‘Tis the season of back-to-school, but this is no ordinary school year. At every level, pre-K through college, education looks a little different in 2020. Some students and teachers have returned to the classroom in-person, some are staying home for virtual learning, and some are embracing a hybrid of the two. Schools across the country and around the world have been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to become more innovative than ever. As short-term solutions are implemented and new behaviors turn into embedded habits, it becomes more and more clear that things may never go back to the way they were pre-pandemic, and many new strategies will remain in place for the long-term. With that in mind, now is the time for the conversation to shift from today’s quick fixes to something more forward-looking – to consider the future of education, and to build a stronger foundation for it.
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER THROUGH BLENDED LEARNING
Online vs. offline, group vs. individual, teacher-led vs. student-led learning. Each of these approaches to education were gaining traction prior to today’s pandemic, but COVID-19 has caused administrators, educators, students, and parents to move from one approach to the next in fluid fashion. As Steelcase reports, the pandemic has accelerated blended learning and other more active, social and collaborative forms of problem solving and personalized learning that put people at the center of educational strategies rather than traditional curricula.
In August, we partnered with thought leaders from Steelcase and the DLR Group to kickstart a conversation about how educational institutions can not only survive this pandemic but also thrive in the post-COVID-19 era by thinking of people first when designing solutions. “We’re all in this together” has no doubt become a coronavirus cliché, yet it still perfectly sums up the sentiment shared by all we’ve spoken with: All are willing and eager to collaborate in order to get this right. After all, a strong education system benefits many, so many play a role in ensuring its success.
SETTING STRATEGIES WITH EACH STAKEHOLDER
School administrators, teachers, students and their parents or caregivers, alumni, community leaders, civic groups, corporations and politicians all have a stake in the education system. Each audience must be engaged with a slightly different message, since each audience has slightly different goals and levels of involvement. But across all communication to all audiences, it’s important to be clear and consistent in words, images, actions and behaviors. Building a brand around shared passion, purpose, culture and values helps to build a school’s community. Naturally, this is easier when people can gather for meetings, events, performances and pep rallies – the energy flows more freely in face-to-face interactions and experiences. So, clear and consistent communication is especially critical when people are distributed across multiple locations, working remotely or learning virtually. But by showing, in words and actions, that stakeholders matter, are heard, and are cared for, people feel like they’re part of something meaningful, today and over time.
- Faculty and Staff
Helping faculty and staff feel cared for has never been more important. It’s no different from any other employee returning to the workplace; all want to feel safe. Given the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is sure to be a baseline expectation for employers to meet for years if not decades to come. Once that expectation is met, faculty and staff need spaces that support the many different ways they work – space to focus, to connect and collaborate, to rest and rejuvenate, and to create. Furniture, equipment and technology must be carefully integrated to ease and empower their work, regardless of whether school is open for in-person, virtual, or blended learning. Schools must build in more flexible infrastructure, such as tech-based collaboration tools, movable furnishings, and mobile take-home kits that help in-person and virtual work together seamlessly. And above all decision-makers must show empathy. Educators are being asked to tackle gargantuan tasks this year, so it’s imperative to remember they’re people too. Many are facing their own personal challenges – maybe they’re parents, juggling in-home learning for their own children at the same time they’re trying to teach everyone else’s. Building systems that ease their experience today helps to build loyalty for the long term.
Students are being asked to adapt in unprecedented ways, too. Those that have returned to the classroom in-person might benefit from the opportunity to socialize and collaborate with peers. But safety regulations will likely limit the number of people they interact with and restrict their mobility in general, contradicting modern approaches to active learning, or learning by doing. As school systems introduce new processes and tools in the short-term, decision makers must ensure that the investments they make today can be adapted for tomorrow’s needs, leveraging flexible equipment and furnishings that help kids move while staying safe and healthy, and balance physical and mental health. The same considerations must be made for students that remain at home for virtual learning. Collaboration technology can be used to teach kids of all ages how to problem solve independently and in groups, and ultimately helps both students and teachers be nimble in a changing environment. By giving students the tools they need to feel a sense of control and choice and to empower their contributions, schools are increasing student engagement, motivation and pride.
- Parents and Caregivers
Given all of the shifts that schools are making, parents and other caregivers are getting involved in their children’s education in new and different ways, like never before. For younger kids learning at home, many parents are finding it necessary to sit side-by-side with their student as they connect virtually with teachers and classmates on screen. And while older kids might be able to manage the virtual connections and classwork independently, just the fact that it’s taking place in the home makes it more visible to parents. Meanwhile, the parents of students who have returned to in-person schooling might have even more questions. What is the school doing to keep my child safe? What is expected of me, the caregiving adult? What changes do I need to help my child be prepared for? Whether in-person or virtual, conditions are extremely fluid (and are likely to remain fluid for months to come), so school leaders need to engage parents with clear and consistent communication on a weekly (if not daily) basis to help them feel like they have answers to all of these questions, and more – even if school leaders don’t yet have all the answers. Open, honest, frequent communication is one of the surest ways to reassure parents that schools have students’ and families’ best interests at heart, and to build long-term engagement.
- The Broader Community
A benefit of these difficult times may be a shift in perspective. The challenges that school administrators and teachers face every year are more apparent than ever in 2020, and parents as well as business leaders may be gaining a newfound appreciation for the role of educators and education systems. Whole communities are impacted when the workforce has limited access to schools, childcare, and other child- and family-centric resources or programs. In the short-term, businesses struggle to operate or to open at all when parents are forced to stay home. And in the long-term, weak or fractured school systems impact businesses’ ability to succeed when today’s students aren’t properly prepared to be tomorrow’s workers. School leaders and decision-makers need to communicate openly with the broader community – not just with staff, students and parents – to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities that the community faces together.
All of this underscores the opportunity – perhaps even the imperative – that communities have to collaborate to restructure and strengthen their school systems. Top-down solutions such as increased resources and funding can be combined with bottom-up strategies that individual stakeholders are motivated to implement. Leveraging this time to reboot and lay a strong foundation for the future will allow us to look back at 2020 as a year we can be grateful for.