07/15/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The New School Year Has Begun

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Welcome to the 2020-2021 academic year. It’s setting up to be a memorable one.

Most colleges and universities recently announced that they are planning on opening this fall, but with a controlled percentage of students and a mix of online and in-person, social-distancing classes. Most of the Ivy League schools say they will only allow around 40% of the students at any one time. The emerging model focuses on freshman in the fall and seniors in the spring, with some mix of sophomores and juniors. Meanwhile, most of the social aspects of university life will be curtailed. Concerts and guest lectures and readings are out. Sports are likely to be out. Hanging out with friends in their dorm rooms is basically out. Parties are definitely out. Dining will be take-out — or perhaps by reservation and social distance seating. The use of the gym, if not out, will be extremely limited.

Independent schools are employing variations on this plan as well — opening their campuses in the fall, but with social-distancing restrictions designed to support community health and a percentage of classes online. While no one is thrilled about the arrangement, it’s clear there is no way to justify returning to school as normal, given that the cases of COVID-19 are on the rise nationally. The expectation is that we will have a vaccine in early 2021, but until then, schooling will have to focus on some kind of hybrid form to ensure the safety and well-being of students and teachers.

Independent Schools' Advantage

What we know now, however, is that it is possible to run schools virtually — and that the quality of teaching and learning can be high. One of the great advantages of independent schools, low student-teacher ratios, turns out to be a significant advantage with distance learning. Having fewer students means that independent school teachers can still focus on getting to know every student well in a virtual setting or in a hybrid setting. They can understand the students’ learning styles and strengths and offer the kind of support that will enable success. In other words, they continue to focus on nurturing relationships with students and weaving high-quality content and effective pedagogy around these relationships. They can also leave space for students to connect with each other to both socialize and learn with peers. It’s all part of creating a supportive, engaging learning community.

Online learning, as it turns out, has also revealed the value (and often the necessity) of student autonomy — in tapping the power of intrinsic motivation. Some learning has been synchronous, but much of it depends on students owning and managing their learning time. Independent school teachers are setting up more individualized learning pathways for students and providing materials that allow for a range of choices in how students learn. There’s also a movement in online courses toward more formative evaluation, which helps students reflect on what they know and need to learn to improve. In fact, this summer, one of the most robust conversations in an online community of independent school educators has been on this question of adapting evaluation and grading for our new hybrid environment.

Focusing on the Online Experience

“How do we create an online experience that can include face-to-face students?”

An emerging challenge, of course, will be for teachers to manage classes in which some students are in the classroom and others are learning remotely. These kind of concurrent classrooms will be ubiquitous this fall — and both teachers and students will have to adapt. One approach, being employed at some schools, is to share the work between a two teachers, with one taking the online students for a week while the other takes the in-person students, and then trading off the next week. But even in this scenario, some of the students connecting online will do so synchronously and others will do inevitably have to connect asynchronously. Teachers will have to manage this triad. Some curricular experts suggest that teachers not think in terms of creating a face-to-face class that can include an online audience, but rather reverse the process and ask, “How do we create an online experience that can include face-to-face students?” Certainly, this is a sign of the new world of education.

Independent schools are worried about enrollments for the fall and continue to wrestle with the shape of the program and all related matters — knowing that anything they put in writing today may change in a week. But what is increasingly clear is that the independent school model can and does work well in a virtual world. The teachers still focus on building relationships with students that enable students to deeply engage in learning — and, exhaustion aside, the results have been good. This fall, we expect that COVID-19 will continue to disrupt education (and all other aspects of our lives). But we also know now that independent schools have proven their continuing value to students and families in these unprecedented times.

In preparing for classes to start in late August and September, here few articles and webinars we recommend:

For Teachers:

What Makes an Excellent Online Teacher?
By Emily Boudreau

To Better Serve All Students
By Jill Anderson

The Best Way to Prepare for the Fall
By Mike Caulfield

Optimizing Concurrent Classrooms: Teaching Students in the Room and Online Simultaneously
By Ted Ladd

For Administrators:

Beyond Survival: Reimagining Why Independent Schools Exist
By Brent Kaneft and Nolan R. LaVoie

On-Boarding New Faculty in the Time of Covid-19: Get It Right the First Time
By Peter Gow

What Teachers Need to Make Remote Schooling Work
By Kristina Rizga

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