Do we really want to go back to where we were? The COVID-19 pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty, and challenges, but also an opportunity to change our systems and move American education in the direction we—administrators, educators, and caregivers—want it to go. Schools are preparing students for a future that is not what we once imagined, and that makes this a daunting time to lead, but also a profoundly exciting one. To learn more about the efforts some educators are making to turn the pandemic into an opportunity, Newsela recently attended a school administrator panel in West Virginia. There, we observed many recurring themes from across the country.
Integrating Social-Emotional Learning into Core Academic Instruction
The pandemic has affected not only students’ physical health and academic outcomes, but also their mental health. Many returned to school this fall with some level of trauma, and they may still be experiencing these stressors. This makes Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) initiatives more important than ever, and it also adds new urgency to optimizing how educators deliver their SEL curricula.
Rather than siloing SEL from academic instruction, educators can maximize the curriculum’s effectiveness by integrating materials with core academic instruction. There is a wealth of SEL resources available to teachers, including new pandemic-specific resources that have emerged only recently. By choosing content for core subject areas that reinforces key SEL themes, instructors can leverage trauma-responsive practices and help students build relationships, routines, and resilience.
There is even more to SEL’s value, though. These skills can be a vehicle for teachers to cover complex topics with their students and have important, challenging discussions about other changes happening in our world today. For example, SEL skills can be fundamental to having successful conversations about race and identity—and when these discussions are productive, they can create educational environments where all students feel a sense of safety, acceptance, and belonging.
In the early months of the pandemic, undertaking remote learning on the fly was enough of a challenge for most educators—and attention to standards understandably became a lower priority. The administrators on the panel explained that over the summer, schools planning their reopening began to refocus on standards while also adapting their classrooms to be safe and supportive during the ongoing emergency.
Rhonda Jelich, Director of Elementary Education at Jackson County Schools explained that her district is still only teaching 50% of the standards, and in some subjects, like PE, art, and music, addressing all of the state standards is simply impossible without breaking social distancing guidelines. That means teachers need support in the unprecedented task of prioritizing which standards to teach. That support can include help with unpacking standards, identifying prerequisite content and skills, and developing assessments and clear targets. Just as students need scaffolding and supports to achieve grade-level complexity, so too do teachers need scaffolding and supports to understand the standards. But with a variety of strategies in their arsenal, educators can ensure a productive academic year despite the extraordinary circumstances.
Amplifying Diverse and Multidimensional Narratives Across the Curriculum
Before the pandemic, there was a pressing need for high-interest, relevant content across the curriculum, and that’s even more true today. The administrators shared serious concerns across counties that some students, particularly those who had not experienced traditional “success” in school prior to COVID, may never come back in this even more challenging educational environment. To empower these students as much as possible and build their confidence in a difficult moment, it is critical to give them an entry point to content that reflects their lived experience. As Dr. Sara Lewis-Stankus, Superintendent of Upshur County Schools, put it, “Every student deserves the right to have access to rich content. It gives the student access to real-world content, that’s up to date and on the level of the student. That’s really important in terms of educational equity.”
Just as crucially, multidimensional narratives can help ensure today’s curriculum will be relevant to tomorrow’s economy, even as we become increasingly uncertain about what that will look like. It is more important than ever that students have an entry point to digital content and interactive online activities that expose them to diverse career pathways.
Whether it comes through providing new resources or putting educators in touch with peers to share knowledge, the panelists were clear on one point: Administrators have a fundamental role to play in turning pandemic-era learning into an opportunity to rectify existing inequities and prepare students to thrive.
Michelle Berry, Curriculum Director, Preston County Schools
Rhonda Jelich, Director of Elementary Education, Jackson County Schools
Christine Miller, Superintendent, Taylor County Schools
Watch the full panel here.