Navigating the Toggled Term: Looking at the Present and Thinking Forward into the Future for K-12 Education

As the first few months of school has passed in the 2020-2021 school year, I wanted to take a moment to discuss a few reflections and thoughts then project into the future. After writing “Navigating the Toggled Term,” I am beginning to focus on writing the second edition. The thoughts compiled within this post provide some insight as to what I plan on incorporating into the second book.

Currently, we see many schools across the U.S. started school either fully online or in hybrid blended learning settings. Although, there are several states (mostly in the Southern U.S.) where schools have completely opened fully with COVID-19 safety protocols. Regardless of whether the schools started in a hybrid or more traditional setting with COVID-19 safety protocols, we have seen many temporary closures to move online or have implemented temporary quarantine procedures to isolate students, teachers, and staff. Additionally, we have on a few occasions schools start online and then move into hybrid blended learning. Consequently, we have see schools start online, move to hybrid learning, and then have to move back to online instruction.

Ultimately, we are in a toggled term. Depending on the geographical location, political atmosphere of where the school is located, and local health conditions have determined many policies regarding the instructional mode of delivery. There has been many instances of when instructional and organizational toggles have occurred to change the mode of instructional delivery as well as the place where instruction occurs. This demonstrates there has been significant movement among districts and schools to adapt to the ever changing conditions and challenges presented by this pandemic.

A number of trends I have researched and personally observed are quite evidence across the board. These trends will be outlined as they are important as we project into the future. Before some major trends are outlined regarding what’s happening instructionally, there will be a summary of how the toggled term is turning out around the world and then in the U.S.

COVID-19 Policy Trends & Data Breakdown

School Closures Worldwide

As we can see below, schools around the world are either partially open, fully open, and closed. Countries with policies to better handle the virus (there are minor exceptions) have their schools fully open. Generally, as we look at the map, countries that have not handled the virus well either have schools only partially open or they are completely closed. Also, another trend is looking at the global south. The global south has the most schools still closed because of the pandemic. Most of South America, parts of Africa, and India have schools closed while the global north is open or partially opened schools.

Figure 1. Schools around the World as of September 22nd, 2020

Source: UNESCO COVID-19 Pandemic Data

US School Districts COVID-19 Learning Models and Policies

Across the U.S. we see a variety of different instructional models schools and districts are utilizing to navigate the fall of 2020 and beyond. Primarily, across the board, hybrid blended learning is the most utilized instructional model. Then, we have in-person learning with the entire student population on the schools premises with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Lastly, we have schools employing online learning as their instructional model. Notice that online learning is being mostly utilized in highly populated areas specifically on the west coast. There are pockets of online learning centered around large cities on the east coast, but it seems like it is primarily being used out west and is being used the least in the Midwest.

Orange: Districts in online only learning

Red: On premises in full numbers with COVID-19 safety protocols

Blue: Hybrid

Figure 2. Instructional Models being Used in the U.S. Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic as of September 22nd, 2020

Source: MCH Strategic Data

School and District COVID-19 Safety Policies

Schools and districts have been surveyed regarding their COVID-19 safety protocols as well as what instructional models they are utilizing this fall. When we look at the data, some trends stick out. First, only 44% of high schools require masks on school premises. This is quite alarming given that COVID-19 is an airborne virus. Second, 64% of all districts require all students to wear masks. Still, 36% of districts do not require all students to wear mask. Third, districts have increased investment significantly into online learning and educational technology. This has resulted in options for students and families to opt to alternative learning options (i.e., online learning for the year). Fourth, so far 73% of districts have a reopening plan in place. Still, 27% of districts do not have one that is in place. Last, 83% of all districts require teachers and administrators to wear masks at all times. This is the highest percentage on this survey result, which is promising, but also surprising because the health experts state masks should always be worn in public locations by everyone to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Figure 3. Breakdown at School and District COVID-19 Policy Breakdown

Mask Policies and Temporary School Shutdowns

Below is a depiction in Figure 4, which outlines the mask policies districts currently have in place, in addition to, school temporary shutdowns caused because of COVID-19. The student and staff mask policies represents the first two tables. As we can see, the vast majority of districts require students and staff to wear masks. But, we still have districts who do not mandate masks for staff and students. Additionally, we see the temporary school shut down. Many schools technically did not close because they toggled immediately to an alternative form of instruction like online learning. However, we see instances of schools closing for 1-5 days and 6-14 days, which may represent situations where positive cases were found and cleaning, contact tracing, and quarantining occurred. Interestingly, we do see schools that closed indefinitely. Could this make up private schools or charter schools who were not prepared or did not have the financial flexibility to put in place COVID-19 safety protocols as well as provide alternative options for instruction?

Figure 4. Mask Policies in Place and Temporary Shutdowns to Either Toggle or Clean/Quarantine

Source: MCH Strategic Data

Reported COVID-19 Cases at U.S. Schools and Campuses

As we can see in Figure 5, we can see a breakdown of reported COVID-19 cases among U.S. schools and campuses. We can see the number of schools, cases, and deaths as a result of COVID-19. In addition, we can see how the cases are categorized per state and broken down by school district. This is a valuable resource as we can track where the largest outbreaks have occurred.

Figure 5. COVID-19 Cases at U.S. Schools and Campuses

Source: Tracking Cases Across the U.S. – NEA COVID-19 Case Data by State (Note: By going to this website, you can view school and district COVID-19 cases by state, district, and school)

The Overall Big Picture of the Toggled Term

The amount of data we have is extremely important as it provides us with an overall picture of what’s going on in the U.S. regarding how schools and districts are navigating the pandemic on an instructional and safety level. The data we have been able to collect is invaluable for predicting outbreaks and developing policies that will help provide safe school environments for students, teachers, school leaders, and the greater community. We need to develop and assess our current safety policies to ensure all personnel is safe so we can mitigate cases and outbreaks. Additionally, it is important to track instructional models used to deliver instruction and how they change over time. Having this information is key for us to help continue developing instructional and organizational frameworks to help schools and districts shift instruction as they navigate the challenges presented by the pandemic.

There is also a resource available to report and track reported positive COVID-19 cases in schools and districts across the U.S. A reporting website sponsored by the National Educators Association (NEA) has been developed to report and track COVID-19 cases in schools and districts across the U.S. If you are a teacher, parent, school leader, staff member, or community member who would like to report a case, the link above provides the opportunity to report cases to add to a database the public can view. Moderators look to confirm the reports for accuracy. Reports like this can help us stop outbreaks and contact trace.

Toggled Term Trends

Outside of the big picture, there are a number of trends that occurring this school year as a result of the pandemic. Several major trends are discussed in-depth as they illustrate what’s going on in the world of K-1 education. These trends are discussed and then utilized to predict future trends in education as we project into the future.

Physical Safety Concerns: As described in the news as well as with the data the physical safety and well-being of students, teachers, staff, school leaders, and the greater community. As we all know with COVID-19, not only can the person infected be harmed, but others around them. This remains one of the major concerns regarding in-person schooling. In locations with a lower daily positive testing percentage harbors safer environments to learn. Much of Europe is using a very low positivity rate as the benchmark for in-person school learning.

In the U.S., schools need additional funding to buy PPE and to ramp up testing capacities and contact tracing. Unfortunately, we need to do this in addition to our communities following social distancing and mask wearing protocols as it drops the local counties positive testing percentage. If two of these facets are done in tandem along with further treatments developed down the line for COVID-19, we will see more schools move towards in-person instruction nationwide.

Socioemotional Learning and Mental Health: Socioemotional learning is as prominent and important as ever for all students, teachers, and school leaders. All of the educational community is facing a large mental health hurdle throughout this pandemic. Socioemotional emotional is taking hold within the curriculum and be utilized across K-12. This is a bright silver lining. However, it’s not enough. The gravity of the pandemic, economic conditions, and racial and political divisions has caused an overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety. This has caused instability in many households due to job loss or economic instability.

Ultimately, we need to re-up our efforts for socioemotional learning and mental health. It impacts our students achievement! We need to include all of the education community in working on socioemotional learning and mental health. We need to provide community mental health and SEL programs, online webinars, and increase our funding for psychological services in addition to working on SEL in the classroom.

Zoom Fatigue: Zoom fatigue is real. Spending close to 3 to 6 hours a day on Zoom for both teachers and students takes a lot of energy. Synchronous live instruction seems to either be mandated all day long or in smaller chunked out amounts for K-12. Asynchronous seems to be chunked within a lesson or conducted every other day (depending on either if its an online or hybrid setting). Our focus needs to be on chunking synchronous instruction with asynchronous instruction during a lesson or focusing on the hybrid blended learning models of utilizing it every other day.

Student Blank Screens: As with last semester, students seem to be not sharing their video screens with their teachers during distance learning. While this does not happen everywhere, we have seen trends of this occurring. Teachers have noted this being difficult to understand. Students tend to share their video while in breakout rooms and during collaborative work activities.

Work Completion?: Teachers have noted there has been a big work completion gap between students who have home support versus students who do not. Many teachers have noted students seem overwhelmed at times with the amount of work they are receiving. Ultimately, there is an equity gap that exists. Even within a hybrid blended learning model when students attending either half day, every other day, or selected days throughout the week, there still is more of an asynchronous instruction component that exists. Last, many districts and schools had a do not harm grading policy last year as shutdowns occurred throughout the nation. This policy ensured students would not be penalized if they did not complete work or performed below standard. This policy may have caused students to not be used to the rigor we had while in session pre-pandemic.

Educator Fatigue/Stress: There has been a high amount of educator fatigue and stress regardless of whichever instructional model being employed. More time has been devoted to content creation, planning, and using edtech along with the stress of either having to battle health fears or balancing family responsibilities at home while teaching online. Burn out is real and happening. We have seen teachers quit the profession and teachers retire early. The impending teacher shortage looks to only increase in rural and low income areas.

Instructional Flexibility and Freedom: School leaders who have given teachers the instructional flexibility and freedom to innovate. Teachers have incorporated edtech tools and their instructional applications to online, hybrid, and traditional classroom settings. We have seen an acceleration of innovation, which is in-part because of the uncharted waters we are in, but also because school leaders have given teachers the instructional freedom to experiment and innovate the nature of how they instruct students.

The Use of the HyFlex Instructional Model: Before COVID-19 this instructional model was only used at the university level. Now, many districts and schools have adopted this instructional model when students and/or teachers are quarantined. This allows students to be in-person as well as online in two separate settings receiving similar instruction from their teacher. In addition, the HyFlex is employed in some instances when schools offer an in-person and online option but they are offered simaltaneously. Many teachers have noted this is increasingly difficult model to provide instruction as well as one that may not be sustainable over the course of the entire school year.

Projecting into the Future

As we move into the winter and spring of the 2020-2021 school year, we must begin thinking about trends in K-12 education that affect our immediate future. This pandemic is here to stay until at least late-2021 and into mid-2022. We will probably not be returning to normal soon. Thus, the rate of instructional innovation will continue to hold true as K-12 education is in the midst a transition we have not seen since the late 1800s. As a result, a number of trends will likely occur, which will revolutionize education as we know it in many places around the U.S.

Teacher Shortage: The pandemic has only exasperated the teacher shortage many states and regions are dealing with. For example, in Arizona, since August 31, 2020, 751 teachers have quit, 1,728 teacher positions remain vacant (28.1%), and 3,079 teacher positions have been filled used alternative methods. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

COVID-19 is Here to Stay: According the WHO chief scientist, we are looking until at least 2022 until precautions such as face masks and social distancing will be lifted. The implications of this on K-12 education will be immense as districts and schools will have to adapt to toggling between hybrid blended learning and online learning. Also, without major future investment in education K-12 education by the federal government, we will see massive inequities continue to be exasperated. In addition, the safety of schools will be compromised as a supply chain of PPE and site based testing will be a necessity to ensure the safety of teachers, students, school leaders, and staff.

Adapting or Failing: District and schools have a choice. Adapt or fail. As discussed earlier, this pandemic is not going away anytime soon. If districts and schools do not adapt to having to toggle instructionally and organizationally as we as provide alternative education options that are viable, we will many students leave traditional schools to alternative education options (Charters, Online Charter Schools, Private Schools, Private Pods, etc).

School Choice: With many schools and districts failing to adapt to the instructional realities of the pandemic, there will be a rise of online charter and private schools. As a result, education enrollment may not be as localized as it once was prior to the pandemic. Rather, families may have the choice of selecting educational institutions, teachers, and classes via an online choice board whereby they select the best option for their student and family. If local districts and schools fail to provide viable educational options, this school choice methodology could begin becoming mainstream.

The Nature Instruction is Improving: Instruction is innovating at an accelerated rate due to edtech integration in all educational settings. With good instruction and edtech integration, we are seeing instruction take place across the board to the masses that was only taking place to a small segment of the student population before the pandemic. We must always remember that good pedagogy drives instruction. Future professional development should focus on further integrating instructional strategies to be used to drive the use of edtech.

Teachers and Educational Institutions Show how Valuable they are to Society: Having over 50 million students still learning from home, the perception of teachers and their value to society has been mixed. On one end, teachers are doing such an amazing job and their job is increasingly difficult. As a result, there has been high praise in terms of their value. On the other hand, we have seen teachers being called dispensable as well as emergency workers. However, from what we have seen in this pandemic is that teachers are a center piece to our society. Without teachers, the economic engine of our society cannot be maximized. Ultimately, the longer the pandemic lasts, this will become even more evident.

Teachers need to continue to advocate for maximum funding and support from the community. If funding and the greater community adheres to COVID-19 safety protocols, our schools will remain open longer for in-person instruction and our economy will improve. We need funding to ensure schools are safe and support from the community to play by the rules. If communities do not provide this for schools, expect more toggles between online and in-person instruction to continue as well as further economic instability.

Teacher Education – A Revolution: Now more than ever it has become evident that new teachers need to be able to teach in online and in-person settings to be proficient educators. As a result, teacher preparation programs have begun shifting to provide additional instruction to help new teachers learn how to teach online in addition to in-person instruction. As with many of the other future trends, this will only become more evident as the need will continue to exist long after the pandemic is over since education will be reshaped. Teacher preparation programs that provide additional instruction and begin refocusing their efforts to help teachers integrate edtech tools aligned with instructional strategies within their programs, it will provide the framework for teacher preparation evaluation standards and procedures to change to align with our current and future educational landscape.

Conclusion

The future of K-12 education rests upon additional safety funding, support from the greater community, and strategic leadership. We have not seen such an upheaval in K-12 education like we have now in the past 100 years. Immense change is on our doorstep. With positive collaboration between all the stakeholders in our local communities, our schools can thrive as the nature of instruction is improving at an immense rate. Inevitable change like the diversification of instructional models and the choice of schools for families and students will only continue to accelerate. With large upskilling and investment in edtech, the boundaries of traditional brick and mortar schools are eroding. K-12 education is transforming into instruction that can occur anywhere and at anytime and increasingly personalized to meet each students learning needs.

Note: Continue the conversation on Twitter or place a comment below! This is an on-going conversation that is evolving. Many of these predictions about the future are based on trends seen throughout the education landscape as well as conversations with educators across North America.

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