Learning From a Pandemic

A few months ago, we talked about Outdoor Classrooms in the Time of the Pandemic as a way to think ‘outside the box’ and be proactive about the education of children in safe environments. As we reflect upon the past year, many schools —both among our clients and at large—found innovative ways to function despite the difficulties.

In many cases, the pandemic led schools to embrace new technologies, new schedules, and new classrooms. Centers of learning—like other organizations—creatively responded to the ‘new normal’ and continued to offer education in these times.

Now we enter the warmer months of spring. Updated CDC guidelines and ambitious vaccination programs increase anticipation that both teachers and families will be safer the coming months. It is possible that the worst of the pandemic’s immediate impact, at least in our part of the world, is behind us.

Of course, OL+ recognizes that the pandemic remains ongoing. It will have long-term ramifications even after our population is considered safer. Notably, not all parts of New England, the nation, or other regions of the world can expect to recover at equitable rates.

For many reasons, we are at the forefront of transformation that will change education all over the country and the world. Now we ask questions. What lessons have been learned? What will schools carry into the future as enduring improvements? In what ways will they return to traditional methods of instruction?

To forecast some potential trends in education, we evaluate the past year. Positives and negatives are not as clear as they seem.

The headline is remote learning. Its ongoing use is almost certain; it has already become an essential and adaptive education strategy for most schools.

As we look backward, the use of technology and virtual education was a lifeline for schools. It also changed the ways that teachers taught and students learned.

While remote-learning enabled schools to offer classes during the crisis, most agree that it was not an ideal solution. Students missed personal interactions with peers and teachers. Younger students, especially, continue to experience screen or ‘zoom’ fatigue.

Yet remote learning was the sole option for most US schools to continue. From its implementation, we have found some long-term solutions.

Overall, US education professionals estimate that the pandemic-induced switch to remote learning catapulted schools forward in their implementation of technology by 7-10 years. Tech teams provided new platforms for remote learning. Faculty and teachers dove deeply into new teaching environments. When schools reopened in autumn 2020, they had additional strategies for in-person and remote learning options as well as blended models.

To cope during the height of quarantining, schools developed classrooms and communities based on remote connections. They created databases for teachers to share resources, cloud-based platforms for students to work and share online, and resources for parents to learn teaching methods and specific skills to support their children. In both independent and public school settings, where possible, schools deployed devices and hotspots to connect any households that lacked sufficient internet access and technology.

We can conclude that access to the internet, for all households, may now be considered as essential as other basic utilities like water and power. Individualized access to internet-connective devices will also become critical to the continued use of remote learning models.

Going forward, this rapid advance in the implementation of video-conferencing technology may continue to positively augment learning. Some schools are now considering the long-term offer of online academies as an alternative to in-school education. Others are including online academies as a blended part of in-person and remote-based programming.

Of course, remote learning does not replace the essential nature of hands-on, in-person learning. As we will explore later, personal connections are essential to learning for children of all ages, but especially younger children who are new to school or developing their social skills.

Notably, the option for remote learning can mitigate missed days caused by issues such as weather closures. It can also provide crucial alternatives for differently-abled students, children with immunocompromised or other health challenges, teens with demanding work and internship schedules, or students who can take advantage of self-paced learning to meet individualized educational objectives.

Another one of the positives of remote learning includes team-building. Teachers used and appreciated new ways to share resources and work together on curriculum design and planning sessions. Parents and teachers developed new partnerships.

Students had the chance to engage in self-paced learning. As reported by educational professionals, many students were called upon to master executive functioning skills at younger ages: independent management of time, activities, and objectives. Students responded well to their enhanced autonomy and their individualized paths toward learning.

During the pandemic, hands-on learning continued—at home—as much as possible. To this end, many schools balanced online work and meetings with in-person assignments. They prepared go-bags distributed to families filled with books, materials, manipulatives, tools, and other resources. These kits held the elements for real time learning and adventures, often supervised by parents, at home or outside. Teachers, for instance, relied on playful approaches to science and math by converting kitchens and backyards into at-home learning labs with recipes, games, and experiments. This response, too, was a leap in innovation for schools, and one worth sustaining.

As hybrid models open up, schools have prioritized small group and individualized instruction during on-site, in-person teaching time in the building. Ideally, they reserve remote classroom meetings for large-group instruction and communication.

From an administrative aspect, video conferencing improves efficiency and increases participation in meetings. On many levels, among faculty, with administration and the public, meetings are likely to remain in the virtual realm. This accommodates busy schedules and minimizes the difficulties of travel time and impediments to attendance such as weather or distance.

Evaluating the use of remote learning and technology today, we conclude that remote learning can successfully augment in-person learning, when necessary. It offers a useful teaching-and-learning platform, but preferably for short periods of time or to supplement in-person teaching, rather than as the sole model for education. This is especially true for younger children, whose development relies primarily on their personal connection and interaction with teachers and peers. At the same time, remote learning is likely to remain a desirable option available to students and teachers for a number of reasons outlined above.

During the pandemic, people missed each other. Isolation reinforced how significant social connections remain for our wellbeing. Families reported deepened intimacy. Friends found new ways to connect. Schools became lifelines.

Overall, how were relationships affected by the pandemic? And how did this show up in learning and teaching environments?

First, we reiterate the crucial connection between younger and older students and their teachers. Those relationships cannot be replaced by technology.

In fact, education professionals offer initial assessments about student outcomes after remote learning for the past year. They document that children who already had an established personal relationship with a teacher fared better than those who began their early childhood education via remote learning, without already-established personal connection to teacher and peers. This is particularly true for young children, but is also documented for older children.

One of the challenges of remote learning, which can be mitigated by strong student-teacher relationships, includes ‘missing’ children. Even at older ages, some students tend to ‘disappear’ behind the anonymity of remote learning. This is especially true if they become overwhelmed or fall behind. They can drop out by missing remote learning sessions and avoiding other forms of outreach such as emails and calls. Crucial connections to teachers offset this trend.

Strong bonds with teachers, whether in-person or remotely-based, remain critical to the wellbeing of older students as well as younger ones. Educators discovered that if older students, who have multiple teachers during their day or week, form a connection with just one teacher in one subject area, that relationship can improve their entire engagement in remote learning. It increases the likelihood that the student will continue to participate and remain in school. This contrasts with students who do not make any connection to any teacher; those students more readily duck out and disappear.

Overall, mental health has been hard hit by the pandemic and the rapid changes it caused. For many students, the in-person school experience is one of their most safe and consistent environments. That stable presence in their lives contributes to overall resilience. Therefore, although virtual relationships have been significant in the past year, we continue to highlight the irreplaceable nature of the in-person relationship between students, peers, and teachers.

Of course, the ability to learn at home relied on the physical presence of adults. As discussed in the last article, homes became the primary location for learning, which created pressure on limited space, time, and resources.

These teaching roles often defaulted to a guardian or parent who left or lost a job, worked from home, or already held a primary caregiving responsibility. At-home learning, as an enforced option rather than a choice, revealed and exacerbated gaps in resources for many households.

Families often described remote learning as a growth opportunity. They embraced the close-quarters intimacy of living, learning, and working together in the same place. Yet others acknowledged it as a major contributor to anxiety and stress. Along the way, many families adopted an essential perspective: they found ways to appreciate and optimize the intense one-on-one time with their children. Overall, it was an unforgettable experience for parents and extended family members who balanced the challenges of at-home schooling with gratitude for the unexpected benefits it brought.

Parents and guardians developed closer ties to their students’ schools. They relied on school faculty for guidance and mentoring to fulfill their roles as at-home educators. Teachers offered coaching and close, individualized contact. Schools provided tutorials on new skills and resources that parents had to master.

Parents and teachers reported appreciation for the increased back-and-forth communication that occurred during the pandemic-induced remote learning. Parents gained insight and respect for the art of teaching. Teachers and parents empathized with each other’s achievements and challenges. While stressful, this more closely-knit working partnership strengthened communication and relationships between many schools and families.

Schools are also paying attention to the mental health of their teachers and faculty. These professionals were asked to master and implement new technologies, develop new curriculums, and create new teaching strategies in crisis conditions. They returned to in-person teaching prior to a full vaccination scenario, adding to personal risks. They continue to adapt as situations change. One educational leader noted the enhanced practice many schools now use: they show their teachers appreciation by thanking teachers repeatedly, providing constant reinforcement with gratitude.

Teaching teams have also formed closer bonds as they cooperated to adapt to the remote learning and hybrid or blended models of learning. They shared resources. They co-developed lesson plans and classroom resources such as videos and other digital assets. Remote meetings made it possible for teachers, whose schedules and different locations sometimes disrupt collegial collaborations, to work together more creatively and efficiently. Many of these models will continue to be used in the future, as they build more tightly-knit cohesion among colleagues.

We should also note the crucial role that schools played in the sustainability of many households. They remained a safety net and connector, delivering resources to all households, including vulnerable families. During the pandemic, many schools maintained frontline-level services. For instance, they prepared and delivered meals and other necessities, along with school supplies, to quarantined households using bus routes and distributed pickup locations.

Overall, the meaning of community took on new life during the pandemic. It was not defined by classroom affiliation or physical proximity to a campus. People felt the loss of social connections when they were isolated, yet valued them all the more as they reunited, outside and inside. Ultimately, community has been reimagined through the vital web of intrinsic relationships that bound schools and families together.

Inside schools, one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic was the necessity to think differently about indoor spaces. Classroom design has changed little over the years. This global crisis has required educators to explore new options.

The use of outdoor space was an exciting idea that we discussed in our last article. Schools created outdoor classrooms whenever possible, and moved many activities outside. As noted in that article, one benefit of such an approach involves access to fresh air and light. Another benefit is the use of the environment as a way to enrich educational content through hands-on study and play, using different senses and experiential models to enhance engagement.

Now we highlight some other developments that may impact the future. Multi-purpose approaches to the use of large and small spaces took on new importance.

As schools return to in-person learning, they consider re-allocating existing larger spaces such as gyms, cafeterias, theaters, and libraries for different uses. Sometimes they keep clusters of students in the same space, and have different disciplines travel into those assigned spaces. In other models, they rotate students in small pods in and out of different locations, with specific physical footprints assigned to different clusters of students and teachers. Other models assign the same teachers and students to designated spaces, from which they do not stray.

In all cases, schools have an opportunity to creatively re-purpose rooms to new functions. The focus is on quickly adapting a space to different populations and uses. Going forward, flexible models for how to organize and furnish a space will continue to find value.

Schools may also move to smaller classroom populations and flexible groupings of students. In one model, clusters of students, learning in designated areas or different blocks of time, conduct activities together. This reduces the risk of exposure for larger groups, and improve mitigation of quarantine and shutdown episodes.

Overall, extending the full use of the school’s physical facility also involves innovative approaches to scheduling classes and block sessions for more flexibility. Year-round use may also be integrated into future solutions for the viability of schools, as well as the more short-term concern about ‘catching up’ from losses experienced last year. Even hybrid or blended learning models, as outcomes of the pandemic, continue to presume a balance of remote learning and in-person classroom teaching.

Another area of physical modification gaining almost-unanimous support: improvement and/or addition of air circulation and ventilation systems and upgraded mechanical systems. This enhances overall air quality. If air conditioning is included in such improvements, it also increases the possibility of year-round use of buildings. This could be critical to flexible schedules and enriched programming to support students as they ‘catch up’ from lost class time.

If we consider year-round use of facilities to increase programming and address ‘missed time’, we once more highlight making use of outdoor space as well as enhancing mechanical systems. Many classroom buildings, in different regions, are not ideally designed for indoor classes in the summer. Few schools have air conditioning, since most schools are closed during the hottest months of the year. This may be more willingly embraced as an option, as schools address air quality systems.

Expanding the concept of a cohesive learning environment to include the outdoors is a fundamental educational shift, and one that should not be lost, but rather prioritized in the future. Most schools have already engineered outdoor classrooms and resources in the past year: outdoor fields, commons, play areas, and campus grounds. To add summer use, schools may make shade with tents and other devices, or take advantage of trees. Interestingly, by conducting summer sessions less like a traditional class and more like a day at camp, children may more happily make up for lost time.

Another compelling approach is to integrate outdoor areas with indoor spaces. Whenever possible, allowing classrooms to open out to an exterior setting offers more flexibility. Designing an accessible outdoor area for younger students as a natural extension of their learning environment has become more essential after the experiences of the past year.

Finally, some educators forecast that upper schools may experience changed use to support students’ independence. The autonomy and individualized experiences that remote learning opened up for many students may require real-world parallels in the use of classrooms and buildings in the physical world, based either on attendance or patterns of use during the day and week. Flexible schedules and blended models of in-person and remote learning may adjust how much time a student spends on the school’s campus. Metrics for tracking student participation may change, at least for those engaged in online academies, moving away from recording attendance to tracking other measures of engagement.

Flexible use of adaptive indoor spaces, increased quality of airflow and environmental conditions, and enhanced use of outdoor spaces are three of the long-term impacts we can expect to see in school design. More trends may also emerge.

Everyone was affected by the pandemic. How far did students fall behind? Already, it is a safe assumption that students educated via the remote model or hybrid in-person and remote learning models, during this past year, may not have skill levels and a knowledge base comparable to previous classes of students.

In part, the outcome depends on how well a students’ schools adapted to the pandemic and compensated for the lack of in-person teaching. It will also reflect the disparity in school and household resources available in different districts. To be fully responsible to documented outcomes, OL+ notes that resource-intensive schools and systems were able to adapt more comprehensively than other educational institutions.

Qualitatively, the experience of the past year has been challenging, even if we learned lessons that will change how we teach and learn going forward. Despite the creative use of technology in rapid-response to sudden shutdowns, many learners and teachers would reflect that the experience was challenging.

The next question is a quantitative one. How much learning did students actually achieve during the year? How great is their learning loss? For students in school, a loss of learning may be, in part, a function of time. How will students catch up and ‘get back to where they should be’?

Some commentators give us perspective. They point to history; we have weathered such crises before. During times of warfare or widespread illness such as influenza and polio outbreaks, schools have shut down or operated differently. Whole generations of children have had less-than-traditional educational foundations. Yet out of those generations came college-educated leaders, founders of businesses, skilled tradespeople, and competent adults.

These stories are told by our own parents and grandparents. The main point? We are resilient.

Meanwhile, educators are adopting varied responses to the upcoming effort to recover from the educational ‘challenge’ incurred during the pandemic. Some schools are taking an ‘accelerated learning’ approach. This combines more program time, modifications, and intensive tutoring or academic help to enrich upcoming school seasons for all students. It closes the gap between what has been missed and where students should ideally find themselves in skills and outcomes, based on their grade level.
Rather than considering that they are ‘behind’ prior generations of peers, students are provided access to all the resources necessary to catch up and remain on track with other classes of students their age. They are enabled to cover and learn the same material and lessons, with additional supports in place. This requires a multitude of resources: more time, specialized lessons and instruction, and new approaches and strategies.

Since students missed quality time in the community of the physical school environment during the pandemic, giving back time becomes one potential strategy that many schools are adopting. Different scheduling approaches offer options to enhance learning opportunities in coming seasons. Schools are already using creative scheduling to provide classroom time to students who are on blended in-person and remote-learning schedules. Adding program time may help support ‘catch up’ objectives for schools that take this approach.

An additional strategy to consider might be class time added to the coming summers. Where teaching contracts, institutional agreements, and other logistics permit flexibility, this may be part of a multi-pronged approaches to ‘giving back’ some of the time and experiences missed in the past twelve months. Year-round use of facilities, or blended options for ion-site education and remote education, may assist in the ‘catch up’ efforts.

It is reasonable to assume that schools should be prepared for similar events in the future. What lessons will we carry with us?

Remote learning will be part of the programming offered in the future. Yet virtual academies will be balanced with an emphasis on the value of in-person teacher-and-student and peer-to-peer relationships and the power of experiential learning. This experience reinforces the value of a physical school environment.

One can imagine a school physically re-designed for the education of students should a pandemic return. Environmental improvements, such as indoor air quality and access to the outdoors, would be prioritized. Flexible indoor spaces could adapt to a variety of uses. More space per student, or the possibility of providing it, would be an option. Options for comprehensive and creative use of the facility could be achieved with longer days, extended school-years, and adaptive schedules. Distributed technology and remote learning options would be in place, enhancing on-site learning. Additionally, place-based-learning that embraces the outdoors would lead to schools being less reliant on their physical walls.

Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes of the pandemic has been the emphasis on community. Relationships, partnerships, and teams were enhanced through new approaches to shared resources, common gatherings, and consistent communication models. Overall, many critical teacher-to-teacher and school-teacher-parent bonds were deepened and improved during the pandemic. At the same time, yearning to return to in-person social experiences created a keen gratitude for the dailiness of physical school environments and real-world experiences.

Given the themes of innovation and flexibility noted here, schools should be designed around how students learn best, instead of trying to fit students into boxes. Undoubtedly, remote learning put greater emphasis on family life, for better and for worse, and made us all realize how much we missed each other. As we provide our children an education for the future, we have the opportunity to adjust their experience to better fit the future that we all imagine.

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