With COVID-19’s impact reverberating across the globe, it has been a particularly intense and challenging time for educators. In the epicenter of this outbreak, New York City schools are working around the clock to reinvent virtual pedagogical approaches on the fly, aiming to prevent student learning loss in a “COVID-slide.” Now that Mayor de Blasio has canceled in-person classes for the remainder of the school year, it’s a new world to which we’re all adapting.
But while many schools face headaches shifting to online learning, our transition is unearthing many unforeseen benefits. In fact, the COVID crisis’ disruption to decades-old school practices is actually forcing innovation in the classroom in a way that could be a blueprint for America’s educational future.
This historic and challenging moment of virtual learning isn’t a short-term obstacle to overcome. Instead, it’s actually a moment to seize for schools and their teachers. Here’s why.
At our network — Classical Charter Schools — we’ve designed our schedule to allow one rotating lead teacher to deliver direct instruction to an entire grade of students, while all other teachers address issues with individual students as they arise. These instructional sessions are immediately followed up by break-out, small-group meetings to individualize learning. All of it is done virtually.
This model not only ensures our scholars receive the targeted instruction they need, but it also allows our educators to see their colleagues in action. The added exposure to other teachers — who would normally be delivering the same lessons separately if we were in-person — is delivering instantaneous peer-to-peer best practice-sharing over video. If a teacher instructs the large-group session in a way that resonates with students, it can be immediately adopted into the pedagogical arsenal of other teachers, added to our curriculum, and integrated into instruction across our network of schools.
It’s as if we’re crowd sourcing the very best teaching techniques with a plan to scale them for the future.
Further, our team of instructional coaches, who work each day with teachers to help them strengthen their skills, can seamlessly dip in and out of online classrooms. That enables them to see additional lessons while delivering feedback to teachers electronically and in real-time, improving instruction almost immediately. Despite our social distance, the quality and quantity of communication is more frequent. The instructional feedback loop is actually improving.
Our parents are also showing renewed agency. Historically, parents’ primary role in education has been to prepare children for learning. Their involvement pauses when they drop their child at school, where the onus for instruction falls mainly on their teacher. That’s why such a premium has always been placed on school selection.
But virtual learning during the COVID crisis is transforming the school-parent relationship. Genuine partnerships — rather than a relationship predicated on siloed responsibilities — are blossoming organically as caregivers are being brought into the classroom, where they’re personally invested in the learning experience. With access to online tools and the ability to see instruction, they see teaching and learning happening first-hand, building awareness of their child’s learning experience and enabling them to take on an even more active role.
Of course, many challenges exist. The digital divide is all too real, and our students and families — almost all of whom experience economic disadvantages — often have had technological obstacles to overcome. We also know that teachers’ ability to gauge individual student learning is extremely difficult. Unlike in a physical classroom, teachers cannot easily check students’ answers to questions. We’re actively searching for a viable technological solution.
Nonetheless, this experience is causing us to think critically about what our school model looks like going forward. Now that we have virtual learning in our toolkit, we could reinvent summer school learning. We could also integrate video learning tools to serve kids who are home sick, so they no longer have to miss a full instructional day. The possibilities are endless, and this transition has made us realize those possibilities exist in the first place.
Ultimately, New York City and its educators have had to do heroic work in a time of tragedy, and there is so much more to do.
But our experience is showing that we should approach these new tools from an introspective posture — not a defensive one —and we have to view this unique time in teaching as an opportunity to enhance pedagogy as a discipline. All of us — from educators, to parents, to policymakers — should collectively consider the many benefits of this moment for a post-COVID future. Because just as the world will never be the same after the darkness of this pandemic, neither will teaching.