School Reopening Plans Offer a Chance to Rethink High Schools

Use reopening plans to re-imagine current educational practices. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a pressure test on our education system—the crisis exacerbated inequalities; wholly disrupted the lives of educators, students, and families; and upended the very notion of what counts as “school”—making it clear that the system, as it exists now, cannot hold.

By Jennifer Ellis

On March 12th, Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio announced a three-week closure of all K-12 public schools in his state to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). What initially felt like a shocking and unprecedented decision quickly became the status quo for most schools nationwide. At their peak, the COVID-19 school closures impacted at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 schools in the U.S. Ultimately, “nearly every state either ordered or recommended that schools remain closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year,” according to Education Week, which tracked district and state closures nationwide.

State education chiefs, district superintendents, school leaders, and educators subsequently made the most significant instructional pivots in the history of American education—pivots they had to make essentially overnight. The immediacy of the transition to distance learning exacerbated long-standing inequalities. Schools were forced – quickly – to confront the fact that not all students have access to technology, high-speed internet, and safe and quiet places to learn. Students with disabilities faced even higher barriers, as technology-mediated remote instruction often cannot support the accommodations and services required by students’ IEPs. And the rise in unemployment spurred by shelter-in-place orders compounded these inequities, leaving many students and their families food and housing insecure. 

As the months wore on, it became clear that schools would not reopen in the 2019-20 academic year. Districts, school leaders, and educators turned their attention to urgent educational needs such as completing end-of-year assessments, conferring grades and credits, and commemorating graduation. School leaders and families navigated these challenges in real-time with creativity, flexibility, and stamina.

Use Reopening Plans to Reimagine Current Educational Practices

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a pressure test on our education system—the crisis exacerbated inequalities; wholly disrupted the lives of educators, students, and families; and upended the very notion of what counts as “school”—making it clear that the system, as it exists now, cannot hold. This realization provides us with the opportunity to re-examine our education system and core practices, such as testing, with a larger equity mindset.   

We’ve already seen a substantial shift in college admissions testing. The College Board canceled spring SAT test dates, many colleges waived the testing requirements for a period of time, and other schools decided to rethink how standardized tests are used in the admissions process. For example, the UC system, which includes nine undergraduate campuses and serves over 225,000 students throughout California, has suspended the use of standardized testing through 2024. Instead, they have announced that they will develop a test “that more closely aligns with what [is expected of] incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC.

Admissions testing isn’t the only thing being called into question. Long debated topics such as the importance of social-emotional skills, personalized learning, and the use of innovative, real-world learning environments for high school students, are all being examined in a new light. 

In this moment of upheaval, in which every student must learn in isolation, educators can mobilize to meet students’ holistic needs in order to support learning as much as possible. For example, schools have activated virtual advisories and check-ins to make sure every student has one-on-one time to communicate about their needs—academic and otherwise—with a trusted, caring adult from their school.   

Make Your School Reopening Plans Count This Fall

School reopenings this fall provide a natural entry point to attempt institutional change. States can prepare schools not only to reopen safely but to confront fundamental inequalities head-on as well. This includes student supports like mental health counselors, accelerated learning, and school food programs. And as distance learning will likely continue to some degree in the fall, schools will need to ensure access to outside-of-school learning necessities like broadband and appropriate technology. 

Most importantly, schools will need to address the inequities of distance learning from the 2019-2020 academic year. Many students will be returning to school in the fall with vastly different distance learning experiences and varying degrees of completion of their spring coursework. For example, in a report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education researchers tracked 82 districts’ experiences with distance learning. They found that teachers in Clark County School District in Nevada still had not reached over 80,000 students through distance learning by April 20—amounting to about 1 out of every 4 students in the district who had no contact with the education system over a month into school closure. In contrast, the Miami-Dade School District in Florida reached an estimated 9 out of 10 students through distance learning. 

These disparate outcomes make it essential for schools to engineer education pathways that allow students to demonstrate mastery and progress through academic coursework based on their individual needs and strengths. 

Resources to Guide School Reopening Plans

While states have started to work through these issues, advocacy and policy organizations have also jumped in to support the hard work of laying out challenges and changes states must consider in their reopening plans to ensure schools are prepared to meet the present moment. 

  • The Move Schools Forward Campaign calls for critical measures such as ensuring student representation on all decision-making bodies, closing the digital divide, and moving away from “one-size-fits-all instructional and evaluation methods.” Additionally, they call for schools to make a full commitment to decentering whiteness in curriculum and equipping students to be “critical civic actors.” Their 10 guiding principles carry the endorsement of student organizations across the nation including Student Voice, Students for Education Equity, Our Turn, GenUp, and Students Toward Equitable Public Schools.  
  • Chiefs for Change and the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins released guidance for states. They suggest restructuring the school calendar to offer more flexibility and enacting educational models that help students develop critical social-emotional skills. They also recommend that schools and districts recover unused assessment funds and redirect those funds toward immediate teaching and learning needs. These needs include ensuring that all learning is based on high-quality instructional materials and curriculum-based assessments.  
  • The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine seated a committee to create guidance for districts and states about how to reopen schools safely for the 2020-21 academic year. Their guidance covers public health as well as social and behavioral sciences. The committee is working to address questions such as “How can safety decisions and practices avoid reinforcing existing inequities in education instruction and facilities” and “How should the health and safety practices take into account the needs of students with disabilities?” 
  • In late May, Brooklyn Lab Charter School in New York published a Back to School Facilities Tool Kit to explore options for returning to school unique to their community. This tool kit is part of a three-month design process that engages professionals, school staff, and community members in collaboratively working through the best way to safely reopen in the fall. Brooklyn Lab partnered with professionals in the fields of architecture and urban design to build out a comprehensive set of options. Brooklyn Lab also shared a video asking for community input on the design proposals and inviting a broader array of community voices to the table. 
  • Additionally, XQ’s Rethink Together Forum provides a home for cutting-edge thinking about these issues. For example, XQ’s Meg Stephens interviewed MIT professor Justin Reich on things schools, districts, and states can do right now to prepare for the fall.
  • As states, districts, and schools continue the difficult work of planning for the 2020-2021 academic year, each state continues to release guidance for schools through their departments of education. In addition to the below list of resources, New Schools Venture Fund recently released a brief: How to Meet Students’ Social-Emotional and Academic Needs When Schools Reopen, which provides a framework based on four critical social-emotional needs that have a strong correlation to academic outcomes. The briefing provides real-world planning questions that schools can use to ensure that reopening plans are accounting for critical student social-emotional needs. 
  • To aid in providing information for parents, educators, and students, we have partnered with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to provide the school reopening plan for every state and U.S. territory. While many school reopening decisions are made at the district and school level, state reopening plans offer critical insight into the health requirements for full reopening, flexibility offered at the state level, and personalized support for students’ academic and social-emotional needs upon returning to schools across the country.

A Greater Sense of Equity for Schools 

Many states have already released reopening plans that rightly focus on meeting the physical and safety requirements needed to bring students back into school buildings. However, it is critical that states and districts broaden their approach to include the quality of education provided within schools as well. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) study mentioned above, only one in three of the districts they studied communicated clear expectations for instruction to teachers during COVID-19 closures. State reopening guidance and requirements must not let that stand. While some states have started to outline thoughtful strategies around acceleration and remediating learning loss (Reimaging RI Education: Fall Reopening Plan Framework), others are mapping out approaches to social-emotional health (Strong Start 2020 (LA) and Louisiana Guide to Supporting the Well-Being of Students and Staff). No matter where your state stands on reopening plans, every state could go further in planning for truly student-centered, academically rigorous learning.

COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to the education system, many of which are also creating great learning opportunities on many levels.  However, it is critical that the educational community recognize institutional failures and ask how we can evolve our system to better serve our students, educators, and families. 

How do you think states can center equity in their reopening plans? Join the discussion on our forum. Check out the Equity in Education topic page on the Rethink Together Forum and think about how we can broaden our equity mindset. 

Resources on Reopening and Remote Learning: 

State Graduation Guides 

OpenIDEO COVID-19 Reimaging Learning Challenge 

Serving Students with Special Needs Remotely

More Resources on Educational Equity

Taking up Space as a Black Woman Is a Revolutionary Act  

Making Space for Youth Voices and Feelings during Protests against Police Brutality 

The Civil Right of Education, By the Numbers 

Student Voices on Equity:

Student Voice: We Have an Opportunity to Reimagine Our Future 

Student Shares All: How to Support Students with Disabilities