Three Key Factors in Planning for Next School Year

It seems unreasonable to think about planning for next school year when our current, rapidly-evolving reality is occupying every educator and school leader’s mind right now. In fact, this suggestion may even prompt some to say: “Are you out of your mind? We are still in survival mode. Let us finish this year first.” Even though teachers and school leaders have proven once again how resilient and resourceful they are, many are on the brink of exhaustion! Indeed, as stated by our engage2learn CEO, Shannon Buerk: “Teachers have shown courage in the face of adversity this past year; however, their resilience should not be mistaken for invincibility.” 

So, how do we start planning for next school year if we are still trying to figure out the one we are currently in? For the most part, the reactionary steps we have taken and continue to take as a result of challenges and uncertainties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are our reality. I am not sure we could have anticipated or even forward-planned many of the unexpected challenges we have faced the last 12 to 15 months. Likewise, we are fully cognizant that the COVID-19 pandemic brought the deeply-rooted systemic inequities and injustices of our education system to the forefront of our collective consciousness. However, we are also presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the schools our students need and deserve. 

Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to start preparing for next school year now? To get us started, consider these three key factors when planning for next school year! 

1. Social-Emotional and Mental Health Challenges

One of the biggest challenges we are currently facing and will continue to face next school year is dealing with the social-emotional health of our students. “The pandemic has caused stress, grief, and anxiety about the future for many students and their families. The lack of social interaction and feelings of isolation have increased mental health issues.” (10 Socio-Emotional Learning Strategies for Responding to COVID-19). Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests that virtual learning “might present more risks than in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health and some health-supporting behaviors.”

With this in mind, some poignant questions needing much discussion include: 

  • What systems-wide transformation is needed to address these significant challenges? 
  • How will stakeholders be strategically engaged in determining the most realistic and student-focused plans to address these challenges?
  • What is the data revealing regarding the state of the district/school’s socio-emotional and mental health services and personnel, SEL programs, and educators’ training? 
  • What entry plan is needed to re-acculturate students to the school’s culture, routines, and expectations?

Unfortunately, the isolation and social distancing requirements necessary during the pandemic have resulted in a complete disruption of our schools’ culture and climate, not to mention our students’ mental health, social skills, and life-ready skills development. In fact, some high school students have not had the chance to build any connections with their schools yet. These students have no social capital. Freshman students will again be freshmen next school year, but will be classified as sophomores. In some schools, kindergarten students have not been exposed to school routines and have not developed their school persona. Some middle school students may still be operating with an elementary school mindset because they may not have set foot on their middle school campuses yet. 

The truth is that despite Herculean efforts to connect with students, educators are keenly aware that some students are thriving, some are struggling, while others have completely disconnected from their schools. Some students are in a bad place now, and not just academically. Students who had academic and emotional gaps before the pandemic are further behind. Therefore, we must be intentional about planning for our students’ re-acculturation to our schools.

Pro-Tips:

  • Develop a plan to re-acculturate students into school that is both comprehensive and realistic. 
  • Implement a strong SEL program that includes socio-emotional, mental health, and academic support.
  • Gather data regarding the current state of students’ social skills, readiness to learn, fears, and concerns.
  • Since it is expected that many students would have lost ground in social skills, collaborate with teachers to create a Learner Profile and incorporate it into lesson planning and instructional delivery.
  • Plan innovative and engaging best-practices-driven instruction. 

2. Mitigating Learning Loss 

One of the biggest challenges we are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is mitigating learning loss. Effectively dealing with this incredibly challenging task demands a new approach. After all, Einstein told us that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What are we expecting? The same? I hope not! 

A report by Horace Mann found the following: “Nearly all —more than 97%— of educators reported seeing some learning loss in their students over the past year when compared with children in previous years, and a majority, or 57%, estimated their students are behind by more than three months in their social-emotional progress.” (CNBC)

So, what do we do about this reality? And how do we determine what best practices are necessary to fill students’ learning gaps? 

In her cogent blog Mitigating Learning Loss: It’s About Time, Shannon Buerk charges us to approach learning loss from a systemic perspective. She states: “We all want to make sure that we can mitigate the damage from 2020, but to do this, we have to stop wasting time and accelerate learning for every student. The most efficient and effective way to do this is by differentiating the entry points and resources by standard so that no time is wasted.” We have personally seen this to be effective, as some schools are thriving through Covid.

At engage2learn, we have been coaching teachers for over ten years to use the Buerk Rubric to efficiently design lessons and learning experiences that provide every student with an autonomous path to mastery and beyond. This resource provides step-by-step instructions for how to create your own Buerk Rubric using four easy steps.

So much to decide and plan for, right? Consider starting the process by asking these questions:

  • What data will you collect, and how often will you track data? What will your data reveal regarding students’ learning gaps?
  • What data trackers will you use to empower students to manage and celebrate their learning progress?  Trackers can include paper or digital checklists, tables, graphs, posters, rubrics, portfolios, binders, journals, bulletin boards, etc. 
  • How will you incorporate life ready skills such as autonomy, collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, growth mindset, and professional/work ethics into daily instructional practices?

3. Technology Planning for Teaching and Learning

Technology-driven instruction is providing teachers with multiple opportunities to differentiate learning, build more engaging and authentic learning experiences, provide voice and choice, and expose students to multiple perspectives. However, we know that technology in and of itself is not the panacea of teaching and learning. We still need effective, dedicated, and trained teachers in every classroom.

Consider using a S.W.O.T. (Strengths – Weaknesses – Opportunities – Threats) analysis to gather pertinent data across multiple areas. See examples of S.W.O.T. forms here. Some questions to include are: 

  • How has technology impacted teaching and learning since COVID-19? 
  • What worked well and what did not? What needs to be stopped? What needs to be continued? What needs to be started now? 
  • What is needed to scale a responsible roll-out and implementation within one, three, or even five years?
  • How will technology help design innovative teaching and learning frameworks to support the individual needs of every student? 
  • How can technology artifacts, resources, access, and software help teachers design learning environments to engage students in authentic, challenging, and meaningful tasks? 
  • What training, resources, and coaching do our teachers need to more effectively and efficiently use technology for multiple purposes?

There is no doubt that technology is transforming the education paradigm of the teacher being the sole purveyor of knowledge and students the passive receptors of this knowledge. In fact, the relationship and expectations between teachers and students has evolved into a two-way collaboration process. No longer are students attending classes to “sit-and-get.” No longer are teachers expected to “know-it-all”. As stated in the article 7 Ways Technology is Impacting Modern Education: “Technology in the classroom is like a foray into modern invention – and you get to be the expedition leader. Rather than viewing digital devices and Internet spaces as a threat to your duties, view them as unexplored areas of growth for both you and the young minds trusting you to show them what’s out there.”

Pro-Tips:

  • Engage all stakeholders—including students—in deep level, equity, and mission-driven discussions regarding the purpose, academic use, and potential technology has for teaching and learning. 
  • Determine the training and financial investment needed to engage in scalable, sustainable, and responsible technology-driven teaching and learning for the long-haul. 
  • Conduct a thorough analysis of technology devices and their condition, access, connectivity, broadband, availability of technology at home and school, classroom learning environment setting, etc.
  • Support teachers! What training is needed to maximize technology for instructional purposes?

Isn’t it promising that due to emergent technology software and hardware, increased state and local funding, updated policies and teachers’ training, and coaching support educators can provide all students with differentiated, engaging, and rigorous learning experiences? In fact, in the not-so-distant future, educators and students will be able to benefit from higher network bandwidth, access to a variety of technology devices, use of new and improved software programs, and enjoy better connectivity access, as well as benefit from advances in technology, such as augmented reality and even virtual reality! Wow. Can you imagine the possibilities?

Planning for Next School Year: A Necessary Action Now!

Benjamin Franklin once warned us: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Yet, here we are in the midst of a pandemic, worrying mostly about today and tomorrow — a survival response, to be sure. However, shouldn’t we also focus our energy on planning for next school year? 

With this in mind, you can begin to address these three key factors: students’ social-emotional and mental health challenges, mitigating learning loss, and creating a technology plan for teaching and learning. Remember, the call to action is urgent. Our students’ future, the future of our public schools, and the health and wealth of our nation are at stake.There is no time to waste. The time to plan for next school year to address our most pressing concerns begins NOW! 

If you would like to know how we have helped countless districts and schools transform their teaching and learning through e2L’s coaching using the Buerk Rubric to maximize each student’s learning experience, reach out to Start Your Partnership with engage2learn today!


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