The closed P.S. 33 in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York – New York NY/USA-April 11, 2020 (Shutterstock)
By Tom Liam Lynch
In their recent letter to families, the mayor and New York City Schools Chancellor committed to a “stronger” September than ever when schools re-open. I, like many parents, long for that day when children can return to their schools. My son misses his friends. He’s getting tired of his parents, day in and day out. Of course, we all want a stronger return in September.
But what does a strong September take?
There are several characteristics of a strong return, assuming we do actually return to “normal” in the fall. I’ll explain later why that might not happen. But first, here are six of the key things officials must be focusing on right now and that parents should know.
No academics to start. There shouldn’t be any academic work for the first week upon return. Call it Unit Zero. Everyone needs a chance to reconnect, to share stories, and to acknowledge that something unreal and potentially traumatic has occurred. It would be a mistake to “hit the ground running” with academics to start.
Give baseline assessments – both academic and social-emotional. All schools will need to determine how much students learned in the previous year, and what they need to learn next. Rather than schools developing these assessments locally, I suggest developing them centrally so Department of Education leaders can see clearly the contours of the need, and resources can be properly allocated. In addition, schools must also ensure that they systematically assess students’ social-emotional needs and have sufficient counselors available to support the community.
Map curricula, instructional models, and assessments. Too few schools have detailed maps of what their students are learning, how, and via what assessments. These kinds of tools will be essential if teachers and parents are to be on the same page about what learning should look like.
Invest in differentiation. More than ever before it will be imperative that teachers differentiate instruction next year, calibrating it to specific student needs. In addition to being aware of how to support students with special learning or language needs, next year all teachers will need to differentiate based on content knowledge and skills from the PREVIOUS grade level. That’s a big ask, especially of secondary school teachers who teach subjects that build tightly upon instruction in previous years.
They will need help.
Formalize digital learning models. Every school, from this point forward, needs to have a meaningful digital learning model for face-to-face, blended, and remote instruction. This is where City officials can really help more than they have heretofore. (And appointing a digital learning deputy chancellor would help get this moving now.)
Upgrade Comprehensive Education Plans. All schools have comprehensive educational plans, or CEPs. They are harder for parents or others outside the school to find than they ought to be, but they represent a more nuanced look at how school leaders report running their schools and attend to community needs. As officials are looking to the next school year, they should upgrade the CEP templates schools use to include an explicit area addressing Covid-19 response, and enhanced technology sections that articulate the school’s philosophy and resources related to instructional technology, blended learning, and remote learning.
No matter what September looks like, the points outlined above must be addressed. But it’s also possible that we don’t return to normal in the fall. In fact, the Chancellor recently acknowledged there was a “50-50” chance schools would look the same when they reopen. It’s possible that this pandemic doesn’t fade away on our terms, that public health officials determine it’s not wise to send 1.1 million children into the close proximity of classrooms. In that case, we might see more remote learning or other creative models where only half the students attend school at a time.
With these possibilities in mind, officials must begin to explore creative ways to make space for administrators and teachers to prepare for the fall. If September really might require the kinds of adjustments I am talking about, teachers will need time to plan and upgrade some of their pedagogical skills – both online and offline.
In whatever ways things progress, it would be prudent for officials to keep parents and the public abreast of their planning process, while soliciting input authentically and frequently. Planning for September starts now – for us all.
Tom Liam Lynch is editor-in-chief of the InsideSchools project at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and director of education policy at the Center.