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  • Tony Wold, Ed.D.

Public Schools Post-Pandemic Moving Toward A Restorative Restart (Strategies to Reengage Students)

Part 1: Transformation

Welcome back to the newsletter. As a chief business official, my primary role was to ensure that our educators had the resources necessary to implement the vision of the board of education and superintendent and that our teachers were supported to deliver quality instruction to all students. Most CBOs have come up from the Classified support ranks of school districts or shifted into the role from traditional pathways such as accounting.

I did indeed earn a Business degree from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, but that was not where my career took me at first. When I graduated the economy was at a down point, and I found myself playing a lot of golf to pass the time between job interviews. Ultimately, I saw an advertisement for substitute teachers that could work on a 30-day emergency credential with just a degree and passing a basic skills test. I made the decision to pursue this pathway a week before Christmas.

I applied the day before Christmas Break and on the first Monday in January, I was assigned to a bilingual high school Algebra class for seniors who needed the course to graduate. They had not had a permanent teacher the entire year, and the best score in the class was 56. I walked into that classroom not speaking any Spanish, but within 30 minutes I knew what I was going to do with my career.

In addition to golf, I had been doing a lot of reading between job interviews, and two resonated with me at the time. Space, by James Michener, and The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, captured the era in American history where dreams came alive. Men behind the scenes such as Gene Krantz and the team of Astronauts focused on what many believed was impossible. I found that numbers are universal and with connections, a little luck in translation, and tireless effort you can make a difference in students’ lives. I sat down with these classes and made one statement to everyone. “You will not fail; because I am not going to let you.”

"Nail the basics first. Detail the details later"

Chris Anderson

Fast forward to June (somehow a waiver was obtained for me to stay past 30 days) and the lowest score in the classes was 62. It took home visits, lunch every day, morning roundups, and a lot of personal connections, but we got them there. How did I do it? I slowed everything down and focused on the fundamentals of number sense and exponents to provide a new foundation. I made assignments into recipes and instructions, and they became relevant to the students.

This started a journey into education that has blessed me with amazing experiences. First, I had to substitute teach for several years while I went back to school at night to obtain a teaching credential. I was hired as a football and track coach. Once I was in the classroom, I quickly saw the power of good leadership and how it could transform a school from several of my mentors. That led me to become a site administrator, and then quickly after I moved into a district Director of Student Assessment and Curriculum role.

From there I moved to a role of supervising school from the district level, then through the Student Services, Human Resources, and Business roles, to finally become a chief business official. I learned that I was most effective in supporting other educators to be the best they could be and that my ability to teach and connect with students was something that could translate to an administrative role. While I have been focused on the operations of school districts, I still remember my roots in learning theory and research-based strategies. This series is going to lean on those roots.

Students across America have ended the third year of disjointed and varied educational experiences. Simply stated, many students now on break this summer who are about to enter 3rd grade in the fall have yet to have a “normal” year of instruction. In research published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation it was found that if students are not reading on grade level by 3rd grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of school.

In another study, it was determined at the secondary level that 67% of the students who ended up dropping out had chronic absenteeism. This was the number one indicator, higher than poor test scores and socioeconomic factors. This summer we have a group of students who are taking visits to prospective colleges and universities and preparing for their senior year of high school has never had a “normal” year in high school.

In April, the Smarter Balanced Mathematics scores for 8th-grade students were released in California, and the results were disappointing, to say the least, with the average student in the state only reaching 4th-grade proficiency. Students of color scored even lower. The students who are leaving Intermediate school to become 9th graders never had a “normal” year of middle school to transition from the classroom-centric learning within an elementary school to the departmentalized world of secondary education.

There has been much written about concerns of “lost learning” and the need to intervene to support the generation of students who have had their educational experience altered in nuanced ways due to the pandemic. Since every school district and individual teacher was required to make up new contingency plans and prepare methods of instruction that were foreign to them, the result is that there is absolutely no way to quantify the impacts for cohorts of students as the calibration of instruction was not as it may have been in the past.

From the perspective of a classroom teacher the past thirty (30) months have required completely rethinking how they deliver quality instruction. Just looking at the changes in the list below provides a good insight into the teachers’ role:

March 2020—Overnight schools closed, and teachers had to immediately figure out how to teach in a distance learning environment. Learning Management Systems had to be purchased and deployed. Devices to connect to the Internet had to be procured and provided to each student. All of this had to be communicated across a vast system with almost no in-person connections. Educators did the best that they could, but for many students, quality learning time ended for the year in March.

Fall 2020—Across the nation, multiple strategies were implemented. In some states, students returned to the classroom in person. In many states, however, the school year began with 100% distance learning. Over the previous summer, all the Learning Management and Device issues were addressed, and employee unions and management negotiated working conditions and expectations of teachers for the upcoming year.

Spring 2021—The political pressure to open schools was felt across the nation as businesses were feeling the impact of their workforce being away. Slowly, reopening plans became more and more clear. The legislation was passed to incentivize reopening. In many states, however, the reopening was voluntary or for targeted groups of students. In a period of 13 months teachers now had to plan for a 3rd new way of instructional delivery which for many, became known as a hybrid model. This also required another round of negotiations with employee groups around the newest change in working conditions. From the student perspective, this was again a shift that not all students were ready for. For many students, the entire 2020-2021 school year passed without them ever stepping onto campus.

Fall 2021—The political will shifted to force schools to return to in-person instruction for all students and teachers. This change, once again, required negotiations over the working conditions with employee groups, as the need for strict health protocols and personal protection equipment (PPE), was incorporated into the regular school schedule. Messaging to students and families was clearly around a safety-first approach. Just the determination of criteria for quarantine was constantly evolving, and just when there might be some stabilization we were faced with Omicron and the impact it had on attendance was significant. The average daily attendance in many schools during the month of January 2022 was well under 80%. By the end of the year, many districts found that the year-to-date ADA percentage was in the low 90 percent range if not lower.

Today, Summer 2022—The school year has ended, and universally, almost in chorus, we have heard from educators across the country that “I don’t have any bandwidth to do anything new right now.” The talk has shifted to taking some time off to recharge and then return ready for the upcoming year, which will be the 4th in a row where the way we teach and learn on the first day of school will be different than it was on the last of the previous school year.

The omicron subvariant now dominating the U.S. is ‘the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen’

We also are faced with another new variant (BA.4 & BA.5) of coronavirus that has a higher R rate than all the ones before combined! The hope that normalization was around the corner is not coming to fruition. The month of June and into July is seeing the consequences of the labor shortage as air travel is facing cancelations daily, but the demand to be out and living our lives is pushing people back to a semblance of normalcy. In addition to continuing vaccinations, those that do contract coronavirus have access to new mitigations such as Paxlovid which is helping to mitigate some of the impacts. Quarantine protocols now are reduced to 5 days of treatment and then retesting, and a free return to society, while wearing a mask, even if the test continues to be positive.

As the world has begun to shift, we in education must also begin rethinking how we will message the upcoming year to reengage students and families in the importance of school. As part of this messaging, we must be cognizant of the power of hope versus futility. We know from research that when students become disassociated with school and fall behind, they begin to demonstrate coping mechanisms to address their frustrations. These are first demonstrated in reduced attendance, followed by behaviors that shift the attention away from the subjects that confuse them. This is a time when negative peer group influences can take hold and we lose the student more and more into their self-fulfilling prophecy. Often, we push for interventions and expect this same student to suddenly go to more school when they are frustrated at the mere thought of feeling lost, to begin with. These interventions can, unfortunately, become an accelerant to the downward spiral of the student’s connection to the school especially if the messaging of interventions looks like there is something “wrong” with the student.

This is also a time to turn our thinking to the learning impact for our students. The question becomes: How are we going to get students caught up? There are countless studies on learning theory and the impact of powerful, quality, first instruction and then targeted interventions. The end finding is always that the most impactful and effective way for students to learn and retain knowledge is through quality first instruction. Too often, however, the solution implemented to address when students are behind is to put them in targeted intervention programs, to the point where the student is removed from their regular program to participate in a segregated system.

If intervention and remediation are not done systematically, it can result in a student who is already behind never catching up and then becoming disassociated with the school. As we review the grade-level standards each year brings the expectation of moving higher onto the mountain, which can be a challenge if the student already feels hopeless and behind. This is the thinking that we change for students, and educators to begin our Restorative Restart.

In the next issue, we will start to look at some of the simpler solutions to address learning loss and address some of the pedagogy that we can lean on to reconnect students to school. We are at the perfect point to begin these discussions as we recharge and then come back to work in late July or early August ready to take on this exciting opportunity.

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