K-12 leaders reflect on last year, COVID’s challenges, and what’s next

'Safety, security, and mental health,' are top of mind for the coming school year, according to one school tech support manager.
Amy Bennett
Amy Bennett

Before each new school year, educators and administrators must strategize new approaches, assess the efficacy of old solutions, and chart a course for students and teachers that considers a constantly changing landscape.

Following years of upheaval, preparation for the 2022-2023 school year presents unique challenges. I spoke with school leaders about how they’re preparing for the next school year and how they’ve approached ongoing challenges from COVID.

Biggest takeaways from COVID’s impact on schools

For the educators we spoke to, COVID completely changed the educational landscape–and those changes will be long-lasting. For one thing, COVID highlighted both the importance of schools and the need for adequate education funding. “Schools are a critical component in societies,” said Amy Grosso, the director of behavioral health services at Round Rock ISD in Texas. From daily meals to mental health services to medical screenings, the experiences of the pandemic proved that schools provide students with far more than just education, Grosso said.

Anthony Padrnos, the executive director of technology at Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota, agreed: “COVID highlighted [and] amplified the disparities that existed in our system and created a greater prioritization of resources towards strategies that have an impact in reducing those disparities.” But, he added, the pandemic also helped all educators reassess how they teach–and showed the potential of instructional technology to create personalized learning for all students.

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In the same vein, Steven Langford, chief information officer at Beaverton School District in Oregon, said, “We need to not ‘get back’ to learning prior to COVID, but take what we have learned to design new ways for students to learn.” Teachers, students, and administrators rapidly implemented and adopted new devices and methodologies for remote and distance learning on a never-before-seen scale. “The speed and scale of change reset our assumptions of what was possible and how fast we could accomplish change,” said Langford.

COVID initiatives that leaders are planning to keep

For all the initial challenges COVID presented to the learning environment, it also showed the potential virtual learning offers to schools. And the educators we spoke with agreed that virtual in some form is here to stay. “COVID removed limitations in our thinking about how to support students and parents when they are not physically in school,” said Langford. For example, to make family access more equitable, schools are moving to make virtual–rather than in-person–parent education sessions permanent.

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“We had such a better response to parent education sessions when they were†¯virtual†¯and this is something we will continue to do,” said Grosso. “Parents can jump on a virtual session so much easier than physically going somewhere. I really feel this increased access.”

Other schools are keeping online learning options available for their students. “Even after most classes returned [to] face-to-face, our district implemented an†¯all-virtual†¯academy,” said Ethan Dancy, technology support manager at Iredell-Statesville Schools in North Carolina.

Padrnos said Osseo Area Schools will keep its full-time online school open for students who prefer remote instruction. “The full-time online school provides scholars an opportunity to engage in a learning environment that best meets their needs,” he said. “It provides options for families as they look at what learning for their students looks like and [what] supports them [best].”

Other lasting initiatives include:

  • The implementation of IT help desks for students
  • In-person tech helpdesks for both students and staff
  • Emphasis on creating and maintaining a Learning Management System
  • The adoption/reimagining of SEL plans

Top priorities for the 2022-2023 school year

Mental health was a major focus for many of the educators we spoke to. “Safety, security, and mental health,” are top of mind for the coming school year, said Dancy, summing up what many school leaders we spoke to said. To address this, schools are investing in:

  • Support programs
  • Extended summer programs
  • Renewed focus on educating and supporting the “whole” student
  • Rolling out SEL programs to further support students’ mental health and wellbeing

Amy Bennett is chief of staff at Lightspeed Systems.

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