As vaccines and the promise of Spring give us hope for the future, it's time to look ahead to a post COVID world. While there are many things we will be glad to leave behind when we return to business as usual: separation from family and friends, shortages of supplies and endless zoom meetings to name a few, there may also be some things we discovered during this time we will want to hold on to. Here are four things the pandemic has brought to light I think we'll need in the post pandemic world.
When we learned more about this virus and how it spreads, many schools realized that outdoor learning would be the key to learning in person. It allowed in person interaction, while lowering the risk of disease transmission. Outdoor classrooms were built and utilized. Teachers learned strategies for keeping students warm and dry. And innovative partnerships between outdoor education centers and schools were formed. I met an educator working in Massachussets who was part of a coalition of outdoor education centers providing in person, outdoor school for nearby school districts two days per week.
Research is clear that there are many health and learning benefits to being outdoors, even when sharing germs doesn't have such dire consequences. Lowering stress, reducing anxiety, controlling weight, improving mood, sleep and focus are only a few of the benefits. All of these things, in turn, improve learning outcomes for our students. The outdoors also provides teachable moments and concrete context for a lot of the theoretical thinking we ask our students to do. Problem solving, experimenting and learning through inquiry are a regular part of outdoor adventuring.
Our physical and mental health, as well as learning outcomes, post pandemic will be much better if we remember to keep outdoor learning a part of our new normal.
More schools and education centers than ever before are learning how to serve students who can’t be in class in person. It has been a struggle for many of us, and I don't know of anyone who wants to keep doing school the way we've been doing it these last several months. However, learning to use these virtual tools has also offered new opportunities. Some outdoor centers have been able to extend their reach using online tools, schools are dedicating time and staff to managing virtual resources and teachers are finding new ways to connect their students with outside professionals, remote locations and each other. And some students have found that virtual tools offer them new ways to shine. In coaching educators during this time, I've been so impressed with the ways they have reinvented their classrooms.
Wouldn’t it be great if the post pandemic world saw us using a combination of in person and technological tools to keep us connected? Schools that have transportation challenges might not need to miss out on so many field trips. Classes that can come to outdoor centers in person could stay connected afterwards with feeds of data gathered by other classes, in school extensions of outdoor center programs and virtual visits by outdoor center staff. Students who have significant health challenges could stay connected to their classes, even when they can't be in school. Students could "meet" each other and their teachers, even before the school year begins. Students could use virtual tools to show their learning in creative ways.
We can reach our students better if we thoughtfully incorporate virtual and in person tools into our classrooms.
Sick leave and flexible work options
The pandemic has highlighted the struggles parents have with juggling work schedules and the demands of parenting. Many workplaces have realized that work can get done at home just as well as in the office. And all of them have had to find ways to allow their workers to stay home when they or their family members are sick. In many cases, the government support for businesses and for workers has been the key.
The spread of sickness in schools is nothing new. Teachers and schools know the toll any contagious illness takes on school attendance for both students and teachers. They also know that the teacher shortage, including substitute teachers, is a real problem. It's a problem which won't be solved any time soon, especially if teachers continue to be asked to sacrifice their health, in addition to all the other demands placed on them.
Support for parents through flexible policies and paid sick leave needs to continue post pandemic. Parents need to have the flexibility to keep their children home when they're sick, instead of facing the impossible choice of losing their jobs or sending their sick kids to school. The simple step of keeping kids home when contagious is an important one to protect the health of their teachers and their fellow students.
Similarly, teachers need flexible work options and reasonable sick leave policies, especially teachers who are also parents. Working from home might not be the entire solution for in person classes, but there may be ways they could interact with their classes to support the work of substitute teachers while they're away, or flexible job sharing options. We will need to recruit teachers heavily in the next few years. How much easier will it be if teachers' health could be better protected?
To protect the health of teachers and students, parents need to continue to have flexible work policies and paid sick leave.
Social Emotional Learning
Early on, many schools recognized that the challenges of living and learning during a pandemic were taking a toll. They shifted their academic goals to include focusing on social and emotional needs, not just of students, but of teachers, staff and administrators as well.
As we return to a new normal, it will be vitally important to keep social and emotional needs in the forefront. Going back to in person school will be a huge adjustment for us and our students. Returning to punishment, suspension and expulsion as solutions to behavior issues will only exacerbate mental health challenges, learning loss and inequity. Pushing for academic progress without continuing to focus on the social and emotional challenges of returning to in person classes will be counterproductive.
It will be crucial for parents, teachers and administrators to have the skills to address social and emotional needs for their students and each other. And it will take more than tossing a new SEL curriculum in the laps of our teachers. Many outdoor centers offer teambuilding facilitation, which is a great way to address some of these challenges. The skills used in these kinds of programs are exactly the skills teachers need in the classroom, in parent teacher meetings and when meeting together. Significant training in these skills will be needed across the board.
Professional development and coaching in Social Emotional Learning skills and strategies are crucial to school success in a post pandemic world.
While living through interesting and historic times has had its challenges, let’s be open to the lessons it has taught us and the opportunities the future may hold. Let's use the insight we've worked so hard to gain to make the post COVID world even better than the old one!