What will school look like next year?
Will things go back to normal?
What will be the new normal?
I am proud of the way this community has managed the pandemic. Our commitment to maximizing in-person learning has been based on a fundamental belief that kids learn and grow best when they are able to build relationships with one another and their teachers. While you can try to do that through a screen, there is no substitute for human contact. These students and teachers have willingly, and often joyfully, accepted the restrictions this year has demanded. The fact that we’ve nearly finished the year having missed no days of school to COVID is a testament to them.
And I have met nobody who wants to do it again.
Our hope and intent for next year is to return to normal, with five days of in-person learning, seminar-style classroom setups, large community moments, robust performing arts, and interscholastic athletics. All of that, of course, depends on vaccination rates, vaccine availability for our students, efficacy of the vaccine with the coming of new variants, public health guidance, and a host of other factors we can’t predict. But, if we stay on this trajectory, we should be headed back to normal in the fall.
Returning to normal, though, cannot mean ignoring the lessons we’ve learned this year. There has been more innovation in teaching and learning in the past fifteen months than in the past fifteen years. What can we take from this experience that will make school better for students and families?
In these early days, a few lessons seem clear.
Traditional school schedules don’t work for kids. This year, we had a chance to experiment with late starts and fewer classes per day (with fewer homework preps per night), and longer class periods. I am proud that we have already incorporated those features into next year’s schedule. This is our chance, as a school and as a society, to finally act on what research has been telling us for decades: students learn best when they are well rested, when they have a manageable number of assignments per night, and when they have more time in classes for deep, hands-on inquiry.
We have learned that that new tools and approaches can engage quieter, more introverted students. For years, I have sympathized with parents who are tired of reading the same comment on semester reports: “We wish that Billy would speak up more in class.” Being quiet does not mean being disengaged; Susan Cain’s wonderful book, Quiet, is a fascinating and important exploration of the power of introverts. Look at what happens in an English class when you activate the chat feature in Zoom or ask students to free-write in a Google doc before beginning a conversation. We hear student voices that are otherwise silent. It is not hard to imagine incorporating those tools into an in-person experience. Here at BUA, we already have.
We have found much more equitable ways to engage with parents and guardians in our community, too. In-person parent-teacher conferences on a weekday afternoon, 10am meetings with college and guidance counselors, evening community events — they all disadvantage single-parent households and families with two working parents. They impose a sort of school-engagement tax, which is paid by all and unequally levied. This is not a case for Zoom-only parent and community engagement. But it is worth asking how we can use technology to connect with families in ways that are not only more convenient, but more equitable.
Schools need to return to normal. And they should never be the same.