Smarter Together: Planning for Success after Extended School Closures

By: | 08/20/2020
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

On May 21, Kaya Henderson, an Aspen Institute Trustee and the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools, moderated a webinar featuring Dr. John King, Jr., President and CEO of The Education Trust and former United States Secretary of Education, and Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.

This webinar, “Smarter Together: Planning for Success after Extended School Closures,” was the first in Curriculum Associates’ “Smarter Together” series. We’ve created these events to share thought leaders’ insights into distance learning and help districts prepare for Back to School 2020–2021.

In “Planning for Success after Extended School Closures,” King and Santelises shared their thoughts about the various different scenarios districts should anticipate and prepare for leading into next year. We’ve summarized key points here.

Distance Learning Makes a Difference

Educators might feel like all the work they are putting into teaching remotely isn’t making a difference and that stressed out students would be better off filling in worksheets than doing lessons online. But King and Santelises believe that the relationship between student and teacher is essential to students’ current and future well-being and success.

"Actually, it has been stabilizing and reassuring to families that we are not giving up on the education of their children at a time when they are facing other challenges," Santelises said.

She then explained how it’s been important for her district to stick to their core instructional mission with connection points between teachers and students. “And, no, it's not perfect, and yes, we have to be able to do it at scale,” she continued. “But that essential part of our mission cannot change.”

Working toward Adequate Funding

King spoke about the need for additional funding in order to prevent drastic cuts to states’ education budgets. His organization, The Education Trust, has been advocating for critical support for vulnerable students and lobbying Congress to pass a new aid package. “We think Congress needs to step up with significant resources so that districts can do what they need to, to support kids,” King said. “And so, we can get at some of these deeper underlying inequities around the digital divide and access to educational opportunities that have been with us for a long time.”

Experiment with Pedagogy

Before her district transitioned to distance learning, Santelises did not have time to observe classes. However, it’s much easier to pop into a virtual classroom than it is a physical one, and she has been visiting virtual classes and seeing teachers experiment with pedagogical approaches. She described how she observed a special education teacher and general ed teacher co-teach a class about baseball’s historical Negro Leagues. The students were engaged, inspired, and excited about the materials and what they were learning from one another.

“One of the things that I learned most from my time in the classroom was that kids rise to the expectations that you set for them. And so, if we set pandemic-level expectations down here, then that's what they'll give us.”
—Kaya Henderson, former Chancellor of DC Public Schools

When Santelises spoke to the teachers about the success of their co-teaching, they told her it was something they’d wanted to try for a while, but they had needed a “reset” to actually make it happen.

Distance learning on the current scale is a huge experiment. King and Santelises urged teachers everywhere to take advantage of opportunities to try out new pedagogical methods.

Secure High-Quality Curricula and Professional Development

Baltimore City Public Schools implemented Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Assessment and Personalized Instruction program not long before learning went remote. Santelises explained that having an excellent curriculum in place meant that Baltimore City teachers weren’t wasting time scrambling for curriculum resources once schools were closed. “[W]hat a number of teachers are saying is that it allowed them the flexibility to actually focus on the teaching and getting acclimated to the new setting, knowing that they already had high-quality curriculum materials in place.”

Districts that are preparing for the next school year and the potential continuation of distance learning should focus on finding high-quality instructional materials, a curriculum plan, and professional development for teachers before the new school year begins.

Plan for Different 2020–2021 Scenarios

No one knows exactly what school will look like in the fall. King advised districts to create committees that plan for many different scenarios: distance learning continuing in the same format as the spring semester, both in-classroom and online learning with staggered schedules, reopening schools and then needing to return to distance learning, etc. Leaders must think about logistical matters, including transportation, protecting educators with health conditions, and student mealtimes.

“I think it's easy to get overwhelmed by the health crisis we are in, by the economic crisis we are in, by all of the crazy logistics of figuring out how we make next school year work,” King said. “But somehow I think it's incumbent on all of us as educational leaders to keep people's central focus on the relationships between teachers and students and the work in which they are engaged.”

We’ll be sharing more posts about Back to School 2020–2021 and sharing advice from experts and thought leaders. Follow Curriculum Associates on Twitter and Facebook to learn about more “Smarter Together” webinars.


John B. King, Jr. served as the 10th United States Secretary of Education from 2016 to 2017 and is the President and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization committed to closing the achievement gap. You can follow King on Twitter via @JohnBKing.

Kaya Henderson served as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools from 2010 to 2016. She now leads the Global Learning Lab for Community Impact at Teach For All, where she’s focused on increasing the impact of locally rooted, globally informed leaders all over the world. Find her on Twitter @HendersonKaya.

Sonja Brookins Santelises is the CEO of Baltimore City Schools. Before her current position, she served City Schools as Chief Academic Officer and was Vice President for K–12 Policy and Practice at The Education Trust. Santelises is on Twitter at @SonjaSantelises.

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