5 top priorities to prepare for in-person learning this fall
After announcing earlier this month that schools across the country should reopen for in-person learning regardless of whether they can implement all recommended COVID-19 mitigation efforts, the CDC has developed fresh guidance to help schools address the most important issues facing students and administrators after an unprecedented year spent learning remotely. COVID remains at the top of the list of concerns, but there are additional matters schools need to confront in order to transition successfully.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds allotted to K-12 schools through the American Rescue Plan may be used to pay for many of these necessities. Among them: PPE, cleaning and sanitizing supplies needed for districts to maintain operations as the pandemic continues; upgrading HVAC systems in schools where those systems are in disrepair, and establishing emotional support programs for both students and teachers to help ease the transition back to in-person learning.
While different districts may consider certain issues more pressing than others, here are 5 propositions being discussed as universal priorities for reopening throughout the country:
1. Encourage mask-wearing and physical distancing. The K-12 operational strategy includes consistently using prevention measures such as masks and physical distancing of at least three feet, although with individual states addressing the mask issue differently it doesn’t appear there will be one universal plan. In some conservative states, lawmakers have banned districts from requiring masks despite the counsel of medical professionals. And measures for children too young to be vaccinated will likely differ from those taken in middle- and high-school classrooms, which will be filled with both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
2. Attend to students’ mental health as well as their physical health. Trauma, anxiety and isolation over the past year have taken a toll on youngsters, and school districts are taking that into account as students return this fall. One Ohio school district, Hilliard City Schools in Columbus, has added seven new counselors and 10 more social workers, their Director of Student Well-Being, Mike Abraham, told ABC News. “Anxiety has always been high with this generation,” Abraham said. “With the pandemic, some students have become very comfortable with isolation and not having to deal with the anxiety that school or their peers bring. That’s what all districts are dealing with now—giving them strategies to be able to cope with their anxiety and whatever mental health issues they’re struggling with.” Last month, Iowa officials announced the state is launching a new pre-K-12 school mental health center that will expand training and resources that support mental health needs in schools. And the Miami-Dade County school district is exploring using federal relief funds to hire more mental health clinicians as most of the district’s students return to in-person learning this fall.
3. Provide SEL training to educators. If teachers are to do their jobs effectively and provide emotional support to returning students, they, too, need support in place. A 2019 Education Week survey found that 78 percent of teachers feel it is part of their job to help students develop strong SEL skills, but only 40 percent felt they had adequate solutions and strategies to do so. Between having to pivot and learn an entirely new way to teach last year, concerns about safeguarding their own health as well as their family’s, and conflicts with parents over reopening policies, teachers need access to mental health resources as much as students do.
4. Incorporate ed-tech into the course of everyday learning. It began out of necessity—working on iPads and Chromebooks, mastering new technology in order to stay connected while apart—but now education technology is as essential to curricula as textbooks. The return to in-person learning will be a chance to pick back up the human connection between teachers and students who are not communicating through a screen and simultaneously allow for flexibility of learning through the ongoing mastery of tech tools, which can enable students to work at home while sick or late at night if that’s when they’re at their best, or eliminate snow days by allowing teachers to conduct lessons online, for example.
5. Invest heavily in after-school programs. According to Youth Today, nearly three-quarters of after-school programs were forced to close due to the pandemic, and programs that remained open dealt with staffing shortages and rising costs for COVID-19-related cleaning and sanitizing, the latter of which exacerbated inequality in access to programming. Now, with the American Rescue Plan providing $500 billion to support young people outside school hours, “This is a moment that calls for bold and significant investments in afterschool so that families can take advantage of these critical programs and ensure their children are in good hands,” said David Cicilline, U.S. Rep. for Rhode Island and co-chair of Afterschool Caucuses. “The bottom line is that these programs work, and we should be doing everything we can to replicate them around the country.”