“Are The Children Well?”: Covid-19 Impacts on School Choice

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc upon school systems everywhere. As such, students, teachers, and families across the nation have been thrust into a new environment, and the impacts of this new reality will be felt both now and in the long run. These impacts will be especially acute for students who have typically been under-served in our nation’s schools – students of color, students with special needs and students from low-income households. With many couples confined to their homes, homeschooling children, and facing deep financial uncertainty, it should come as no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic is placing additional strain on marriage relationships that were already struggling. So, as families find themselves at these difficult and painful junctures, how, then, should they go about determining a best-fit learning environment? What are the critical factors and school attributes that parents and guardians should weigh as they make one of the most important decisions related to their child's well-being?

In our conversations with colleagues in the national K-12 space, we’ve discovered that the dialog has shifted away from, “How well are the children doing?” to, “Are the children well?” While prior research studies illuminated the strong correlation between mindsets and academic performance, the shift to remote and hybrid learning has placed the correlation into dramatic relief. Students with high levels of self-motivation, persistence, and independence have thrived, while others are struggling mightily. Further, the emotional toll of COVID-19 has raised awareness of the need to address anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues as a pre-requisite to inspiring students to learn. Indeed, the pandemic serves as a stark reminder that schools and families need to address the whole child.

At Fleming Education Group (FEG), we believe special care and attention should be given to the following factors:

  • Assessment
  • Re-imagining Learning in a Post-Covid Era
  • Equity and Inclusion
  • Social Emotional Learning and Teaching
  • Teacher and Technology Investments

Below we offer considerations for each of these five important factors:

Assessment

Given the switch to online instruction, student learning (and therefore study skills and test preparation) has been impacted more than typical by stress, anxiety, illness, being forced to learn in a method that is vastly different from what students were used to, and the potential to fall behind due to lack of access to the materials to learn (Internet, quiet space, etc.) is greater. Families should consider whether a school has organized its internal systems to ensure that its teachers have the capacity to carefully monitor note-taking, assignments, and exams. Are assessment rubrics multi-modal and culturally relevant? Do the assessment strategies take into account inequities and disparities in access to technology? How are schools ensuring that appropriate differentiation is happening across the spectrum of student learning styles and unique learning profiles?

Re-imagining Learning in a Post-COVID-19 Era

It’s safe to say many of us recognized even pre-COVID-19 that the educational system warranted fundamental transformation to effectively serve students. Without missing a beat, superintendents, principals, teachers, and K-12 thought leaders are now examining and leveraging lessons learned during the pandemic to rethink and reform education. Just as the charter school movement spurred innovation in terms of school design and student access to quality programming, the pandemic has jolted and accelerated ideation around how best to prepare students for their futures. While the quality of instruction will still matter, ‘how’ content is delivered and ‘how’ students access their learning will (must) be different. The differentiation and personalization students and families have experienced outside the physical walls of school will need to be evident in even greater degrees to keep them engaged when they return. So, consider whether the school you’re exploring demonstrates a commitment to thinking deeply and broadly about re-imagining teaching and learning: Can evidence of the new thinking be seen in creative curriculum design and school scheduling? Are community partnerships being re-shaped to meet the needs of students who merit wrap-around services?

Equity and Inclusion

Covid-19 has exacerbated existing achievement- and opportunity-gaps across the land. Learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, Black, and Latinx students. Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet connectivity, and parental/academic supervision. While many public K-12 districts and their schools express a commitment to infusing the values and best practices of equity and inclusion within the curriculum and school climate, we encourage families to look for specific, demonstrated evidence of this stated commitment. Are teachers explicitly encouraged to attend to their students’ emotions, questions and worries by maintaining openness to these difficult conversations about culture and race? Are educators and administrators inspired to navigate their own personal thoughts, manage their discomfort, and exercise self-care so they can be fully present for their students and families? What ‘models and methods’ are in place to ensure that our most vulnerable students (Black, Latinx and low-income students, English language learners, students with 504/IEP plans, students experiencing homelessness, etc.) have timely and equitable access to the resources they need to thrive? Are schools utilizing a data-driven approach to understand and mitigate the short- and long-term economic impacts of learning loss and higher dropout rates?

Social Emotional Learning and Teaching

The pressures of Covid-19 and its impact on social-emotional learning (SEL) have established additional complexities compounded by remote and hybrid learning models. Unfortunately, many students are navigating psychological challenges – anxiety, confusion, grief, and identity questions while searching for a sense of normalcy. Even more daunting, these challenges can sometimes be combined with preexisting inequities as students are attempting to find ways to succeed in an unfamiliar mode of learning. We suggest that families look to see that schools are:

  • Nurturing Community:
    • Creating spaces in-person and online where students feel safe, have a sense of community, and can see their value to the learning environment.
  • Inspiring Student Voice:
    • Providing opportunities during instruction for every student to share her/his thinking including problem-solving, talking through divergent ideas and perspectives, and brainstorming new ideas.
  • Navigating Student Feelings & Behaviors:
    • Supporting all students with managing their feelings and emotions by creating spaces for them to be self-reflective in order to make good decisions.

Teacher and Technology Investments

Slightly over two in three public school teachers report having participated in professional development activities on the use of computers for instruction in the past 12 months, based on García and Weiss 2019 using data from the 2011–2012 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). Among all teachers, only half have released time from teaching to participate in professional development (50.9 percent), and less than a third are reimbursed for conferences or workshop fees (28.2 percent). The limited training pre-pandemic is compounded by the limited technical support during the pandemic. Most K–12 teachers did not contemplate online instruction until being forced to do so by the pandemic. As a result, teachers have had to spontaneously come up with a variety of options, from assigning daily or weekly coursework that students turn in virtually to full classes presented via Zoom and a slew of unproven approaches in between. We can surmise that some of these online strategies launched during the COVID-19 crisis have not lead to optimal outcomes. FEG highly recommends that families delve into whether their K-12 District is making deep and sustained investments in professional development and technology training.

Conclusion

Teaching and learning in the pandemic have undergone seismic shifts since March 2020. As schools move slowly forward during the pandemic and we return to “normal,” it is going to be imperative that families and schools do not let whole-child development (“Are the children well?”) slip away and revert back to a sole focus on academics (“How well are the children doing?”). To do so would ignore and exacerbate the trauma that many children are experiencing. Noncognitive skills are just as important as other cognitive skills when it comes to ensuring that children will thrive both in school and later in life. Moreover, since socioemotional and academic skills develop in tandem, and considering the added challenges during the pandemic, “it will be more critical to approach skills development holistically and make teaching and nurturing the whole child central, rather than marginal” (see García 2014 and García and Weiss 2016 for a summary of this literature).

As planning for the 2021-22 school year unfolds, FEG urges parents, educators, and school leaders to carefully consider the factors we’ve briefly touched above. While much of the school comparison data on achievement and performance is still being shaped and informed by myriad variables, we do believe these five factors can serve as a guide in determining the quality and substance of a child’s learning experience.