5 Questions Districts Leaders Should Ask About Returning to School after COVID-19 

By: | 05/08/2020
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

In March 2020, schools across the country closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the globe. This unprecedented step disrupted the lives of students, families, and educators in ways not seen in recent memory. Suddenly education leaders and teachers were faced with providing support and instruction to students remotely, and they scrambled to distribute resources, ensure students received meals, provide academic materials, and create online learning opportunities for students.

Now local leaders face another extraordinary challenge: how to return to school and support students and teachers in the 2020–2021 school year. Every fall, when teachers and students return to the classroom, teachers are tasked with understanding where students are and building an instructional plan for the year. Fall 2020 will look very different for teachers because students have been out of the classroom for much longer than the typical summer break. Some students will have had access to online learning and more resources, while others may not have had a computer or a parent at home to help with learning. As a result, students are going to return to school with different academic needs, and many of them will be well behind where they should be for the grade they are entering.

Districts are facing this challenge without a clear sense of when that return will happen, what social distancing limitations will be in place, and with questions about additional closures due to a second wave of infections. Districts will be building plans for multiple scenarios, but one concern will be central. How can districts, schools, and teachers best support student learning in the coming year? While it was difficult to predict the effect COVID-19 would have on United States school system, districts have the opportunity to plan for Back to School in a COVID-19 world. To assist districts in building their instruction and assessment plans, we've laid out five key questions for district leaders to consider as they build instructional plans and supports for students in the 2020–2021 school year.

Questions to Consider

  • How are our students and teachers doing emotionally?
  • How and when should we assess where students are academically? Where are the learning gaps?
  • How can we differentiate instruction for students in ways that will make up for spring/summer learning loss?
  • How can our teachers use data from diagnostic testing to design instruction and support students?
  • What happens if there is another pandemic-related shut down in school year 2020–2021?

1. How are our students and teachers doing emotionally?

When schools closed in spring 2020, students lost daily routines, peer relationships, and support systems. Educators have been doing everything they can to provide remote learning opportunities, resources, and supports for students, but for many students, this is still a time of heightened anxiety and trauma, full of uncertainty. Many students will be facing economic hardship and housing insecurity, and all students will be coping with lasting trauma due to the anxiety and uncertainty of the last six months.

School communities will see the aftermath of these experiences, feelings, and emotion firsthand. The social and emotional needs of students and teachers should be the first concern for state and district leaders. Teachers and students will need time and resources to process the experiences and the anxiety of the current environment posed by the pandemic. Research suggests that social and emotional learning competencies are critical to student learning. Students will need the emotional supports and tools to talk about and manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors before they are ready to move into an academic program designed to remediate learning loss and accelerate learning gains to get students back on grade level.

During the first few weeks of the next academic year, and before jumping into formal diagnostic assessments, districts are planning for social and emotional learning programs that build the social and emotional needs of students so they are ready and equipped for learning.

2. How and when should we assess where students are academically? Where are the learning gaps?

One of the biggest questions facing district leaders and teachers in the fall will be where students are academically after six months out of school. Assessment will be one of the most valuable tools available to inform instruction. There are multiple types of assessments available to districts and teachers, but diagnostic assessment will be critical to helping teachers identify where students are on academic knowledge and skills and what learning gaps exist.

Once teachers have time to reacclimate students to the classroom and take time to help them process the pandemic experience, diagnostic assessment should be one of the initial tools used in order to help school leaders and teachers plan the academic year. Diagnostic assessments should provide teachers with immediate, actionable data that helps to understand where each student is in relation to grade-level standards and helps in developing a personalized plan for each student to remediate and accelerate learning for the current grade level.

Districts have access to multiple assessment resources. When selecting a diagnostic assessment, district leaders and teachers must look for a product that is aligned to state content standards so it can provide targeted information regarding grade-level proficiency and those content standards that need to be addressed to meet grade-level proficiency.

3. How can we differentiate instruction for students in ways that will make up for spring/summer learning loss?

Teachers have always differentiated instruction for students in their classrooms. However, educators and researchers expect the 2020–2021 school year to be different. The shift to remote learning is expected to impact students in different ways. Some students have little to no access to online learning, other students received both online instruction and strong parent support. As a result, students are expected to be in very different places academically, with learning loss exceeding what is typically seen over the summer break. As a result, students will need both remediation and acceleration of learning in an environment that is expected to be partially in person and online.

Diagnostic testing early in the school year will provide early, actionable data that clearly identifies learning gaps and the standards students need to meet grade-level expectations. This data can help school instructional leaders and teachers plan instruction. Schools may consider new groupings of students or a more personalized learning approach that allows students to access materials and instruction more aligned to their academic needs. Schools moving to more personalized instruction will also need interim assessment options that continue to monitor student progress and provide teachers immediate and ongoing feedback regarding student progress toward on-grade level proficiency.

Regardless of the approach, teachers will need more resources, additional planning time, and new instructional strategies. As schools plan for additional school closures, teachers may need better technology and online resources tailored to personalized instruction.

4. How can our teachers use data from diagnostic testing to design instruction and support students?

Teachers have traditionally started the school year with information on student proficiency from prior year standardized tests, prior year local assessment data, or academic grades. In fall 2020, teachers will not have most of that student-level data. Early diagnostic data is essential to providing teachers standards-aligned information on the strengths and needs of individual students. Teachers are able to use data from diagnostic testing to determine remediation needs specific to individual standards, and they can target instruction and resources to individual students.

5. What happens if there is another pandemic-related shutdown in the 2020–2021 school year?

The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented amount of uncertainty for schools, teachers, students, and families. There remains a possibility that individual districts and/or schools will face periodic closures due to community outbreaks. Districts across the country are beginning to plan for opening schools in the fall while also planning for additional disruption. This threat highlights the need for districts and schools to use technology to create a coherent program of diagnostic assessment, student data, regular interim assessment, and online instructional materials to build an instructional program that allows for classroom and remote learning. Now is the time to build a planning team to evaluate curriculum and assessment options that support teachers and students in an uncertain academic environment.


At the time of this report, there is still much uncertainty about how and when students will return to school. One thing is clear: student emotional needs and academic learning are at the center of all district and school decisions. The next several months allow district leaders and teachers time to plan and strategize for that return. We hope that these five questions help school leaders narrow down the curriculum and assessment questions in order to begin conversations with their curriculum and assessment vendors on the best solution to support students and teachers.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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