School After the Pandemic: What’s Next?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to pivot and change the way they do everything — and this is especially true for schools. Indianapolis-area schools have adapted and grown in many ways, such as setting up quarantine areas in school clinics and hiring extra substitute teachers. Schools are already making plans to help the next year go as smoothly as possible, but what will 2021-22 look like for students and parents?

Some students who have been e-learning are eager to get back into the classroom. But as Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township learned, families want options. “We are offering instructional program choice of full in-person, hybrid or full virtual learning for the 2021-22 school year,” says Dr. Tim Harshbarger, Assistant Superintendent for Schools.

Dr. Dana Altemeyer, director of communications for MSD Lawrence Township, explains that 67 percent of students learned in-person last year, while the others learned via a virtual or hybrid method.

Harshbarger adds: “We kept our focus on meeting the needs of the kids, both academically and social/emotionally, while keeping the learning environment as safe as possible. Honestly, kids were at home so much in the spring and summer [of 2020], they really were motivated to get back to school and see friends, even if that meant wearing a mask!”

The return of co-curricular events, like sports, music and theater, was a game changer for students attending school in-person. MSD Lawrence Township had to become creative, doing such things as staggered rehearsals, having the choir rehearse in an outdoor atrium or even the loading dock behind the high school.

With more research and science available on COVID-19, schools can improve their decision-making this school year, whether it’s in classroom layout, social distancing, or offering bottled water and personal protective equipment in schools.

“We have learned a great deal about contract tracing and quarantining,” Altemeyer says. “We quarantined a lot of staff and students throughout the year; however, we also believe that led to far fewer positive cases in our schools.”

MSD Lawrence Township developed a COVID Re-entry Task Force Team to help navigate the onslaught of information on school re-entry, according to national, state and county guidelines. Having this team already formed will undoubtedly help the district work with community partners to help with testing and vaccinations into the school year.

Given that the district now has access to student-issued Chromebooks and experience navigating connectivity issues, they will be even better prepared to educate students in a variety of ways when schools start in the fall. Teachers will go into the year with virtual classroom experience, having offered classes “live” as well as asynchronous workplans. Schools have also adapted to connecting with parents and prospective families virtually, hosting online meetings in lieu of conferences.

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Keeping the public informed via regular parent and staff updates was always high priority, and that is one area where schools have thrived. In their decision to operate in-person as much as was safely possible last year, The Orchard School made significant modifications to schedules, events, and learning spaces. And this meant getting students, staff, and families on board.

“Establishing the physical distancing protocol was probably the single greatest obstacle,” says Nick Eble, Assistant Head of School for Orchard. “Given our school’s penchant for experiential, cooperative activities, we had to recalibrate our expectations. We modified many of our longstanding traditions and grade-level highlights.”

That said, Eble is proud of the way the staff kept student experience at the center of the conversation during these challenging times. “Orchard students arrived each and every day as excited to be here as always, and we worked diligently to live up to our nearly 100-year history of engaging, hands-on learning,” Eble says.

In hindsight, Eble says the challenges presented last school year only strengthened the values they’ve always held dear at Orchard. “Learning is a social act, and being together is the best way to accomplish our collective goals,” he says. “Yes, we did learn about new ways to use technology to extend our classrooms into people’s homes. But when it comes down to it, that will never replace the impact and importance of working together, in person, in a diverse community of classmates.”

As schools open this year, administrators are already keen on finding ways to leave the frustration, grief and disappointments of the past school year behind. “Obviously, there were hard moments, but we all knew that we were working to create the best learning environments and experiences we could, given the public health constraints imposed by a global pandemic,” Eble says.

Looking forward, Eble hopes to keep students and staff motivated by celebrating learning through shared moments of joy and lots of laughter. “We frame our work through the goals of love, connection and learning, and that really helps guide us through the year,” he says.

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