The pandemic has changed education but exactly how is still being determined, says Peter Griffiths, associate superintendent of Wichita Falls ISD in Texas.
“We're not done with COVID, but things are starting to thaw,” Griffiths says.
During the early months of the pandemic, teachers and administrators rewrote the playbook for education overnight, stretching themselves to the max. In contrast, this school year has been marked by an attempted return to normalcy, however, Griffiths doesn’t believe education will ever truly go back to a truly pre-pandemic mode.
“Once you stretch a rubber band, it's a little easier to stretch again,” he says. “I think that right now we're at the point where we want to be the plain old rubber band and not stretch, but come 2022-23 you're going to start seeing us stretch a little bit more with more planning as far as virtual classrooms and remote go.”
Accountability is Back But There’s Also More Support
During the chaos of 2020, educators were able to give students a lot of leeway, however, that has had to be reeled in this year, both at the classroom level and beyond. Texas has annual academic accountability ratings for its public school districts and schools that were temporarily put on hold last year, but now educators and students need to prepare for its return.
“Accountability is back,” Griffiths says. “We told everyone this year was going to be more difficult and we were right.” However, next year has the potential to be even harder still. “I'm concerned about ’22 to ‘23 because I think we still have a little bit of grace this year. I don't think we're gonna have as much grace next year.”
School leaders will need to prepare district staff, students, and parents for this shift back to pre-pandemic expectations.
However, the district leaders understand that students and their parents, as well as school staff, have had a difficult time during the pandemic. To help all these stakeholders move forward, school leaders have developed a multi-pronged approach. Rather than suspend students for acting up in class, as might have been done in the past, the district’s director of social-emotional services works with a team of restorative practices specialists who help students thrive in class.
Parents who are struggling are also referred to community health specialists for support. District leaders have encouraged teachers who need it to seek therapy and remind them that mental health treatments are covered by their health insurance.
The Evolution of EdTech Tools
Wichita Falls ISD had a leg up on many districts at the start of the pandemic when it came to tech.
“We were already a one-to-one district before all this. We were already using Google Classroom,” Griffiths says. “And so once we had to go remote in the spring of 2020, we didn't have as much pain as others.”
Even so, the forced remote and hybrid teaching encouraged many educators in the district to more fully embrace the tech tools available. “A lot of teachers really liked Google Classroom, and that technology,” Griffiths says.
This more tech-friendly experience has been mostly positive, but Griffiths says there have also been instances when it’s gone too far -- such as one recent classroom he visited in which everything had been gamified to the point where some lessons were lacking substance. “We still need to make sure that we engage our students and it's meaningful,” he says.
Going forward, educators will have to learn to find the right tool for the right lesson. “We've got to make sure that we're using a hammer to hammer, we're not using a hammer when we really need a screwdriver,” he says.
Learning which students and classes are best suited to online options will be one of the goals of the COVID thaw.
“What we discovered was that our high-flying students are the ones who can handle this,” Griffiths says. “A foundation class, for whatever reason, the students might not have the same structure or discipline to be able to do it online because there is a certain amount of discipline to be able to successfully navigate the remote work.”
Two new high schools are currently planned for Wichita Falls ISD, and online education will be taken into account in the designs. “The high schools will be built for a very technology-rich campus where we expect kids to be online,” Griffiths says. “They don't need to be at school, they can go to Starbucks, or the corner, wherever, and do their class.”
Griffiths says this year and next will help the district fine-tune how best to use online course offerings to supplement in-person education. “We're going to start diving into, “What does that world look like?’” he says. “So by the time these new schools open in 2024, we'll have those systems in place.”