When this all began a couple of months ago, a superintendent told me that he and his staff were spending their days preparing and distributing meals to students and their families in the high-school parking lot. “It is just what needs to be done. Our students and families count on us,” he told me. It was sobering and inspiring to speak to a friend on the frontlines, leading a district and a community through turmoil and crisis. That is what COVID-19 has done to American education: totally upended our “normal.”
In the wake of the disruption brought on by COVID-19, schools and teachers are responding heroically in agile and local ways to move student instruction and development online and into the home.
As we near the final days of school, most (if not all) educational institutions have moved quickly to put band-aid solutions in place: tens of thousands of devices distributed to many (but not all) students, school buses with Wi-Fi dispatched to neighborhoods where the digital divide is deepest, and teachers stitching together a patchwork of student engagement and learning data while holding classes on Zoom, all while missing their students dearly and checking in on mental health and wellness. It’s a tall order.
The theme seems to be that while there is a lot of activity to support and understand the student’s home learning environment, that activity is not well-coordinated and is falling heavily on teachers.
When I checked in with several superintendents over the past month, they told me that teachers are struggling to answer some basic, but “squishy,” questions, such as:
- How can I best contact my student’s family? Who do I reach out to, when, in what way?
- What school district resources has the student and family received? Devices? Packets? Other? Can they keep these over the summer?
- The district sent out a survey about how students and families are coping. Can I see what this family said?
- I’m struggling to reach this student. Are my colleagues experiencing the same situation or are they getting through?
- Are students logging into the learning resources I am asking them to? How do I know if they are engaged?
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Or is there?
Despite what a salesperson might tell you, there is no single, utopian platform waiting for you this fall. Rather, students and teachers will continue to rely on a diverse set of learning tools and technology to gauge, guide, and support new students’ progress in their classrooms.
Fortunately, school and district leaders acutely understand this problem and are working to address it. I heard from another superintendent who shared this with me—“Now, like never before, we will be forced to acknowledge that not every student starts the year in the same place of understanding,” which means we will need to bring together data points from many places quickly to support teachers and students.
Savvy educational and IT leaders will spend this summer accepting, adapting, and investing—not in another “fix-all” dashboard, but in lifting the burden on already overstressed teachers. Savvy educational and IT leaders will place interoperability at the forefront of their demands of vendors and colleagues alike. Investing time and money making the tools teachers use today work more seamlessly is the most superhero thing we can do to support them!
For the second half of 2020, let us make sure teachers are handing out assignments that meet every child where they are in their learning despite the negative effects of the last few months. We need to send kids to “school,” whatever that may look like next fall, with more than a sack lunch from the high school parking lot. We need to equip teachers with individual data backpacks on every student and update them in real-time with data from every tool they use, all year long.
Simply put, the world of education after COVID can be brilliant if we let data interoperability fuel it!