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4 Focus Areas for School Leaders This Fall

Lessons from one district’s experience with distance learning in spring can help schools everywhere set priorities for this unprecedented year.

September 17, 2020
Woman participates in a meeting via video chat on her computer at home
ake1150sb / iStock

Tackling topics ranging from transportation to technology, leaders have undertaken Herculean efforts to address how to best begin the new school year.

In preparation for this moment, Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California conducted a research study last spring with the Learning Accelerator, the national nonprofit where I lead research and measurement. The purpose of that study was not only to understand learners’ experiences during remote learning in the spring but also to gain insights that would inform decisions for the reopening of schools in the fall.

After survey data from 144 district educators was analyzed, four areas emerged as critical leadership focal points.

1. Build Relationships and Provide Support

Analysis of survey questions specific to the ideas of community and social and emotional wellness revealed that educators perceived that their learners felt safe, cared for, and supported. However, the survey data also revealed the need to build more additional support structures, especially for older students. A higher percentage of educators at the secondary level indicated that they had substantial concerns about their learners’ social and emotional well-being.

To address and preempt these concerns, leaders should prioritize relationships, provide time and opportunities for educators to directly support learners, and recommend implementing community building and support structures such as office hours, tutoring sessions, and social  activities.

Another option might be to encourage teachers to set up regular teacher-student conferences that not only address academic needs but also create opportunities for more informal conversations.

2. Incorporate Technology Thoughtfully

After three months of remote learning, it became apparent that both educators and learners required more support with digital tools. Across grade levels, educators mentioned the need to ensure that their learners had greater familiarity with different apps. Particularly at the elementary level, educators noted that their learners required additional support to accomplish basic tasks such as logging in to Zoom and finding content.

To provide support to learners and families, districts might need to create specific tech-help hotlines and websites. Matthew Hiefield, an educator in Beaverton, Oregon, explained that in addition to providing families with IT support (some of which came from student helpers), his district used strategies including sending emails and text messages, conducting family surveys, and partnering with multilingual translators to connect with families to ascertain their needs.

Hiefeld also explained that professional development relating to technology should incorporate three core tenets: an equity-based framework, an alignment to ISTE standards, and an evaluation plan to determine whether the work led to increased use or effectiveness.

3. Provide Additional Home Learning Support

Across grade levels, educators reported that learners needed assistance with the technical aspects of remote learning (such as accessing online resources or logging in to class sessions) as well as certain skills related to executive functioning. In particular, middle and high school educators reported that students needed more guidance and structure to help them stay on task and motivated.

To address this concern, LUSD educators, many of whom speak more than one language, implemented numerous outreach strategies for families, including the majority of the district’s families who do not speak English at home. These strategies included holding virtual parent meetings after work, sending text reminders via platforms like ClassDojo and Remind, and making phone calls to families and students. In the process of doing this, teachers realized that some families needed guidance and training for themselves in addition to updates and check-ins.

Leaders need to consider ways to provide academic, technical, and social support for families during remote and hybrid learning. CICS West Belden, a K–8 school in Chicago, offers a set of concrete strategies to engage families as learning partners, such as flipping traditional parent-teacher conferences to allow the parent to share their perspective on the child, organizing at least one parent event each quarter, and sharing student work on a regular basis.

4. Focus on Maintaining Engagement and Momentum

As schools and districts prepare for the next round of remote learning, sustaining momentum may become more of a challenge. Many educators who responded to last spring’s survey noted that their learners’ effort and enthusiasm waned over time.

Perhaps even more concerning, many educators reported that they lacked consistent contact with a large percentage of their learners despite myriad attempts to contact them—a trend that parallels other studies of remote learning. Leaders must consider ways to provide clear expectations for contact between teachers and students as well as strategies and social and emotional support for both their learners and educators.

For example, Valor Collegiate in Nashville has a useful set of strategies to support faculty social and emotional learning organized around their Compass model. Teachers regularly monitor their students for indications of social and emotional challenges, provide direct coaching to help them develop SEL competencies, and focus on building trust in their classrooms and community.

The 2020–21 school year promises to be unlike anything that K–12 leaders have ever faced. Just getting to the starting line may feel overwhelming in itself. However, by focusing on these four areas, leaders can take a few concrete, necessary steps to build a foundation of learning and support for students, educators, and families.

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