the country again, students were required to have staggered arrival times, routes, breaks and lunch times, split into smaller groups, remain outside as much as possible, as well as wash their hands immediately upon arrival and at least every two hours. Sinks, toilet seats and door handles are required to be disinfected twice daily.

The future

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, envisions a world where every student has their own virtual backpack.

The backpack would include a device, a hotspot, basic supplies, a meal, and a ticket that gains them access anywhere to any school that has room — public, private, or charter. The funds that the student has “earned” for his or her district would be paid to the receiving school. And the only requirement, as long as students are remote and until issues of accountability can be determined, is that the students’ attendance, activities, and results, grades or otherwise, be reported through the school to the state.

While this concept is still a goal to shoot for, she said, some schools are moving in this direction without looking back.

“This is the future,” Ms Allen said. “Some schools were moving in this direction before the crisis. The pandemic has nudged those schools to move quicker in that direction.”

One of those schools is Friendship Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C., she said.

Chief Program Officer Patricia Brantley said the pandemic has changed the ecology of schools — before the teacher was in the center with students around the teacher and the parents standing on the outside. Today in the world of virtual learning, parents and students are at the center and the teacher is outside figuring out how to get access.

This point was emphasized when schools across America were closed. At that time Friendship delivered thousands of devices to families in its network made up of 16 schools serving more than 4,500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Ms. Brantley said education in a post-COVID-19 world is about access, not just access for the student but for the family to access the learning objectives. And its never going back, she said.

“When we create curriculum going forward it will always be with this idea going forward — what is the curriculum for parents, what are our office hours for families? How do we bring them into the learning,” she said. “We’ve always known that the most engaged schools, meaning those with the most parent engagement, are the schools that do better. So we put the parent and the student — the family — at the center to work around them. That means giving them the tools and devices they need.”

Educators at Friendship say public education in a post-Covid-19 world means more family engagement — creating opportunities for parents to know what is happening in the classroom and what exactly will be covered every day during the online learning process.

Felicia Owo-Grant, principal at Friendship Woodridge International School, said virtual teaching has created more of a dialogue so if children have a question, their parents can feel confident and empowered to answer it.

“That parent inclusion piece has been instrumental and dynamic because it is something that we don’t often have to think about having to engage them in the same way as a student,” she said. “The classroom is now their living room or bedroom.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, phaldiman@newszap.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.  

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