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Leading in Crisis: What K-12 Schools Learned From Switch to Virtual Learning

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Nicole Militello

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Nicole Militello

DU professor, team of researchers examine response to COVID-19 challenges

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Mom helping child learn on the computer

Like so many professionals in 2020, K-12 educators have spent much of the year improvising. That was especially true last March, when, thanks to the coronavirus, nearly every school in the country was forced to close doors on Friday the 13th. Educators were left scrambling to answer several major questions. Do teachers and students have the resources and technology to switch to remote learning so quickly? Are enough support systems in place to prioritize the well-being of everyone? As the pandemic rages, what inequities are coming to light?

Lessons Learned infographic

The University of Denver’s Erin Anderson, an assistant professor in the Morgridge College of Education, teamed up with researchers from universities across the country to analyze the fallout from the coronavirus crisis on education. This real-time research progressed as schools were managing the changes and decisions in record time. (Anderson, who is part of the Morgridge College’s educational leadership and policy studies department, works closely with Denver Public Schools.)

“The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented interruption to schools that researchers needed to understand and capture in real time,” Anderson says. “We asked educators to do things that were part of their job, but we also required them to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities quickly. The work of school leaders is already multifaceted and complex, and during the pandemic, we have asked them to take on more tasks and to solve societal ills.”

From April to August, the researchers conducted more than 100 interviews with school principals from across the country to identity their most pressing issues and what lessons could be applied moving forward.

“My biggest surprise is that we are not learning from the experiences last spring and letting them inform decisions for the fall, particularly at the policy level,” Anderson says. “There have been ample studies highlighting the importance of dealing with emotional and physical needs before engaging in instruction, but policy for this fall has not reflected this understanding. Districts have been rapidly changing the format of schools and asking teachers to teach in untenable hybrid models.”

The research indicates, Anderson says, that though it would have been difficult, the best decision would have been to prioritize consistency and educator well-being by picking one learning modality and sticking to that decision. That would have been far more productive than switching back and forth between virtual learning and in-person instruction.

“Hybrid models where they teach live all day and have asynchronous online learning going on simultaneously are not realistic,” Anderson says. “Teachers cannot support all students at the same time and essentially have to double the work.”

The research team also found that the challenges schools need to focus on fit into three distinct categories: infrastructure, interaction and instruction. Infrastructure encompasses access to technology and resources; interaction looks specifically at socioemotional support and communication; and instruction focuses on prioritizing students’ needs and the continuity of learning.

“Principals affect so much more than test scores,” Anderson says. “We found that principals have assumed the role of caregiver of all. Our research found that principals and teachers are taking on a lot of stress and responsibility for care while trying to maintain rigorous instruction, increase communications to families, and support the mental health of students, teachers and families.”

Erin Anderson
Erin Anderson

As school districts nationwide develop their plans for early 2021, Anderson urges principals to look to the study for help achieving a successful second half of the school year. She offers these big takeaways:

  • Prioritize mental health by reducing disruptions and using learning models that don’t overwork teachers and that promote continuity of learning for students.
  • Recognize that educators aren’t only providing instruction and rethink how schools are assessed. School quality is about far more than test scores, and schools do far more than just provide instruction.
  • Even in non-pandemic times, schools everywhere confront challenges associated with food insecurity, equitable access to educational resources and students in poor health. These challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has exacted a high educational toll on students of color and students facing socioeconomic challenges. School districts need to address these inequities and take steps to dismantle the systems that perpetuate them.

More information on this new study can be found here.