Nine lessons from the COVID-19 school closure

The 2019-20 school year is now behind us. Good riddance. When it comes to the economy some are hoping for a V-shaped recovery with the economy rapidly swinging back to where it was before COVID-19. Maybe we will be so lucky. Maybe we will also see a similar V-shaped recovery in education in 2020-21. Hope springs eternal!

Regardless of what the future holds, it is a good time to take stock of some lessons from the past school year, especially since March. My organization, Bluum, has helped to fund, support and encourage about 25 schools across Idaho in opening, growing and/or expanding their efforts to serve students well. We have close relationships with leadership across these buildings. Most are public charter schools, but two are private schools (one Catholic and one Lutheran) and one is a district “innovation school.” Collectively these schools serve about 10,000 students across Idaho; from the Treasure Valley to rural Salmon and north to Rathdrum and over to eastern Idaho.

As the past school year came to an end, I asked leaders from these schools three questions:

  • What is the one action you took for your school community since the COVID-19 shutdown that you think had the most significant impact on your students learning?
  • What is the one action you took for your school community since the COVID-19 shutdown that you think had the most significant impact on maintaining or improving teacher morale?
  • If you can share one lesson from the COVID-19 school closure what would it be?

From the generous answers and insights shared I saw at least nine common themes.

First, staying connected mattered to teachers, parents and students alike. One school leader shared, “never underestimate the power of connection. A smile, a kind word, a reminder that you matter. Kids, parents, and teachers are starved for true connection.” Another wrote, “if you communicate your reasoning, and involve stakeholders, your community will move with you.”

Second, routine and consistency are important. “Parents most appreciated that we kept students on a strict schedule that gave them a routine. They felt this gave kids a sense of predictability and normalcy in such uncertain times, so I think that would be my lesson,” shared a rural school leader. Another leader added, “focusing on what we were already doing that we could continue to do at home helped provide students, staff, and families with consistency during a chaotic time.”

 Third, leadership matters. Stay true to mission. Several school leaders observed that while the medium of learning may have changed (from in-person to online) the values animating the work didn’t. One leader said simply, smart, informed, courageous leadership is what will get us through this! Mission first—people always!” From eastern Idaho we heard, “we kept our grading standards. We do not do a pass/fail system.”

Fourth, keep it simple. “We kept it simple,” shared one rural school leader. Another from the Treasure Valley wrote, “build upon skills, programs, and infrastructure that you already have in place. You can iterate once you have the basics in place. Recognize that COVID 19 school closures are having a wide range of impacts on students, staff, and families, and be flexible. Equal does not mean equitable.”

Fifth, continuous improvement still matters. This was summarized by one school leader who wrote, “to not let perfection, stand in the way of progress. We did not do everything perfectly with online learning. We learned, made adjustments and tried a lot of new things. Our teachers and students are all better for it. We refined our practices in online learning as an organization as a result of our iterative process.”

Sixth, families and students first. “Our students don’t need a break, they need caring people to continue engaging them with realistic expectations which looks differently for each student,” wrote one leader. Another shared, “our priority of putting people first and ensuring basic needs were met and then focusing on academics really helped as well.”

Seventh, keeping up teacher morale took effort. COVID-19 stressed educators and families alike. One leader shared, take care of your people first. In doing so, they can better support kids and families. Recognize our focus of control and keep it simple for the team, what is the next right thing to do?” Another wrote, “we sent an email very early on saying, more or less, ‘everyone will get paid, no-one will lose their job’ due to closure.” A common theme was shared, “Teacher morale has been hard. I think what got our teachers through was how incredibly positive the feedback from our parent community was with how we initiated our plans.” Another added, “we had weekly meetings with the teachers to address their concerns and celebrate their successes.”

Eighth, access to devices and connectivity is important. “Ensuring a device in every home and wi-fi for every family, providing kids with hands on materials at home, and paying for google phone numbers for our teachers so they could reach students without invading their personal space ie. phone number,” was a recurring theme.

 Ninth, but, technology and access aren’t enough for all families and students. “Many of our parents leaned towards a tech free choice,” shared one leader. This was a theme shared by others as well. Technology is a tool, but nothing can really replace excellent teachers and teaching among a group of learners.

The school leaders I spoke with want to get back into their schools. They want to be with their students and with their fellow educators. This is what they love to do, and it is what works best for their students and families.

Terry Ryan

About Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan is CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and Board Chair of the Idaho Charter School Network.

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