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Back to School: 38 Questions to Consider for Fall 2021

Human Capital Management

Guest post by Mark Hansen, Superintendent in the School District of Elmbrook, a school district located fifteen minutes outside of Milwaukee, WI. Elmbrook serves about 7,500 students and is the 15th largest school district in Wisconsin.

The most common question for school leaders last summer was: What will school look like next year? Since then, a lot has changed. Many districts navigated significant disease spread in their communities in 2020-2021. Some schools started the year with in-person learning, and others opened up with virtual learning only. Some used a hybrid model.

Regardless of how each school system responded to the pandemic, they learned a ton about what is possible during interrupted schooling. As the old saying goes, “When you know better, you do better.”

Many schools will open with in-person learning as we start the 2021-2022 school year. With the infusion of federal relief dollars, the impossible looks possible. As you consider what the coming school year may look like for your community and what changes will need to be made, here are some questions you’ll want to ask.

Student and Staff Health Questions

This may be the most important filter to apply to decision making. We have made a lot of progress understanding the disease. We fought through. Here are some key questions about student and staff health:

What are the essential elements of safely opening schools for in-person learning? 

The previous school year taught our district a ton about disease mitigation and management. It is clear that a layered approach to prevention — social distancing, masks and face coverings, hand sanitizing, cleaning, contact tracing, and quarantining — allowed schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Additionally, monitoring school and community transmission rates helped inform us of when we could peel layers of mitigation and management back during the course of the year.

Building strong partnerships with our community helped keep schools open for in-person learning. Consider partnering with your health department, a testing center, a vaccine provider, and/or a local health care provider. For us, these priceless partnerships included weekly meetings with the county health department, a local COVID-19 test provider, an advisory board of health experts, and a local pharmacy for vaccine distribution.

How are you going to move forward with mask and face covering requirements?

As vaccine penetration deepens, including the likely availability for all school-age children, having a plan to address face coverings will be critical. On May 19, 2021, we moved from required to recommended face coverings. We spent the last four weeks of the school year with about 80% of attendees opting to not wear face coverings. In early June, disease spread reached the lowest level locally since the pandemic began.

How are you addressing the social and emotional needs of your staff and students? 

As school districts continue to prioritize staff and student well-being, designing your staffing model to support staff and students who have social and emotional needs will be critical. Consider what you define as key elements to SEL programming for students and staff. You might establish a team of various stakeholders to help guide programming, choose key partners, and manage a dashboard to help measure success.

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What data or metrics are you using to inform decision making for next year?

Our county has been aggressive in transparently providing data, and we have aligned to the key metrics outlined in the Waukesha County COVID-19 Dashboard. During the past school year, the county transitioned their dashboard to the state level, which can be accessed with the above link.

What partnerships should you consider as you approach the new school year?

Partnerships that proved priceless for our schools included our county health department, local health care networks, pharmacies, medical researchers, parents, testing providers, regional private and public school leaders, day care centers, and faith-based communities.

These partnerships helped us with disease management, in-person learning recommendations, vaccine access, and food and clothing insecurities and built a strong sense of community. They resolved vaccine access issues for our staff, early supply chain challenges with PPE, and winter clothing insecurities for our families and guided our ongoing in-person school model.

Other questions about the health, safety, and success of students and staff

  • Should you implement a universal social-emotional screener for staff and students to measure the ongoing well-being of all stakeholders?
  • As some students return from over 15 months of virtual learning, how will you help them reconnect with each other and with staff?
  • In the event that disease spread increases, what learning options will you consider? What data will drive your decision?
  • What mechanical ventilation system modifications need consideration?
  • What cleaning protocols will continue for high-touch surfaces and objects?
  • What contact tracing and quarantining practices should be in place next year?
  • How are you leaning into your key partners and vendors, like transportation, food service, day care, and others?
  • What protocols will remain in place for your food service operation?
  • What is your school system’s approach to extracurricular activities and offerings?
  • What testing considerations should be discussed related to surveillance testing, infrastructure needs for school-based testing, parent consent, coordination with public health officials, confidentiality, and potential community partners?

Unfinished Learning Questions

Some use the phrase “learning loss due to COVID,” but I consider it “unfinished learning.” Learning loss implies they had it at one time and lost it, which may not be the case. The pandemic disrupted so much for communities that students may not have had an opportunity to learn at the level we were accustomed to.

I have come to recognize that we must accelerate learning for kids who have unfinished learning, which may mean getting back to the basics of what we want students to know and be able to do. Some key considerations include:

How will you review and revise your learning standards to know which should be prioritized?

As our community returns to a sense of normalcy, we are prioritizing the countless standards schools are asked to deliver annually. Staying focused on what we want kids to know and be able to do at each grade level in each content area will help us accelerate learning for all kids.

How will you design and execute on accelerating learning through additional time and tutoring? 

Intensive high-quality tutoring deepens student relationships by increasing a sense of belonging and boosting preparedness, which ultimately improve academic performance. As schools return to in-person learning, adult and peer tutoring will prove to be pivotal for all learners.

What goes into building a high-quality tutoring program?

Highly effective tutoring can help supplement classroom instruction. It includes well-trained and -compensated staff, ongoing staff training, and alignment to classroom learning targets. Tutoring should take place 3 days per week and last at least 30 minutes. Tutoring groups should include five or fewer students. The Learning Policy Institute provides some great insights with their “Getting Tutoring Right” summary.

Students and staff navigated various learning management systems (LMSs) and platforms this past year. Do you need to declare a preferred LMS for next year? Should you differentiate where developmentally appropriate?

Many schools quickly jumped into Google Classroom, Seesaw, Canvas, and other LMSs, leaving some learners to navigate multiple systems — or, in the case of younger learners, many parents were asked to navigate multiple platforms. If school is going to be in and out of emergency remote learning, a uniform approach to your LMS could make sense.

How will you help students, staff, and families access broadband internet?

Many districts had to quickly roll out hotspots and other strategies to increase internet access for all kids. As internet companies return to fee-based strategies, districts need to be positioned to think broadly about how to address reduced internet access such as Wi-Fi hotspots on buses and other Wi-Fi broadcasting solutions. You may want to consider partnering with a nonprofit to increase broadband internet access. Try thinking of broadband internet access like water and electric utilities.

Other Questions About Unfinished Learning

  • How can you leverage the 12-month calendar to accelerate learning?
  • The foundations of reading and numeracy may prove unstable for our youngest learners. What research-based strategies do you need to be ready for a potential wave of needs?
  • What universal screening for academic progress are you using to identify students who could benefit from tutoring?
  • What other academic, social, and emotional interventions need to be considered?
  • What training needs exist?

Someone once said that tough times never last but tough people do. It is time to stand up and lead, even when it is tough going. 

Logistics, Budget, Facility, and Programming Questions

This is some of the most complex work I have seen schools tackle in my nearly 30-year career. It is similar to untangling a ball of yarn. Here are some other questions that have crossed my mind in recent weeks:

What modifications need to be made to our visitor and volunteer management system?

We spent the past 15 months without visitors and volunteers in our schools. Bringing back these partners will help us serve kids more successfully.

What office design modifications need to be made for a return to work?

Think about school offices and cubicle-based work force and health rooms. Dividers may need to be installed, similar to how retailers have responded to point-of-sale structures. You may have to consider adding extensions to increase the height of cubicle dividers.

As you contemplate your health room protocols, give some thought to space for symptomatic students who will need to be isolated until the student can be picked up by a family member.

What do we do with internships, cooperative programming, and other work-based learning for students as part of our school-to-work efforts?

Our district pivoted many of these experiences into a virtual setting last year. Creating a plan to bring back in-person experiences will be helpful, but keep in mind that some of the virtual pivoting may have created greater access to professionals because of increased calendar flexibility.

Even More Questions

As you begin to craft your approach for your organization, keep in mind the great unpredictability of this past year. Much about COVID-19 is still unknown, so agility, adaptability, and flexibility will continue to rule the day.

  • How can I use the various sources of ESSER funding?
  • What pandemic-prompted services will continue into next year, such as winter clothing support, food banks, broadband internet subsidy, or telehealth?
  • How do I attend to the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students and teachers?
  • How can I prepare teachers to successfully close gaps in 2022?
  • What will the new school year start-up activities look like this fall?
  • How will we deliver music ensembles during the new year? What about other in-person assemblies?
  • What busing and transportation scenarios will unfold, and will we need to modify parent drop-off and pickup if there is a continued surge in this method of transportation?
  • How will libraries operate during the tail end and post pandemic?
  • What role will vaccines play in your staffing/hiring plan and paid time-off policies?
  • Finding qualified substitute teachers was a significant challenge this past year. What are you doing to address it for the new year?

Final Thoughts

I don’t know about you, but for me, last year was like competing in an ultra-triathlon. Mitigating the health risks associated with COVID-19 and understanding the social, emotional, and academic impact on our decisions may define us in the short term. In Wisconsin, these decisions landed at the local level. Someone once said that tough times never last but tough people do. It is time to stand up and lead, even when it is tough going.

My best wishes to the thousands of leaders who are charged with making sense out of something they didn’t pick. It is fraught with pitfalls, obstacles, and challenges. Lean into the challenges ahead and remember the people we serve. Get after it.

Mark Hansen

Mark serves as Superintendent in the School District of Elmbrook, a school district located fifteen minutes outside of Milwaukee, WI. Elmbrook serves about 7,500 students and is the 15th largest school district in Wisconsin. Prior to serving as superintendent he worked as a teacher, associate principal, principal, and assistant superintendent. In 2006 he was named State of Wisconsin High School Principal of the Year and was one of three finalists for National High School Principal of the Year. He is an adjunct professor in the Carroll University Educational Leadership Program, helping develop the next generation of educational leaders. He and his wife, Scarlet, live in Brookfield, WI with their two sons, Zach and Max.