By Nancy Gannon, Senior Advisor for Teaching and Learning, FHI 360
To understand how districts were preparing for the 2021-22 school year, FHI 360 held focus groups with education leaders around across the country. The conversations we had over the course of two months helped us understand a few key takeaways.
- Educators’ time is a rare and precious resource, now more than ever. Summer is always an important time for educators and youth. During the summer of 2021, that time and space felt even more critical because instructional leaders were making key decisions about how to prepare students and staff for a year like no other.At the same time, educators needed a break. Districts received an influx of federal money that, in other times, could be used to fund extra programs and planning time. But after more than a year of working through a pandemic, staff were exhausted. One district leader told us they’d planned a fantastic summer program for young people but struggled to find staff to run it. They significantly increased the pay they were offering and still couldn’t find educators that wanted to work.Not every district struggled this much but many, many education leaders noted that while they wished they could do significant planning over the summer, they realized the importance of nurturing the mental health of their staff so that educators are ready for the fall.
- It may be worse than we think. While some districts returned fully to in-person instruction by the spring of 2021, other districts did not see their full students in-person at all for the whole school year. We will not know the full impact of remote and hybrid education for years. But many education leaders we spoke to are worried that, as of right now, we only know a portion of the hardships our most vulnerable students faced.Adults lost their income and sometimes their homes. Some students got jobs and others were hungry. We know that some students lost parents and family members to COVID-19, which hit Black and Latinx communities harder than White communities.Educators are deeply concerned that our systems are not fully prepared to help students recover from the challenges they experienced last year.
- Stop talking about remediation. While this takeaway may seemingly contradict the previous one, we consistently heard educators push back hard around the notion that districts gear up for a year of trying to “catch students up” rather than re-igniting their excitement about school.Ultimately, leaders emphasized the need to understand students deeply and early in the school year. By spending time taking inventory of young people and their learning trajectories, educators can ensure that they align curriculum, pedagogical strategies, and resources that support students’ needs.
This summer we heard real optimism from some educators that this school year would be more normal. Now, with a middling vaccination rate and a rampant Delta variant raging in some states, it will once again be a challenge for education leaders to keep a focus on instruction. We hope that this space will help support that effort, share stories, and highlight successful strategies.