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Planning for the Unknown Future of School

School and district leaders are looking ahead to what returning to school might look like in the fall, and planning for an unprecedented start to the school year.

By Laura Zingg

June 15, 2020

An empty classroom with tables and chairs.

In the days and weeks following Indianapolis Public Schools’ shutdown in response to COVID-19, the district’s executive leadership team met twice a day, every day, to hammer out the logistics of setting up food distribution, remote learning, childcare, and communications. It was a herculean effort, even for a district that is well versed in managing complex systems and supports for more than 30,000 students across 74 schools. At the time, Dr. Nathalie Henderson, a 2003 St. Louis alum who serves as the district’s chief schools officer, remembers thinking schools would only be closed for a few weeks. 

“The realization hit as we got closer to our day to return that it wasn't going to happen and we quickly pivoted to a long-term plan,” she says.

Dr. Henderson oversees the school supervision team, including all school leaders throughout the city’s public school system. She was just a few weeks into her role when the pandemic turned everything upside down.

Like the vast majority of school systems across the nation, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) has since come to terms with the idea that it’s going to be a long time before school returns to “normal.” And even then, our previous notion of normal might need to be scrapped altogether. Over the past few months, IPS has quickly implemented robust systems to meet students’ basic needs and provide students with access to technology and materials so they could continue learning at home.

Now the district, along with countless others across the country, is deep into planning mode and modeling scenarios about what this all means for the long term—over the summer and into the fall. And all of this is taking place as states are hurting from the economic impact of the pandemic and grappling with cuts to education budgets. 

What will happen in schools over the coming months will look very different across the country and will largely depend on how individual states, counties, and districts are able to manage the spread of the coronavirus. While so much will remain unknown over the coming months, schools still have to make plans. 

Much like they’ve done in their immediate responses to the pandemic, school, district, and network leaders are planning for the uncertain future of school one step at a time. The coming school year will be unlike any other we’ve experienced and there’s no going back to the old way of doing things. Education leaders we spoke with believe this moment calls for reimagining what school can look like in order to make up for lost learning time and to address the long-existing inequities that have become abundantly clear during this time.

First Priority: Meeting Students’ Basic Needs 

In the time since schools across the country have closed, the pandemic has revealed just how much schools do on a daily basis to meet the basic needs of students and families. Dr. Anastasia Lindo Anderson is one of the thousands of school system leaders who are figuring out how to continue meeting those needs over the summer after the school year ends. 

Dr. Anderson oversees five K-12 school campuses as the superintendent of Houston’s Promise Community School district, where she continues to serve students and families in the same city in which she taught as a 1993 corps member. Social services are baked into the district’s model: Through a partnership with a local community development organization, the district provides wraparound services to families such as healthcare, senior services, and workforce development. 

Dr. Anderson and her team have been providing myriad supports to families since schools closed—offering food assistance, sourcing toilet paper, finding translators who can walk parents through their child’s remote learning assignments, and explaining how to access benefits through the CARES Act. She says families need a conduit and right now and schools are taking on that role. The next step is figuring out how to make it sustainable over the coming months.

“We've set up something quickly. Now we're thinking through how we automate some of those things, how it becomes endemic to the way we do the work that we do and how we do it long term,” Dr. Anderson says. 

In Indianapolis, the school district is also thinking through how to sustain the systems it quickly launched in response to the pandemic. Since schools were closed in mid-March, IPS has served over 3 million meals to students across the city, often covering three meals a day. The district has partnered with a local food bank to expand its capacity and ensure that students have access to meals over the summer. 

And it’s not just food security. Students are processing multiple traumas—some have lost loved ones, or have parents who lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. Many students are dealing with the stress of being isolated at home, and in some cases, they are living in situations that are not safe. On top of this, the issue of police brutality against people of color and nationwide protests and violence are compounding existing trauma. 

“School is where, for a lot of kids, that we catch that,” says Langston Longley, who serves as school principal at W.J. Scott Elementary in Atlanta, in the same district where he taught as a corps member in 2004. “We can physically see them every day and make sure they're being fed, make sure that their hygiene is up to date. And right now it's kind of like everyone has to fend for themselves,” he says.

Every week since W.J. Scott Elementary has been closed, teachers have been making phone calls home and checking in with every student. They are arranging to have food and supplies delivered and connecting families with additional services, social workers, and therapists whenever possible.

But Langston worries about the long-term impact of trauma that students are experiencing around the pandemic and how his school will be able to respond—especially as he sees his community disproportionately impacted by the virus. Cities across the country have reported higher rates of COVID-19 cases among people of color.

“Anything that is happening negatively always impacts minorities more than everyone else,” Langston says. “It's bigger than just the virus. It’s the unemployment, it's the eviction, it's people not getting access to their medicine. Those impacts are always going to be multiplied in communities like our urban schools.”

Jacob Allen is the CEO of pilotED school in Indianapolis and a 2013 Chicago-Northwest Indiana alum. He’s most concerned about the students who have been hard to reach during school closures and what they might be going through. 

Over the summer, Jacob says his team is focused on coming up with innovative ways to provide social-emotional support to try and ease students’ stress around feeling isolated. The team is dropping off care packages, organizing a pen pal program between students, and holding drive-in movie nights in the school’s parking lot. The school’s food pantry will stay open over the summer, and teachers have created a series of cooking shows with simple healthy recipes using the pantry’s provisions.

His school team also plans to continue doing socially distant home visits to check in on students who are most at risk. Teachers stand out on the driveway or talk to students through the window.

“They make sure that kids are doing ok and also make sure that students and their families have what they need,” Jacob says. We're worried but also optimistic that we have the right people, to make sure our kids are safe.”

Extended Learning Over the Summer

Since schools transitioned to remote learning this spring, the percentage of students actually logging in has fluctuated. The reasons are complex and rooted in issues of equity—parents whose jobs don’t allow them to work from home may not be able to be home during the day to help their kids with schoolwork. Some students still don’t have access to reliable internet. As school and district leaders look ahead to the summer, the question of how to bridge students’ learning gaps is another top priority.

High school seniors, in particular, are at an important crossroads. Whether they are going on to college or pursuing other opportunities, having a high school diploma in hand is essential. And those who have struggled with the switch to remote learning may be at risk of not finishing their requirements to graduate. This is on Dr. Henderson’s mind as she and her team at Indianapolis Public Schools think through how to leverage the summer months to keep students on track.

Over the summer, IPS seniors will be able to keep their laptops and continue working toward earning the required credits in order to graduate. Students in grades 9-11 will also have extra time over the summer to finish their coursework in order to earn credits needed to stay on track. 

Given the extra challenges and inequities of remote learning, Dr. Henderson says the district is maintaining a “do no harm” philosophy around grading: Students cannot earn a lower grade during the fourth quarter than what they had in the third quarter.

“And if students were failing the third quarter due to factors outside of their control while we've been in home learning, we're going to give them an incomplete so that they can then take the course in summer school,” Dr. Henderson says.

“We can't just return back to normal. Now that students have missed five to six months of instruction, I can't expect them to just pick back up at a new grade level and be ready to perform.”

Langston Longley

Principal, W. J. Scott Elemenary

Metro Atlanta Corps Member 2004

At Gem Prep: Nampa in Idaho, which serves students in grades K-8, (and K-10 next year), the school follows a blended learning model. Students were used to engaging in online learning as part of their in-person class time, well before they transitioned to fully remote learning. But for younger students who might need more assistance at home, there is still a risk of falling behind over the summer.

Liz Warburton, a 2011 Houston alum, is the school’s assistant principal and says this will be the first year the school is offering its online summer school program for its K-6 students. Around 90 students have already opted in to an extra month of live online instruction to catch up on math and reading. When students are able to return to in-person classes next year, those with low remote learning attendance and academic concerns will be among the first to receive small group face-to-face instruction.

"We talk about summer slide and how it affects certain communities in particular and we're concerned about that every year,” Liz says. “But an additional two and a half months of that could have a really big impact on our long-term success for our kids. Our goal is to reduce those gaps as much as possible."

Across Houston’s Promise Community School District, roughly 85 percent of students are consistently engaging in remote learning. But that doesn’t stop Dr. Anderson from worrying about the other 15 percent of students who aren’t logging in. Younger students in particular need more hands-on support with online learning and may be in a situation where it’s more difficult to get that help at home. In order to bridge the gap, Dr. Anderson’s team is continuing to make daily phone calls to get in touch with families. Teachers are also making socially-distant home visits to check on students who aren’t logging in and offer extra support.

While the district had hoped to offer a limited in-person summer school program, it’s too soon given health and safety guidelines. Instead, students can participate in a virtual summer school to catch up on learning they lost this spring. 

“This is helping us reach more students, but we still have more to do,” Dr. Anderson says.

Planning for Multiple Scenarios

As much as we want them, there are no certainties about what returning to school will look like in the fall. District and school leaders are doing as much as they can to prepare for the multiple scenarios that may unfold over the coming months. Once schools are able to reopen, the situation gets much more complicated. 

“In the fall, because outbreaks look differently within my network, I might have one campus that closes because a child or an adult on that campus tests positive,” Dr. Anderson says. “And so now I have a need for that campus to recover learning time, whereas other campuses don't. And an entire network may close. But other schools around that network may still be in session.” 

The big questions on Dr. Anderson’s mind are how schools in her district can quickly pivot back to online learning and make sure that students don’t lose instruction.

The answers are not straightforward. So Dr. Anderson and her term are planning for multiple possibilities: students attending classes in-person with tremendous safety precautions; a hybrid approach with some kids attending school online and others in person; and continuing with entirely remote learning for the foreseeable future.

“There is just so much planning and preparation that we must do around figuring out how to bring students back to school safely this fall, if we can,” she says. “We must figure it out though because students not learning, is not an option. It is a weighty responsibility to get it right, but our kids’ lives depend on it.”

Large urban school districts are grappling with the same questions and following a similar approach. Andrew Strope, a 2011 Chicago-Northwest Indiana alum and the chief of strategy and planning at Indianapolis Public Schools and says his team is starting with the non-negotiables: students' safety, addressing trauma, and providing high-quality instruction. The district is relying on guidance from state and local officials and planning for both ends of the spectrum—in-person school on one end, and entirely remote learning on the other, as well as an option in between the two.

“There's that space in the middle where some students would be in school and others doing at-home learning and then you would switch,” Andrew says. “That's the one that is obviously very complex so we are going a lot deeper on that one as an organization.”

Like so many other school leaders, Liz is also working with her team at Gem Prep Academy to map out a range of complex options for returning to school in the fall. Her school team has approached its planning by starting with three big questions: What do we know? What do we know is unknown? And what are the unknown unknowns?

“Most educators are big planners and I think that ability to be okay with things being uncertain is something that is really difficult for us,” Liz says. “But understanding that no matter how hard we plan and what we put into it, there are going to be unknown unknowns. And we're going to adapt and do our best to thrive in that situation.”

“We need to go harder than ever for kids and we need to plan so intentionally during the summer so that we show up differently for the needs that will exist in August.”

Dr. Anastasia Lindo Anderson

Superintendent, Promise Community Schools

Houston Corps Member 1993

‘We Can’t Just Return Back to Normal’

The COVID-19 school closures have exposed existing equity gaps and shown more clearly than ever that the needs of students and families extend far beyond academics. According to the education leaders we spoke with, this moment has forever changed what school will look like and calls for doing things differently, especially as students return in the fall with big learning gaps and other needs.

At pilotED Jacob and his school team are planning for all the possibilities that may occur in the fall, including staggered schedules and small classes where students will sit at least six feet apart from each other. But beyond the immediate practicalities and safety precautions of reopening school, he’s also reflecting on what feels like a pivotal moment in education.

"We know that the education system is inherently broken for a specific subset of kids,” Jacob says. “It sounds bleak, but we almost needed this crisis to happen to force the innovation that we’ve seen in other industries in times of crisis. We needed this wake-up call to realize virtual learning is important. Caring about the health of our kids and families is important. This is going to forever change the education industry, period.”

In Georgia, after the governor announced that schools would be closed through the end of the year, only 40 percent of students have been attending remote learning classes at W.J. Scott Elementary. Langston Longley, the school’s principal, says that while many families were able to get access to laptops and hotspots, the issues keeping students from learning are more systemic and complex.

“Equity extends beyond just having the device,” Langston says. “What some of my kids don't have is access to an adult that can support them. Because in low-income communities, their parents’ jobs—if they are working—never closed. Students may not be doing schoolwork until seven o'clock, when someone gets home.”

Langston says getting students back on track will require advocating for some big structural changes to the way the school day looked prior to quarantine, such as extending the school day and offering programs on Saturdays to help students catch up. While it’s not unusual for his school team to cover two years’ worth of instruction during a single school year, this crisis is setting students who were already behind grade level, even further back.

“We can't just return back to normal,” Langston says. “Now that students have missed five to six months of instruction, I can't expect them to just pick back up at a new grade level and be ready to perform. I need a year in my opinion, to pick up the pieces and put things back together.”

Langston’s biggest concern is for his younger students—those in kindergarten and first grade, who are just beginning their academic journey and have already lost so much learning time. 

“There are so many things in kindergarten that you don't start until the second semester because you've been getting acclimated to school,” he says. “I think the loss there is going to be greater in that foundational knowledge. We might see the impacts of this for years to come.”

While so much remains up in the air, one thing is certain: Online learning will likely continue into the fall and beyond in some form. As school and district leaders are taking time to prepare for changing scenarios that will include distance learning, more schools may shift toward a blended learning model. At Gem Prep: Nampa, Assistant Principal, Liz Warburton says students have benefited from the purposeful integration of technology within the physical classroom, especially when it comes to quickly pivoting to self-directed learning at home.

“In a lot of ways, we're very fortunate that our students already had some of those skills and were familiar with programs to be able to carry that into success at home,” she says.

District leaders at Indianapolis Public schools are already working to scale their e-learning capacity, purchasing iPads and Chromebooks to ensure all students, particularly those in grades K-8, will have equal access to devices to continue learning in the fall. The district’s vision for online learning goes beyond just crisis response. Andrew sees a future where enhanced remote teaching and learning are an integral part of the district’s long-term strategy, as a way to keep students on track.  

“We know it's really important given that we don't know what's going to happen at the start of the school year and how this virus will impact learning in the fall or the winter,” Andrew says. “And so ensuring that our students have access to technology and then access to the internet is, is very much top of mind for us.”

The district is also reorienting around giving kids access to potential catch-up opportunities at the start of the school year. Dr. Henderson and her team are looking at diagnostic tools to assess students’ proficiency and implementing personalized and adaptive online learning to help students address gaps in learning at their own pace. The team is thinking about how to reallocate student teachers to provide targeted support to kids who have the highest needs, once students return to the classroom.

Back at Promise Community Schools in Houston, Dr. Anderson and her team are thinking about the evolving role that schools in her district will play in serving students’ and families’ needs that have extended far beyond academics. She’s continuing to expand partnerships with food banks, urban farms, and local community organizations and developing systems to make them scalable. The virus has made it clear that we now rely on schools to fill so many gaps in our fragile social safety net.  

“We signed up through Teach For America to fight the battle of equity for children,” she says. “But this space calls for integrity in that commitment to equity because it's hard as hell. We need to go harder than ever for kids and we need to plan so intentionally during the summer so that we show up differently for the needs that will exist in August.”

Additional Resources on Reopening Schools

  • Return to School Roadmap - This comprehensive resource from Opportunity Labs offers guidance for how to approach each stage of the decision-making process around safely reopening schools. 
  • Return to School Roadmap: Archived Webinar - Watch an archived recording of a conversation hosted by Teach For America and authors of the Return to School Roadmap as they discuss their work and field questions from school leaders across the country.
  • American Enterprise Institute: Blueprint for Back to School - This report created by a task force of local, state, and federal education leaders, sketches a framework that can help state policymakers, education and community leaders, and federal officials plan appropriately for reopening schools.
  • COVID-19 Education Resource Hub - Find guidance and resources on how to support students and communities.