5 ideas to improve schools battered by Covid-19

Like so many other states, the teacher shortage is hitting Washington hard.

Staffing shortages in our schools have resulted in multiple cancellations of classes, leaving students and families to navigate shifting schedules and academic interruptions.

The crisis has led the state to approve 10% more emergency substitute certificates, according to state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal. 

The economic impact alone is reason to pause and assess how the state can ensure our youth and workforce have access to the education they need and deserve to ensure we can all thrive into the future. Here are five ideas for educators and policymakers to consider.

Improve digital learning infrastructure 

In the urgent shift to remote learning during the pandemic, it became painfully clear that we live in a technology landscape of “haves and have nots.”

According to Connect Washington, 20% of households in tech-hub King County have no broadband or have services that are expensive, slow or underused. It is estimated 735,000 people in the state do not have internet connection in their homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Through the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there’s $100 million to expand access to broadband internet to nearly a quarter million state residents who don’t have it.  The Washington State Broadband Office mapping initiative will help identify gaps in high-speed internet service and areas of broadband infrastructure needs to advance the state’s goal to have universal broadband access in Washington by 2024. This will be especially critical for low-income families. It is essential that educational institutions partner with associations and government entities to remove technology and affordability barriers to digital access for learners of all ages.

Reimagine learning models 

There are many organizations and community leaders looking at ways to reimagine education. New curricula, technologies, pedagogies, and programs have the potential to support the college readiness of historically under-represented students, including low-income populations, students of color and those who will be the first in their families to attend college.

One model worth exploring is mastery learning, which allows educators to build a system of learning in which students are rewarded for perseverance. The Mastery Transcript Consortium comprised of public school districts, private schools and leading universities is developing this idea.

Encourage educator self-care

A recent RAND Corporation survey found that while 40% of all employed adults reported experiencing significant job-related stress during the pandemic, this figure was almost double for K-12 teachers (78%). Many pandemic-era teaching issues, such as stressed and confused students, technology challenges and new learning systems are linked to significant job-related stress, depression and burnout.

District leaders would do well to design and implement mental health and wellness initiatives for educators. Hiring behavioral health counselors not only for students but also for teachers and paraprofessionals can help, as well as listening with empathy to and acting with urgency on teachers’ concerns around pay, time and support needs.

Champion healthy learning 

Today’s students have reported heightened feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation. As we reimagine K-12 education in the wake of the pandemic, healthy learning is needed more than ever. School leaders should develop methods and processes that emphasize a learning environment that provide holistic support for a student’s academic, physical, psychological, and social self. To prioritize healthy learning, schools, colleges and universities can bring together the research and practices of initiatives addressing basic needs; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); social and emotional learning (SEL); mental health; and character education. This work should extend into governance and community engagement, particularly in our current politically charged environment.

Embrace regional education ecosystems  

All parts of a regional education ecosystem – early learning, K-12, community colleges, colleges and universities – are interconnected. Each of these interconnected entities has the power to effectively partner or painfully disrupt and disconnect learner journeys. Our outstanding colleges and universities are continuing to provide life-changing education for many, making a positive difference for individuals, families and communities.

As Washington moves forward, dramatically changed by Covid-19, it’s critical for higher education institutions to establish alliances with local school districts to support their human resource objectives and elevate the teaching profession. Partnerships like this can include professional development of current or aspiring teachers and school districts serving as clinical learning sites for pre-service teachers, our next-generation educators.

Adopting and fulfilling these five ideas depends on educators and their communities working together. We need set aside the historic “better than” arguments and embrace a “better with” reality: We’re all in this together. Education is a game changer, door opener and playing-field leveler. As such, let’s commit to substantive conversations and good work in each of these areas. Making progress together will support our shared journey toward new possibilities in 2022.

Tonya Drake is the regional vice president, Northwest region, and chancellor of WGU Washington, and Mark David Milliron, is senior vice president and executive dean, WGU Teachers College.


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