How does One Reinvent School Amid COVID-19? | 8 Min Read

By Trevor Shaw, Director of Technology, Dwight-Englewood School ((NJ), and President, Genesis Learning

The physical classroom doesn’t directly translate into the online world. Schools must address the physical and emotional needs of students and must completely rethink the delivery of instruction in order for learning to continue.

I hope that when you read this, we are on the downward slide of this pandemic and planning for a return to our campuses in the fall. As I write this in late April, however, the end still seems far off. While many of our leaders talk about testing and tracing, there doesn’t seem to be a clear path back to the classroom in our near future, and our teachers continue to work in environments that look nothing like their physical classrooms.

If there is a bright spot to any of this, it has to be the incredible talent, skill, and resiliency demonstrated by independent schools across the country as we pivoted to online learning in a matter of days. It was daunting but also a little exciting to be a part of the “all hands on deck” moments at my school where we all worked through long meetings and late night phone calls to make urgent decisions about logistics, technology and policy.

Physical and Emotional Needs Come before Learning

Abraham Maslow taught us that before students can learn, their physiological, safety, and belonging needs must be met. The current pandemic has disrupted the routines that give our students a sense of physical and psychological security. Social distancing has cut them off from their friend groups and school communities, intensifying feelings of isolation.

Before a school can begin to think about learning in this new landscape, it needs to acknowledge the trauma caused by this crisis and find ways to patch the holes that have emerged in students’ sense of safety and belonging.

It is reasonable to expect that some of our families might be facing threats to basic physiological needs such as food and shelter. The sudden economic shutdown may have caused disruptions in the finances of even our more affluent families. We must also be aware that crises tend to amplify issues of inequity, and these issues can become worse still in the context of distance learning. Some families might be able to quarantine in relative comfort, while others may find themselves in a cramped apartment, sharing a single family computer and unreliable Internet access.

Schools can help students who are disproportionately affected by this crisis by increasing sensitivity and awareness of equity issues in this new context. To help address some of these concerns, schools might consider increasing tuition assistance programs and modifying payment schedules for families in need. Teachers should keep an eye on attendance and be sure that deans, counsellors and principals are aware of students of concern.

Beyond the basic physiological needs, schools must recognize the isolating impact that social distancing has had on students and the important role of frequent communication in combating that isolation. The type and frequency of such communications will vary depending on the needs of a community. For example, as we were ramping our distance learning plans up before the start of our spring break, our Head was pushing out an email to families each day to ensure that everyone knew the logistical plans being put into place. Now that we have settled into more of a routine, his emails are still important avenues of connection, but they go out weekly and are more reflective in their content.

Perhaps even more important than top-level, institutional communications are the many inter-community activities and connections that must continue to find ways to thrive in an online environment. Advisory groups must find ways to continue meeting. Clubs and activities must communicate and maintain their relevance in the current crisis. At our school, we have hosted poetry readings over Zoom and extended guided meditation to our alumni over YouTube. Several of our student organizations have created letter writing campaigns for the elderly and first responders. One of our staff members is coordinating the home use of our entire fleet of 3D printers so that students can create masks and face shields for local hospitals. All of these tasks not only strengthen our community connections but also give students a sense of agency and relevance in a time of isolation and uncertainty.

Old Teaching Methods Don’t Work in This New Environment

In addition to addressing issues of physical and psychological security, schools must also ensure that learning continues to move forward. This will be incredibly challenging for teachers who feel very strongly about covering a certain amount of content each year. Our school’s academic leaders remind teachers that scrambling to cover what they had originally planned will be futile. Instead, teachers are encouraged to focus on fewer topics but to do them really well.

In support of this, many schools have designed vastly modified schedules that reduce the number of “live” class meetings per week and encourage teachers to think intentionally about what types of things should happen over video conferences as opposed to being posted for independent work. Schools are also becoming keenly aware of the additional fatigue associated with video conferencing tools and encouraging teachers to modify the amount of time they spend in these environments.

In designing online versions of their courses, many teachers are struggling with the fact that they often don’t translate well into the online world and require some innovative thinking. Art teachers, for example, might need to create kits of materials to be picked up or shipped home. Science labs may have to be delivered using online simulations. One of our Physics teachers recently had her students creating lenses out of Jell-O to use in an optics lab. Phys-Ed teachers are designing individualized workouts and personal training logs for students. Students in musical ensembles are recording themselves and sending in videos to be edited and mixed with other performers to generate a “group” performance.

For all of the challenges related to moving courses online, the dissolution of time and space boundaries also brings some advantages. Guest speakers have become much easier to invite into classes. One of our art teachers had a virtual field trip to a friend’s neon sign workshop. Because there was no bus involved and no space constraints in the shop, he was able to arrange the trip quickly and to invite anyone in the school who wanted to join.
As good as some of these experiences are, schools need to acknowledge that this is a massive learning curve for teachers. The classroom management strategies that work in the live classroom don’t translate online. The methods teachers use in a live class to check for understanding don’t work on Zoom. The do-now’s, mini-lessons, and group activities that were the staples of the physical class and that our teachers have transitioned between effortlessly must now be re-thought and reinvented.

This can definitely be done. Independent school teachers are incredibly talented and dedicated. But they were thrust into this new landscape with only days notice and have been asked to build the airplane as they learned to fly it. Schools should consider professional development opportunities from established experts in distance learning such as the online course providers to independent schools. There are numerous concepts such as “wayfinding” and “community building” that you don’t need to think much about in an in-person classroom, but these become essential elements to a class in an online environment.

Think of something. Try It Out. Revise. (Repeat)

We are currently in the realm of fast decisions and “good enough” solutions. Necessity has forced us to move forward quickly with solutions that are viable if perhaps not always excellent. Compromises are necessary in such an environment, but too many compromises aren’t sustainable in the long run. School leaders need to be prepared to constantly analyze their situation and to make adjustments. Schools should be constantly gathering information from students, teachers, and parents through informal check-ins and formal surveys. Leaders should communicate to parents that their child’s distance learning experience will continue to be a work in progress and that adjustments to schedules and tools should be expected.

The Coronavirus Pandemic is the most disruptive thing to happen to education in my lifetime. It has affected our communities’ physical and psychological safety in unpredictable ways, and this disruption has trickled into our learning environments. These environments now exist in a completely foreign landscape for which our teachers had little to no preparation for success. Nevertheless, they seem to be succeeding in large numbers. With a mindset of humility, empathy, and perseverance; students, teachers, and parents at independent schools are making this experiment work all over the country. This is encouraging but not surprising, since these qualities have been at the core of independent schools long before this crisis struck.


This article was written by Trevor Shaw, shawt@d-e.org. Director of Technology, Dwight-Englewood School (NJ), and President, Genesis Learning

Trevor has been helping schools to leverage the power of technology as a learning tool since 1992. He has served as the Director of Technology for two high-performing independent schools where he designed the technology infrastructure and championed the plans for integrating technology into the curriculum. He has also worked as a classroom English and technology teacher. He has consulted for dozens of other institutions and served on the Board of Education of an outstanding New Jersey School district.

He has presented nationally and internationally on the topics of innovation and STEM. His writing has appeared in eSchool News and Multimedia and Internet @ Schools magazines.

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