Remote learning, synchronous and asynchronous, mute and unmute, all became familiar terms in 2020 as the field of education transitioned impressively into an online world to prioritize health and safety during the pandemic. As we look ahead to the coming school year, students who opted to spend the entire 2020-21 school year online will likely now be returning to their classrooms in person and will need our support. Academically and interpersonally, the needs of our remote learners will look different than the students who attended school in person in some capacity over the course of the pandemic.
Routines & Expectations
It is important that schools dedicate time at the onset of the school year to familiarizing remote learners with in-person routines that may have become “commonplace” over the course of the 20-21 school year. This may include eating outside, sanitizing hands, distance-check strategies (i.e. “arms out”), or new pathways in the building that students are expected to take to promote distancing. Whether in Kindergarten or 10th grade, having a focused opportunity to learn safety protocols from a staff member before being integrated with peers who know the drill is an important step in supporting their return. Once the school year starts, clear signage, repetition of routines, and peer models will help students feel safe and comfortable with the new expectations of school.
Educators across the country are concerned about a new popular term, “learning loss”. It behooves teachers to acknowledge such loss instead as “gaps”, understanding that students did learn over the past year but may not have solidified skills and content at their grade level if learning online. To address this, pre-assessments and small group differentiated instruction are critical to our success in reintegrating students after a year of online learning. Establishing these instructional models early affords students the comfort in accessing this help and approaching the school year with a growth mindset. Consider adding content-based skills from the previous grade level to your pre-assessments in small doses to identify if those areas are covered or need to be retaught.
If your district is still considering how to spend the federal funds provided to schools, consider how tutors may be an asset to addressing academic gaps. Rather than providing intervention or even assuming a learning disability because of missing skills, consider how the strategic implementation of a tutor could target the gap areas for a student and boost them to successfully interface with grade-level curriculum. The workload may feel significantly different for students returning to in-person learning, so be cautious of simply providing additional homework practice to sure up missing skills. Rather, creatively delivering instruction on gap content areas within the school day may better meet the needs of these students as they move forward in their learning progression.
One of the most significant concerns educators have is for the social-emotional wellbeing of students whom have been isolated from their peers for such a long time. It is important to have a heightened sensitivity to how this may present in students, whether it be avoidance behaviors or social skills that may overcompensate for the missed connection. Schools should be proactive with students in addressing their social-emotional needs, offering orientation opportunities before the first day of school where students of similar ages can openly ask questions to either trusted adults, peers, or both.
Having additional counseling staff at the start of the year who can avail themselves to remote learners who are reintegrating is also critical to their success, so that they can have additional support processing social successes and slights. Providing explicit instruction on social behaviors provides all students with clear expectations on inclusion, respect, and interactions that promote the wellbeing of others. Make sure resources for social-emotional concerns are clear for all students so they can be accessed as needed, while also being proactively provided at the start of the year.
While gaps may exist for students returning from remote school, you will also find that they bring many strengths to the classroom that some of their peers may not yet own. Technology will be an area where these students can shine and should be invited to share their talents and abilities through technology as applicable in the classroom. Starting the year with class-wide platforms like Google Classroom, Seesaw, or Classroom Dojo may allow reintegrating students who are slow to warm up an arena to communicate and connect. Creating class-wide opportunities rather than offerings solely for students who learned remotely last year creates an inclusive environment where students who are struggling interpersonally can show their true selves in a way that feels safe for them.
Remember that transitions are hard, no matter how strong a student is. While maintaining safety as paramount, be sure to afford students who are coming back from remote learning the opportunity to make mistakes and feel supported even when they may not be showing their best selves. The more predictable school can be for them, the more success they will find, but without fail these students will have harder days than others as they leave the comfort of home and the new routines they had established for remote learning. They need the adults and peers around them to lead with empathy and encouragement so that they can find their footing once again at school.