We’ve learned many things as a result the pandemic, but how many of these lessons will we take forward with us after the safety protocols and restrictions are lifted? How will schooling change? What will public school look like? To get some ideas, we enlisted the help of Lindsa McIntyre, a superintendent for Boston Public Schools in Boston, MA; Adam Johnson, principal of Murtaugh Middle School and High School in Murtaugh, ID, and the 2020 Idaho Principal of the Year; and Beth Houf, principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO, and a 2019 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.

Savicky: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed school?

McIntyre: The COVID pandemic has polarized many inequities that were already present but overlooked. Because of the pandemic, they were so overt that it was impossible to overlook them. First, our district was not a 1:1 technology district. The pandemic forced us to become a 1:1 district. Second, it highlighted the primary needs of many of our students and their families—needs around food, shelter, social-emotional care, and mental health support. Prior to the pandemic, many of those needs were secondary to how we look at schooling but became almost primary in the sense that if students are not fed, sheltered, and cared for, they are not ready to learn. So, we had to accommodate students more holistically … not just physically, but more socially and emotionally as well. Everything about school was brick and mortar, and so we had to reconceptualize what schooling would look like in a virtual environment. We created opportunities to build advisories so that we could encourage, support, and build community with students as well as their families, recognizing that parents at one point became the primary educators.

Houf: We were a 1:1 school, but we were not 1:1 preK–12. Our middle school and high school were more adept to make the transition; however, just because each student has a device doesn’t necessarily mean that there is equity on how to use that device at home. I’ve said many times, just because you give a family a hotspot doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve reached equity. There’s so much more that goes into the work that we do than just having the device and the hotspot to get there. Fulton Middle School has primarily been in-seat since August. Some of our families chose the virtual option, but the majority have been in-seat. We don’t have a hybrid option. We went virtual for three weeks for distance learning, so we haven’t ever shut down, but we went virtual. Our struggle here has really been just how to do both; how to have the capacity to not only teach in-seat, but also virtually at the same time.

Our staff is another focus for change because they were not equipped to teach remotely. Our district spent some of our professional development time—not additional time—on building the skills of our staff. We changed how we taught in three to five months by building a completely new school system. All year, our staff has been teaching in-seat but also making sure that we can reach the quarantined or sick students. We also have to deal with our staff being sick or quarantined. So, we have focused a lot on workplace wellness. We have been addressing this issue for a few years, but I definitely feel like the pandemic took it up another level. We’ve got social-emotional learning for our students, of course, but also our staff, because this has been so much more put on their plates.

Another piece to address is boundaries. How do we set boundaries? When we were virtual, it was so hard to turn off the computer. You feel like you’re supposed to be working all the time. Coming back to school, one of the biggest things that I’ve seen is just the tolerance levels. Everybody has such a short fuse, whether it be parents, students, or staff. There’s just so much more to process and so much uncertainty.

Johnson: Our experience was a little different. We were only forced to go virtual from March until May [of 2020], and then we came back to the building this year, but many of the themes are similar. When we did go virtual, we were completely 1:1, so we were set up in that way, but I echo the themes that some teachers were more prepared to make that successful transition than others, and it was a steep learning curve for some. Our teachers had an extra workload; not only were they trying to prepare their lessons, they were figuring out the best way to virtually put those lessons into practice. It was a challenge for our teachers.

We also saw inequities within our student body. We’re pretty rural, and internet access was definitely an issue, as was not having parents—because of work—at home to lend support. Many of our students tried to obtain full-time jobs the minute we went virtual and balance a job with being a full-time student. Coming back this past fall, I think people had a lot of pent-up frustration. We see outbursts and just emotional volatility that we didn’t see in the past. We’ve seen a shift in the reasons for emotional support for students; in the past we had issues—just like every school—with bullying, cyberbullying, or text bullying. But now there are different issues that our emotional supports are focused on, but for the most part, I think we’ve had a pretty successful transition back to “a new normal.”

Additionally, we need to be flexible. We also have students in quarantine, so we have to figure out how we can deliver them effective instruction, how we can accommodate students who don’t feel safe in coming back and want to continue learning in a virtual environment while they’re waiting for the vaccine.

Savicky: Do you see any permanent changes occurring?

Houf: One of the permanent changes I will be making is just the “checking in.” I’ve become very intentional on checking in with our families, students, and our staff. My intentionality with that was more face-to-face pre-COVID, so that’s definitely something I’ve had to adjust. Additionally, the way that we planned our back-to-school [strategy] was collective. We have tried to use collaborative decision making, but now we are intentional about getting stakeholder feedback. From March to May [of 2020], because of inequities, we did not take grades for our students’ work. That was something we discussed with our families. We spent July and August really working together getting feedback from our families, our kids, and our staff. We had a task force who met with the families, kids, and staff, but then we also went back to the school leadership teams, got garnered feedback, and then came back. We took a lot of time to really build ownership in the next steps, and then we were really open in that communication with our families. We did Monday Night Live on Facebook. I shared pieces of information with our families as we got it.

When I’ve reflected with other principals around the country, they have agreed that collaboration was key to a successful implementation. The first time that we went virtual we learned a lot of lessons, so the second time we had to go virtual, we made changes specifically and intentionally based on the feedback we got the first time. As a veteran principal, I think really being transparent and being collaborative in decision making is important, but I was never as collaborative as I have been during this pandemic. Not at this level. That’s something I want to take with me moving into the next year. 

Johnson: I think we definitely continue to move the needle as far as differentiated instruction. We were headed there anyway, but I think the pandemic made us look at it in different ways, and how a student who is at home for an extended period of time can still be a functioning part of the classroom. We’ve also changed our resources; a lot of our classrooms now have TV screens or projector screens where students can join face-to-face virtually and still be a part of the class. Then we also have a model where students are learning asynchronously but still have access to the content at all times. I don’t think those are going anywhere. Students are going to attend school in many different forms, and we have to figure out how to give them an appropriate education in each of those forms. 

McIntyre: Absolutely. We reside in a very diverse community, so our focus is on equity and anti-racist leadership and keeping that at the forefront of what we’re doing. For us, that means being intentional about rejecting colorblindness and having people understand that race matters and that it comes to an intersection with learning. We also work with our teachers and staff to facilitate cultural conflicts, particularly with parents and partners and specific student groups. It’s going to be really important moving forward in this challenge of meritocracy, not business as usual, but creating opportunity to really ensure that the school community has a full range of integrated services. That would include bringing partners into the learning community, and then rejecting this “cultural neutral” mindset, that one size fits all. We know that learning in today’s community is far more than that. We need a real commitment to protect students and give them equitable access to social capital and high-quality instruction.

We’re building a program called Campus Without Walls, which will be long-lasting after the pandemic. We’re monitoring schools as being affirmed, affirming, and inclusive and keeping equity and anti-racist leadership at the forefront. Those ideas will carry on. We also use a process called Equity Roundtables, where every school leader, every district leader is responsible for bringing the community into the learning program and having their voice in problem-​solving around data or metrics or whatever circumstances might exist that are creating a challenge in the school community.

Savicky: How have your teachers and students changed through the pandemic?

Johnson: Teachers have become more proficient in using online delivery options to get their instruction out to students. They spent countless hours of their own time teaching themselves how to create digital instruction and finding best practices and looking at what other districts or hybrid classes are doing to create quality instruction. Secondly, teachers are more aware of the different learning obstacles that many students face, whether it’s health-related or family support; they understand there are inequities in the home environment, so they’re more accommodating and aware of those.

Students have changed. They’re more adaptable for online learning. We’ve really tried to promote study-strategy skills and organization skills for online learning that maybe they haven’t been taught previously. We’ve seen a bit of an increase in enrolling in college-level online classes.

McIntyre: Our teachers have really challenged themselves to become proficient in handling Zoom, in creating virtual lesson plans, and engaging their students and families in this different landscape, which has been wonderful. But one of the biggest takeaway lessons is that they need to build meaningful relationships with students. Often, the students will be on screen, but with their video feed off, so the teacher is left teaching to a black screen, which is not very encouraging. They are learning now how to deepen their relationships with students in ways that invite students into the learning process as opposed to taking for granted that it is their responsibility to be there. Now teachers are more into consulting with students, creating advisories so that they can create one-on-one opportunities with students, making breakout groups so peers can support peers.

The students are changing because we’re asking them to take greater responsibility for becoming a community member. We’ve made leadership groups from our students just to participate and to help us cultivate what virtual learning should feel like, should look like, and what their experiences are. We have what we call the Boston Student Advisory Council; all of our decision-making processes are going to include students. We believe that doing that helps to shape our culture and community by including their voices.

Houf: Because of the COVID stipulations like masks and dividers, we have tried very intentionally to give both teachers and students more opportunities for leadership. Like Lindsa, we’re finding ways for students to feel like they can have ownership and be part of the community when we’ve all had so many things that have had to change for the past year. Any chance that I have for students to use their voice, that’s something that has always been important, but especially now.

We found that most of our students don’t need a full day to get through their work. When we came back in-seat, some students said, “OK, do we really need to be here all day?” and “I can get most of what I need in half a day.” So, we really had to get intentional with how can we make sure that we are providing quality in-seat instruction? It’s a challenge between just having seat time and actual achievement. We have to decide how we meet the needs of our learners that don’t need the full school experience.

Savicky: Once the COVID restrictions are lifted, what’s going to be necessary to get the kids back to their school routine? Can we get them back to that same school routine?

McIntyre: Success will rest on building trusting relationships with the students. Every teacher will have the responsibility of doing that, and the relationship has to go beyond, “I know your name, and I have your schedule and grades in front of me.” The relationship has to be built on sincerity, reliability, confidence, emotional intelligence, and respect for every individual student in his or her learning profile. They will have to spend a lot of time reconceptualizing how they think about teaching and learning moving forward where they need to align the socio-emotional, socioeconomic, socio-cultural, linguistic understandings alongside their more cognitive ones. So, they will no longer be able to just rely on their content but will be put in a place where they have to rely on significant relationship-​building with each student in order to actualize their learning goals. That would include equity and anti-racism, and this different conceptualization of learning, but it will also include building individual learning plans for students and not looking at the class as a whole, but as a group of individual learners coming into the learning process collectively.

We have to figure out alternative ways in which we can still allow learners access into learning. It might just be differentiating schedules, creating twilight programs that don’t happen from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., but maybe happen from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. We’re going to have to use a lot of creativity in creating some new normals that accommodate a student post-pandemic.

Houf: I think that the differentiation is going to be huge. We are in-seat, but not all of our kids are. We have a sector of kids who are doing virtual, and if they choose to come back to in-seat next year, we need to make sure we meet them where they are. We have a group of our students that chose to homeschool with our virtual program. How do we meet the needs of the students where they are? How do we set up different pathways to help kids get what they need?

We can’t just retain a whole group of students because inequities prevented them from accessing curriculum. The challenges that we’ve had is the “stop and start,” and how do we keep going. My own family dealt with COVID … when kids get sick, when staff gets sick, how do we support them when they’re going through that? And that’s just the day to day, but when you think about everything that our families are going through with COVID, there’s just a lot there hindering success.

Johnson: One thing that we saw right away [for in-person learning] was the mental and emotional exhaustion level the first six weeks of school. It was hard on kids being back in a desk and going through a school routine for seven or eight hours a day.

I agree with what Beth was saying regarding bridging the achievement gaps—we had major gaps in what students learned last year, especially from spring semester. [There are] always achievement gaps in the classroom, but they were more pronounced this fall than what we’re used to seeing. Last spring we tried to make students really feel connected while they were online and maintain a school community in a virtual setting, which was really hard. But once we got back in brick-and-mortar, that attention had to shift to more of the traditional emotional supports that are there for bullying or emotional breakdown and anxiety over tests and sports. We saw an increase in the amount of students seeking emotional support through therapy or counseling, but because of COVID, we found many new services to help our students. We are rural. Pre-pandemic it could take weeks before a student could get an appointment with a therapist. Now, with telemedicine, getting emotional support is much faster.

Savicky: Can we go back to our pre-COVID schooling?

Houf: I don’t think we will ever go back to what was normal before March 2020. For myself, I will always live now as “What could happen tomorrow?” Our lives changed instantaneously. So, for most of us in the profession, we’re going to always be ready to have to move, change gears quickly because of what happened. I definitely don’t think school or life will be the same as it was before. We’ve learned things that we want to do better, too.

When March happened, the first thing we started to think about was food because we had issues about access to food. As a result, this year all of our students have been able to eat breakfast and lunch for free in all of our schools. This is one of the reasons why the new normal can’t be the old normal in my opinion. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about that, ever. We see inequities through a new lens now because until some of our district leaders drove the routes to make sure kids had food, until the leaders went to the homes and helped get the hotspots set up, and recognized the huge discrepancies between our learners’ resources, I don’t think the impetus to change was there as much. That’s why I agree 100% that our new normal cannot be our old normal.

Johnson: I think it’s a long path back to normal if we can ever get there. Not only did we have the COVID outbreak, but it has brought to the surface a lot of the divisions that are existent in our society. It’s brought a lot of new challenges in getting back to where we’re all on a cohesive vision, and “back to normal” is going to be a challenge.

McIntyre: I don’t think we need to go back to normal, because “normal” wasn’t cutting it. It wasn’t working. Normal was camouflaging systemic racist structures that prevented students who have been historically marginalized from accessing great opportunities to learn. Normal for a teacher is basically thinking cognitively about what teaching and learning is, and we know now that the heart of change is going to rely more so on how you feel. It’s 60% heart and 40% mind. When you’re working in a diverse community, you have to have a prescription for how to change. We call it “CRIOP”—Culturally Responsive Instructional Observation Protocol—where every teacher should be paying attention to:

  • Classroom relationships: Are you creating relationships?
  • Family collaboration: How are you engaging parents in your classroom protocols?
  • Assessment practices: Are they inclusive?
  • Instructional practices: Are they differentiated as well as inclusive?
  • Student discourse: Are you doing all the talking, or are you giving students a chance to honor their own thinking, their ideas, and their lived experiences?
  • Critical consciousness: Are you aware of the disparities in the disproportionate opportunities that our Black and brown and immigrant students have been excluded from?

That’s going to be a huge focus moving forward. We have to put, front and center, the needs of a culturally responsive urban demographic community and align our practices, our principles, and our initiatives in support of that, because we are no longer teaching to historically white middle-class communities. 

Savicky: Do we need to redefine attendance, especially for our Black and brown students?

McIntyre: Absolutely. That has been one of our biggest challenges, really trying to meet students where they are and bring them where they need to be. How do you hold a student accountable for needing to work to help his immigrant parents pay rent, right? How do you fail that student? So, we need to be more creative in terms of how we offer schooling, and not necessarily be committed to seat time, but maybe committed to project-based experiences or project-based learning, or an internship or some other way of qualifying and justifying a student’s participation in the learning process, where he or she is still able to meet the standards without just sitting in front of the teacher. Those are some of the most intriguing ways our students experience learning, because not only are they academic, but they allow students to use their whole self. We need to have greater access beyond the pandemic to virtual learning; Campus Without Walls needs to be blown up so that you can just decide, “Oh, I want to take this course in English; it’s offered at 8:00 p.m., and it’s virtual,” and you can get your credits for that. School shouldn’t just be so static that it happens from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., because not all learners are available at that time.

Houf: In our school, since we’ve been in-seat, the inequities that I see is our kids that have to go on quarantine or our kids that, for whatever reason, are quarantined for up to two weeks, but some of our kids now are on quarantine number four. But if they’re at home and engaged—because most of our kids either join in virtually with the class—then why shouldn’t it count as attendance? Our district expectation is that the kids who are quarantining need to have access through their Google Classroom to anything that an in-seat student would have. But what about when the pandemic is over and we have students who aren’t feeling well, or have severe social-emotional concerns that keep them from attending school in person? If they’re accessing their work from home, why should that attendance day be different?

Johnson: We have to redefine attendance, but we need to be cautious. As we redefine this, it might have some unintended consequences of creating more inequities. We have to make sure that as we redefine attendance, we make sure that students in a variety of different programs or learning formats are still receiving the same quality instruction as students who are in a building. And I think that’s a slippery slope; it’s challenging for sure.

Savicky: Do you think we need to revisit the laws governing public school?

Houf: We’ve been saying that for a while now, too. We look at the world right now and determine what students are going to need to be able to do when they leave the preK–12 world. Jobs are looking completely different. With the pandemic, I wonder how many jobs will go back to being in-seat all the time? Jobs like ours, teachers, of course, will need to be face to face, but I think of my sister, who works in the corporate world. They saved a lot of money not necessarily having all their employees in-seat, so I wonder. We just need to make sure that we look at restructuring and redefining education.

It’s always a good time to look at school law; I don’t think it’s ever not a time to really look at school law, and it’s definitely a time to start looking at it in order to meet the needs of all of our learners, especially those that are the most marginalized.

Johnson: I agree that it’s always a good time to look at public education laws and our governing practices. In addition to changing what’s good for our students, we also need to look at the workload that’s being placed on teachers and administration. We keep adding on with every line item law that’s passed, with every new innovation that’s passed, but we don’t remove that which is outdated or antiquated. We just build on them. This is a great time to look at what we want the future of education to look like. Technology has opened a lot of opportunities for us, and I think we could completely redefine and become more efficient with a lot of our delivery practices and be more equitable.

McIntyre: We need to go beyond simply reacting to policies and laws in positive, negative, and neutral ways, but respond more proactively and deliberately. So yes, revisit the laws and find space to honor competency-based learning. Why should students sit through something that they already know? Can they prove competency and protect their time and opportunity to engage in more meaningful learning? We need to consider one’s ability to be successful in the learning environment. There are ways that students can show us competency of a subject rather than just putting in seat time.