Schools Retool Classrooms to Overcome COVID Challenges to Learning

After emergency closures sent schools and families scrambling to cobble together distance learning schedules last spring, schools across the nation are reformulating for the coming school year – whether students return the classroom, continue learning from home, or a combination of the two.

The work is complicated by countless unknowns, and complexities to safely meet the needs of by some 51 million U.S. students, more than 3.2 million teachers and many more administrators and support staff.   

Lightspeed invited a panel of administrators representing school districts big and small, to discuss how they’re planning for the 2020-2021 academic year and how to best meet the needs of students and teachers while managing the safety concerns of COVID-19.  A recurring theme: “We need to be ready to pivot at any time of this pandemic,” said Dr. Tawana Grover, Superintendent for Grand Island Schools in Nebraska. 

This July 15th webinar, the first in the three-part series: Reimagining the New Classroom Environment, provided wide-ranging insights into the myriad issues administrators are grappling with, but also optimism as educators innovate to meet new challenges. 

“When compassion and empathy meet disruption, it’s an incredible opportunity to make progress,” said Brian Kingsley, Chief Academic Officer for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, which serves more than 148,000 students and employs more than 19,000 teachers, support staff and administrators in Mecklenburg county, North Carolina.  

Starting families, students, teachers on same page  

Perennially, orienting families and students for a new school year is important for setting expectations and building relationships. Administrators said planning strategically for that process has become even more crucial with multiple and dynamic learning environments, supporting technology, and new health and safety protocols. 

“Whatever plans we implement…none of them will work well if we don’t get the orientation to the people of the resources that they need and do that well,” Kinglsey said. 

Identifying different needs 

Administrators are also grappling with the fact that even if schools reopen for in-person instruction, many families will opt out, remaining as distance learners. For other families unable to work from home, distance learning poses significant equity issues. 

Grover, whose district serves 10,000 students shared results from surveys showing 30 percent of parents said remote learning impacted their ability to remain employed and 28 percent reported they had no one to stay home and assist their child with schoolwork when schools closed. 

“That makes us pause and think about our process and how we can support our parents,” Grover said.  

Collaboration, innovation is paramount  

Administrators and educators are balancing pressures to innovate new approaches to maintaining rigorous curriculum, whether at home or in the classroom, while navigating long-established work rules and evolving health policies. Dr. A. Katrise Perera, Superintendent, Gresham-Barlow School District, described the past several months “like running through quicksand.” 

“We’re having to unlearn and relearn some things,” she said, urging collaboration, rather than obstructionism. “The need to accept these new approaches is ever more critical than ever before.”  

New environment, new tools 

Plastic dividers in high-traffic areas, hand sanitizer stations throughout the building and ionizers to disinfect each night are some of the new tools schools are implementing to maintain health protocols. Masks, both for teachers and students, prevent disease transmission, but pose challenges for students, especially those with hearing loss. 

“It’s very hard to read people emotionally when you can’t see their mouth,” said Dr. Steve Murley, Superintendent, Green Bay Area Public School District. 

While the shift to distance learning this spring caught many districts scrambling to translate curriculum online and close technology gaps for under-resourced families, summer offered a chance to recalibrate and in districts with summer school programs, a chance to test new approaches and do more professional development. Whether in-person or remote, learning needs to be consistent, including not just core classes, but also electives, Kingsley said.  

 “We’re not just in the business of promoting literacy and mathematics,” he said. “Electives are the heart and soul of the school day… providing wellness opportunities, social emotional learning opportunities, moments of expression and creativity and innovation for our students that really lead to them doing better in their other core classes.” 

Administrators said technology that connects teachers with students, both in the classroom and virtually will also be crucial in the coming year as schools attempt to make up for the third of the school year kids lost in the spring. Rather than rely solely on traditional assessments, schools must identify gaps on a student-by-student basis and trying to close them will be key.  

“We can’t go back and try to teach (lost) material at the start of the year because we’re going to be behind again,” Murley said. 

Audio solutions to ensure every word is heard

Noting that students spend about 75 percent of their day in listening activities, David Solomon, Lightspeed’s CEO, shared audio solutions that facilitate learning, whether in a socially-distanced classroom, distance learning model, or hybrid in which some students or teachers participate remotely. Lightspeed’s microphones and speakers distribute sound evenly and clearly.    

“Using mics specially designed for the classroom has never been more important,” Solomon said.  

“It allows all students to participate fully…The ability to hear and understand clearly is one mode of learning that does not need to be compromised.”  

Access the on-demand recording of the webinar to view the full discussion.