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Reimagining Schools When We Return to a New Normal

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Make Schools More Human” by Jal Mehta in The New York Times, December 27, 2020; Mehta can be reached at [email protected].

“It’s looking as though all schools should be able to open fully in the fall,” says Jal Mehta (Harvard Graduate School of Education) in this New York Times article. “The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago.” His suggestions:

Rethink one-size-fits-all schooling. The pandemic has produced a wide variety of student responses: some kids haven’t missed the social pressures and anxieties of in-person schooling, while others feel lonely at home and can’t wait to be back in school. Some shy students have learned how to participate more fully in class via the chat function, and others have enjoyed small-group interaction in breakout rooms. “When we reopen schools,” says Mehta, “could we do so in a way that creates different kinds of opportunities for all kinds of students – introverts and extroverts, fast processors and reflective thinkers?”

Make schools more human. Paradoxically, the distance created by remote classes has forced schools to get in closer touch with students’ and families’ life circumstances – and how those intersect with what schools expect. “We are often in such a rush in school – from one class to the next, from one topic to another – that we don’t remember that the fundamental job is to partner with families to raise successful human beings,” says Mehta. “The pandemic is helping many of us to think about our students in a fuller and more holistic way.” Many teachers are building stronger relationships, having frequent check-ins, delving into relevant curriculum topics (including racial injustice), designing tasks that give students agency and purpose, and allowing students more choices - including the music they play during breaks. Another important development: adolescents are getting more sleep, which one study credits for reducing mental health issues in recent months.

Rethink the high-school schedule. The seven-period day is “unsafe in person, unmanageable at home” says Mehta. Some schools have experimented with a quarter system where students take no more than three subjects at a time, allowing teachers to work with far fewer students (for example, 80 instead of 160) and focus more on relationships and deeper understanding of content. One Wisconsin high school took personalization a step further, assigning every adult 10-15 students and to be “on call” for them as they navigate their virtual classes.

Reconcile the interests of educators and families. In some districts, says Mehta, teachers have been “demonized” for pushing back on school reopening to protect their own health and safety. This is a shame, because teachers are essential workers, and “the success of students is intimately connected to the success of teachers… Coming up with ways to build trust and find solutions that are good for both students and adults is one of the meta-lessons of the pandemic,” he says.

Make up lost ground. In one recent survey, 56 percent of teachers said they’ve taught only half the curriculum they cover in in normal times, if that, and the impact has been greatest in lower-income communities and for children of color. “The right choice here,” says Mehta, “is to get very specific on what needs to be made up and what does not; teams of teachers and administrators could work together to decide what is essential to keep and what can be pared.” The goal: “greater depth on fewer topics.” Funding and access to counseling, technology, and broadband need to be equalized, and Mehta believes there should be a moratorium on standardized testing this spring.

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