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Back to School With a New Perspective: Lessons Learned from Pandemic Education

By Laura Boycourt

After a dizzying 15-plus academic months of shifting guidance and learning modalities, hopes are high that the 2021-2022 school year will offer some sense of normalcy for students, teachers, and parents. Moving into the new year, some area schools are eager to employ the lessons they learned during the most challenging of times to create a better school experience. Here’s what they have to say.

Challenges Aplenty During a Difficult Year

For the young students at Weems Creek Nursery School in Annapolis, Director Mary Ostrowski says last year was especially tricky.

“The biggest challenges we faced were logistic ones: washing hands, wearing masks, rotating toys, or not sharing supplies in an environment where the very way students learn new things is by touching and tasting and where they have yet to understand just what the term ‘personal space’ means.” 

Anne Arundel County Public Schools Principal Rachel Amstutz says that in addition to constant changes in scheduling and learning modes, the emotional and mental impact was significant for school communities.

“I think one of the biggest challenges that we have not yet really understood fully is the impact of the past two years on everyone—faculty, students, and families—in terms of the social, emotional, and trauma impacts,” she says. “We’ve collectively experienced a lot in the past two years and as we prepare to return to ‘normal’ I think we will need to pay close attention to this.  So many students and families (and staff members) experienced loss, struggle, grief, stress, and broadly trauma in many ways. We need to prepare to support everyone as we return.”

Another substantial challenge —one that’s on plenty of minds—is how to assess and best serve students after a turbulent period of learning. 

Amstutz says principals are now facing “the academic impacts of the two unusual school years with condensed curriculum, teaching and learning both online and in hybrid models, the challenges in assessing students, providing individualized instruction and services, and meeting students where they are to ensure they get what they need.”

Lessons Learned

At Indian Creek School, reducing the size of classes and gatherings worked well and eventually afforded the community the opportunity to offer larger events such as athletic contests and in-person graduation, say Jen Malachowski (Head of Lower School), Matt McCormick (Head of Middle School),  Eliza McLaren (Head of Upper School), and Sarah Allen (Director of Curriculum and Instruction).

“These measures allowed the school to run an in-person program with extra-curricular opportunities for connections between students in a way that was healthy and safe—physically and emotionally—for all students,” they explain.

The ICS team also found that the year’s experience reinforced just how crucial learning in person is.

“We believe – more than ever – that there is no replacement for the magic of students and teachers learning together face-to-face.”

For Ostrowski, the pandemic inspired a renewed focus on the wonder of learning and the special dynamic between students and teachers.

“Interestingly, many of the restrictions brought on by COVID brought us back to the very basics of preschool education. Where we couldn’t invite visitors into our classrooms or go on field trips, we ended up focusing more than ever on the teaching and learning happening inside of our classrooms. The result was beautiful.”

“COVID restrictions required us to create a bubble inside our building that focused wholly on our students, hardly even allowing us to invite parents inside during the day,” continues Ostrowski. “While this was hard, the lack of any outside stimulation resulted in an extra special sort of camaraderie and sense of calm within our school building. It was a good reminder that field trips and other events add value to children’s learning – but the true magic of the preschool experience is what happens each day inside the classroom between children and their teachers and between the children themselves.” 

Moving Into the New School Year…and Beyond

As the academic year gets underway, Indian Creek School says it will continue to prioritize social and emotional learning throughout the entire school. 

“Although we’ve always put a bit of a premium on social-emotional learning, we hyper-focused on it during the pandemic and will continue to do so. Belonging, safety, social emotional well-being are crucial and critical to learning.”

The school will also take advantage of the outdoors, as it did last year.

“Faculty will continue to incorporate the outdoors and physical movement into instruction for all grade levels. The pandemic also reminded us of the importance of time for unstructured outside opportunities for students of all ages.”

Benjamin Tuck, a teacher in Anne Arundel County, hopes that as they begin the year, school communities will look forward, not back.

“People are going to focus on ‘lost learning.’ That’s a deficit mentality which isn’t productive,” he says. “We need to help children do their best. Make the children, their growth, as well as developing academic and practical skills a top priority.”

Tuck acknowledges the immense toll the past 15 months has taken on everyone involved but wants to see a safe return to the heart of education.

“We need to keep families and our communities safe. Last year was grueling for parents, teachers, and students. I sincerely hope we can bring curiosity, discovery, and joy back to learning.”

For Amstutz, the past year has presented an opportunity for schools to truly embrace technology as a teaching tool going forward.

“In many ways, the pandemic propelled us forward much faster than we were on track to go with instruction and instructional technology. I hope these instructional changes stick and improve because we can differentiate and target student learning in much more powerful ways when we harness the power of technology in our classrooms and learning processes,” she says. 

As students head back into the classroom this fall, school communities should seek to “re-norm” what the educational experience looks like for all students, Amstutz says.

“We must seize this ‘return to normal’ opportunity to make lasting changes to the culture and environment in schools to prioritize teaching and learning and ensure that schools are safe, welcoming, and inclusive for all.”

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