Sunday, July 26, 2020

Preparation for What Comes Next

It is a stressful time for everyone.  COVID-19 cases are increasing in many places, and social distancing measures are being extended. Through it all, there is anxiety and fear as it pertains to what comes next. Will kids go back to school or continue to learn remotely? How will safety be ensured for all people in a building? What will be the impact of budget cuts? How will educators get the professional learning support they so desperately need? These are just a few of the questions being pondered, where there are no clear or definitive answers.  The result has been unprecedented stress on anyone associated directly, or indirectly, with education.

Every day it seems a curveball is being thrown at educators.  One minute, schools are being given guidance to open up for face-to-face instruction, and the next, they inform the masses that they are starting the school year with remote learning. What comes next remains a mystery for some. Strong leadership in times of uncertainty is critical to not only get by but also set the stage for success.  For those who have more clarity, the time is now to ensure needed pedagogical change takes hold. Lessons learned since the start of the pandemic can pave the way to create a new normal.



To adequately prepare, schools should consider focusing their efforts and resources on the following three areas:
  1. Hybrid Learning Models: Hybrid learning combines both traditional and non-traditional learning strategies as well as digital tools to create a cohesive learning experience for kids.  Some key aspects to consider are face-to-face instruction, personalization, blended learning, adaptive tools, flex schedules, social distancing, health and safety, and remote learning. For more context, check out this post.
  2. Remote Learning: If schools are closed for any amount of time, it is critical to improve remote learning based on some of the challenges that were experienced in the past.  It focuses on both digital and non-digital pathways to keep realistic learning going. Now is the time to help educators hone their craft, so students are authentically engaged, empowered to think, provided meaningful feedback, and are able to showcase what they have learned creatively.  HERE you can find some specific teaching tips. For a variety of strategies and perspectives, check out this Pinterest Board.
  3. Blended Pedagogies – Prior to the pandemic, many schools implemented instructional strategies that incorporated digital but did not fully make the pivot to blended learning. There is a difference. Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use technology to have control over path, place, and pace. Other high agency strategies, such as voice and choice, are also prevalent to personalize learning. Data is used to differentiate as well as group and regroup students on an ongoing basis to meet the needs of everyone best. Station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and the flipped classroom are the most practical pathways to implement. The use of digital tools becomes a seamless component. All kids doing the same thing at the same time the same way has to become a thing of the past.
In addition to the areas listed above, social and emotional learning (SEL) will need to be emphasized as a key component of what comes next. No one knows for sure what some kids experienced during the extended time schools were closed and the impact that this has had on them. My colleagues Venola Mason and Weston Kieschnick facilitated a webinar with me that dove into all of the focus areas identified in the post. You can view the 30-minute recording below.



Preparing for what comes next will take meticulous planning, flexibility, resolve, and bold leadership. Purchasing devices and mobile hotspots is great, but it doesn’t go far enough. It will also require research-based, evidence-driven professional learning, and provides educators with practical strategies that can be implemented right away. Teachers and administrators deserve needed support to usher in a new normal. Many are crying out for it now. Not the one and done or drive-by variety, but job-embedded, ongoing, and immersive experiences. One of the main lessons learned at the onset of the pandemic was how the majority of schools were ill-prepared for remote learning and the same can be said in terms of what lies ahead. The path ahead might not be crystal clear, but we do have a general sense of the direction schools should take both in the near and long-term. Invest in people now and reap the rewards later.

To learn more about what this could look like in your district or school, shoot me an email (esheninger@leaderd.com).

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Tracking COVID Cases to Better Safeguard Students and Educators

Safety is at the top of the minds of all educational stakeholders, especially teachers and parents. News outlets are flooding all channels with advice on what schools should and should not do.  The CDC has also released specific guidelines to help guide the reopening of schools and the subsequent re-entry of students.  There are no easy answers or solutions during these unprecedented times, but we can all agree that the health and safety of every child and adult are of paramount importance.  To that end, it is critical that all groups have a seat at the table to add input and suggestions to any plan being developed.  For some suggestions on how to do this in a meaningful way, check out this post.

All any district can do is meticulously plan while trying to foresee as many possible scenarios that could occur once schools are reopened. Many questions and associated challenges will undoubtedly arise. The key is to be ready for them.  A proactive approach entails the establishment of protocols to track and report COVID cases across a school district while abiding by privacy laws.   Doing so provides an additional safeguard for students and staff to complement social distancing, hybrid learning models, hygiene stations, and facemasks.  It is critical that everyone knows who has been infected or has come in close contact with people that have tested positive for COVID.  Access to this vital information will then allow for staff to quarantine as necessary.  



I recently wrote about a fantastic tool called ZippSlip that every district should consider as a means to streamline communications.  It is a cloud-based mobile app that supports all communication sent from the school to parents like student registration, athletic waivers, permission slips, mass notifications in multiple languages, dynamic use of video, and the list goes on and on. You can now add another essential feature to that list as Zippslip now can seamlessly collect data on COVID for tracking purposes that can assist with safety until the virus is eradicated.  Below are some specific highlights from a brief on their website:
ZippSlip offers a solution to electronically collect and track COVID symptoms and risk information from students' parents attending the school. Quickly deployed, ZippSlip allows parents to securely update their students' information from a browser or via the ZippSlip app. School administrators can track COVID risk information on customizable dashboards that include trend charts, heatmaps, and other relevant analytics. In one glance, administrators can monitor district-wide information and then quickly take mitigation steps. With a couple of clicks on ZippSlip's administrator portal, administrators can find students with symptoms, their siblings, and which schools and classes are at risk.




In addition to collecting data from families regarding students, districts, and schools can also report information related to staff infections or recent contact with others who have the virus.  Together, the data in the dashboard can be used to help adjust plans to keep in-person learning going or make the decision to move to remote learning. In the end, it is just one more resource to help ease the many concerns that are out there. For more detailed information check out this downloadable slide deck.

The decision to reopen schools is a contentious one, to say the least.  With infection rates rising in many states, educators and families are justified in their concern and fear for their safety.  If reopening occurs under duress, a solution such as ZippSlip can help ease, but not eradicate, some concerns.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Purchasing Devices Does Not Equate to Learning

The COVID19 pandemic unearthed many harsh realities for education across the globe. One of the more glaring issues was the vast digital divide that still exists in many places, especially the United States.  Inadequate WIFI and the availability of computers at home for kids to use for learning caught many educators off guard. Remote learning was a monumental challenge for districts and schools that already had made large-scale investments in devices, but it was even more so where inequity was prevalent.  Many kids were automatically at a severe disadvantage as a result, which will most likely result in extreme learning loss and ever-widening achievement gaps.

It is okay to admit that we were ill-prepared before and during the pandemic.  Now is the time to seize on lessons learned as schools prepare to move into uncharted territory whether the COVID19 rages on or begins to subside. Teaching will and must be different. Leadership must and will be different. Most of all, the learning culture will most certainly be different, and it will be a travesty if it is not. We have begun to see some change as more and more school districts are purchasing devices for all of their students.  Every day I see new articles highlighting the millions of dollars; in some cases, spent to either begin to close or eradicate the digital divide. There are also forward-thinking districts who either purchase WIFI hotspots for kids or park WIFI-enabled busses around the community for family access.  All of these efforts are to be commended.

Here is the rub in all of this. Time and time again, even well before the pandemic hit, schools had a thirst for ensuring that there was a device in the hands of every student. William Horton says it best, "Unless you get instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure." 



Below are some lessons we learned after hitting the reset button on our Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative in order to get it right that I captured in a 2015 post.
We found great success at my school during our digital transformation by focusing on pedagogy first, technology second if appropriate mindset. Not only was there a focus on solid instruction, but we also provided numerous supports for our teachers in the form of ongoing and job-embedded professional learning opportunities. If the expectation was to integrate technology with purpose to support or enhance learning, we made sure everyone was prepared to do just that. 
For technology to live up to the hype, pedagogy must change, whether learning is face-to-face, remote, or based on a hybrid model to ensure student and staff safety. Drive-by professional development did not work in the past. What has and will continue to make a difference are supports that incorporate the following:
  • Ongoing
  • Job-embedded
  • Supported with coaching (face-to-face or virtual)
  • Personalized and differentiated
  • Facilitated by people who have done the work and implemented successful change that resulted in improved student learning outcomes and achievement
  • Directly correlated to professional practice
  • Aligned with research and case studies
  • Addresses real challenges educators face
  • Sustainable over time
Before COVID19, I always cautioned districts and schools to be wary of putting the cart before the horse. I am not sure that I would offer the same advice as we now know there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure digital equity for all kids. However, I am still steadfast in my opinion that just purchasing devices does not equate to learning, nor will it in the future if proper supports are not in place. Teachers need training and job-embedded coaching. Principals need support so that they know what to look for and can give their staff actionable feedback. Superintendents and central office administrators need to be able to determine the efficacy of the investment.  Check out the International Center for Educational Leadership's (ICLE) vast services and Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process to fill this gap.



Just putting a device in kids' hands and expecting learning miracles to materialize is wishful thinking at best. Ongoing support is needed to usher in pedagogical change while building capacity. Teachers and administrators deserve this investment if large sums of money are being spent on devices.  Without this support, the overall goal of the purchase might never be realized.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Don’t Forget About Educator Safety When Reopening Schools

We are all in the midst of some very challenging times, regardless of our profession. When it comes to education, schools are grappling with reopening safely here in the United States. There are no easy answers or choices here.  As schools across the country are now virtually all closed for summer break, preparations are being made, and hopefully, comprehensive plans are being developed. However, in the midst of all of this, COVID19 cases are rising in many states. Those planning to begin reopening in phases have pushed the pause button. On top of it all are conflicting messages about what is the best course of action.

When it comes to students, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has come out strongly in favor of schools having students return to the classroom in the fall despite the ongoing risks associated with COVID-19, as reported in the Huffington Post. Below is an excerpt.
"The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school," the group said in an update to its guidance for school re-entry. The guidance asserts that "the importance of in-person learning is well-documented," and that evidence already has emerged of "negative impacts" on children due to school closures in the spring.
It is tough to deny the negative impacts the pandemic has had on kids such as learning loss, widening achievement gaps, social-emotional issues, and in some cases, a lack of physical activity and proper nutrition. Education Week provides a wealth of information and resources for schools in this recent piece focusing on developing the right schedule to meet the student needs. The bottom line is that schools need to reopen for their sake, but at what cost? As much as kids need to be in school learning, there is mounting pressure and concerns, rightfully so I might add, from adults who fear for their health and safety.



A recent story from ABC News highlights the fear and frustration felt by many educators.
Some teachers around the country say they are nervous about returning because of underlying health conditions or concerns about infecting family members. Others say they are frustrated by the lack of clear guidance from officials about what's safe. And for some, it's about child care if their own kids are only back at school for a handful of days during the week. The result is an inevitable clash between leaders pushing aggressive reopening policies in states like Texas and Florida and teachers, some of whom say local officials need to think more about what they are asking teachers to do.
All re-entry plans must emphasize health and safety above all else, something that I highlight in this post. The process should be a collaborative one that enlists the input from teachers, students, administrators, and community members. Any plan that actually succeeds in helping people feel at ease about reopening schools will incorporate many of the ideas that the group decides upon based on consensus.



No matter how great the planning process is, the result won't be perfect or even acceptable for all. As many districts and schools are considering hybrid-learning models for kids that incorporate flexible schedules and choice, the same should be offered to teachers who are experiencing the issues laid out in the ABC News piece.  It is difficult for me even to suggest what this should look like. However, think about the different options and choices your district or school is offering students and adapt accordingly to teachers. A one-size-fits-all approach just won't cut it, and we owe it to them, to our teachers, to do everything possible to support them as they come back to work, whatever that form might be. Strong and compassionate leadership will be critical to ease concerns while developing a successful plan for reopening.



It's not just teachers we need to worry about, but also administrators and every other adult who is asked to work in a building.  Considerations should also be made for these people if the same COVID-19 concerns are prevalent.  The challenge and inherent opportunity are to begin to think about what types of work have to be done in-person and those that can be completed remotely.  

The time is now to put all the cards on the table while considering various options for staff that need them. Forcing anyone into a painful or uncomfortable decision because of COVD-19 risks, both direct and indirect, must be avoided. If not, then we might very well see a mass exodus of educators this school year.