A year of COVID: Some education changes may stick around

  • CHS principal Mike Reardon and interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy talk outside the main office at Concord High School. There is a wellness station at the entrance to the building, where everyone who enters has their temperature taken and can help themselves to gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. EILEEN O'GRADY / Monitor Staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/9/2021 4:41:15 PM

After a year of remote education, hybrid schedules, outdoor classrooms and the reinvention of how lessons are delivered, school leaders say some changes may be here to stay even when everything returns to “normal.”

The traditional in-person classroom experience is expected to be back this fall as the pandemic wanes. Even so, superintendents say the last year has provided valuable lessons that could prove useful in the future.

“I think COVID and the way we’ve done business has opened the doors to a number of different strategies in the way we look at and educate youngsters,” said Kathleen Murphy, interim Superintendent of the Concord School District.

Personalizing education based on how students prefer to learn – offering remote and hybrid or in-person models – was a trend that emerged due to COVID, and something area administrators say could stick around, at least to some extent.

Murphy says remote learning will likely continue to be an option in Concord now that teachers have the technology skills to be able to deliver it. This could be as small-scale as a sick student using Zoom to attend classes for the day, or as large-scale as the creation of a virtual learning academy within the district for those who prefer online education.

“I do think we have to be very assertive in showing that we can provide a variety of instructional services and delivery of those services to our students,” Murphy said. “I think if public schools are going to compete with private and parochial and homeschool and other models, it behooves us to ensure that we offer our youngsters many different strategies for them to be successful.”

Steve Chamberlin, superintendent of the Hopkinton School District, said running a district during a pandemic has been “the most challenging leadership experience” of his career.

“I think our ability to personalize, our ability to help kids and teach in multiple ways, it has enhanced our toolbox incredibly,” said Chamberlin, who plans to retire in June. “I marvel at what we’ve all done and I marvel at what families have done to make the best of it.”

Chamberlin says he does envision remote learning continuing to be an option for select students who can’t attend school due to illness or circumstance, but in Hopkinton he said, face-to-face learning post-pandemic should be the top priority.

“I do think for us in Hopkinton, the care that we create to provide, up close and personal is still incredibly important for the vast majority of kids,” Chamberlin said.

Mark MacLean, superintendent of the Merrimack Valley and Andover school districts, says his staff will continue to use the technology skills they learned this year in instruction, but will be mindful of screen time.

“We recognize that when each student has access to a device, this increases opportunities, equity, and access,” MacLean said. “However, with that comes a necessary and important focus on digital literacy and digital citizenship.”

Murphy said learning outdoors, a practice that Concord schools used in 2020 to decrease the spread of COVID, will probably continue beyond this year, at least during warm months. Concord had tents set up outside the schools in the fall, for classes and lunch periods.

“The environment is healthy, youngsters are outside and it’s a break from a more traditional classroom with four walls,” Murphy said.

Concord technology director Pam McLeod says her department is planning for more outdoor WiFi, so students can use their devices outside.

Some New Hampshire schools have continued to offer outdoor classes through the winter, including Pine Hill at High Mowing School in Wilton, Mountain Shadows School in Dublin, James Faulkner Elementary in Stoddard and Jaffrey Grade School.

Education post-COVID will also inevitably involve a focus on student social emotional health, and remediation of learning lost in 2020. Murphy said her district is already thinking about summer programs that blend social emotional learning with recreation, and offer rigorous tutoring to help get students back on their learning targets.

Districts will conduct assessments to figure out how much extra support it will take to get students caught up, academically, going forward.

“I think its going to take work, its going to take use best practices, it’s going to take understanding level of performance, and data but I have great faith that kids will grow and learn and we will make sure they progress,” Chamberlin said.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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