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Post-Pandemic Possibilities

June 1, 2021
With an influx of funding to propel change, schools and universities have an opportunity to provide students with more healthful and effective learning environments.

As schools and universities mark the end of the 2020-21 academic year, students, teachers, and everyone else who works in education are breathing sighs of relief at making it through what will no doubt be the oddest, most difficult, and most challenging chapter of their school days.

At the same time, after struggling for more than 15 months to survive the dangers and disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, educators and administrators are looking ahead hopefully at the prospect of restoring some semblance of normalcy to classrooms and campuses when students arrive for the 2021-22 school year. That’s not to say that the in-person student experience at the outset of 2021-22 will be a seamless resumption of what was happening in classrooms in March 2020, before the rapid spread of Covid-19 forced nearly every school in the United States to shut its doors and send students home.

The schools and universities that were forced into abrupt changes to respond to Covid-19 may not be the same institutions they were in March 2020 and they may be more willing to embrace potential improvements. And the students, teachers and other staff members who endured quarantines, testing, contact tracing, social distancing, online classes, hybrid schedules and a host of other obstacles are no longer the same people they were 15 months ago.  They may have experienced health setbacks, or mental and emotional difficulties that have to be addressed. They may have less tolerance for old ways of school operations that no longer seem to make sense, and they may wonder why changes can’t happen in “normal” times as quickly as they did in the pandemic.

As education institutions emerge from the Covid crisis and turn their attention to the future, they have an opportunity to take many of the lessons learned from operating schools in the midst of a global pandemic and, with the help of billions of dollars in federal Covid aid, apply the ones that can improve learning, as well as the health and safety of students and staff.

Beyond the status quo

To help schools reopen safely, the U.S. Department of Education has provided guidance in its Ed Covid-19 Handbook. The second volume of the handbook, released in April, says schools should carry out their return to full-time in-person instruction with an acknowledgement that the effects of the pandemic still will be present.

“For most schools, returning to the status quo will not address the full impact of Covid-19 on students’ social, emotional, physical, mental health, and academic needs or the impact on educator and staff well-being,” the handbook says. “Approaches to school reopening must be designed in ways that meet the needs of students, educators, and staff.”

Safe return

After experiencing an unexpected and prolonged interruption of their academic pursuits, students may need some time to adjust to life back in a classroom.

“For significant portions of two academic years, what it means to be ‘in school,’ and the routines, expectations, and norms associated with those routines, have been vastly different from what most students have ever experienced,” the handbook says.

Some researchers have estimated that 3 million students have either been absent from or have not been actively participating in remote learning since the beginning of the pandemic, the Education Department says. The families of some of those students have expressed hesitation about having their children return to in-person learning.

The Education Department says students are more likely to have a successful return to school if they feel they are coming back to a welcoming environment.

“Safe and inclusive schools can provide the support required to reengage those students most disconnected from school during the pandemic,” the handbook says.

The handbook says research increasingly shows that school safety and discipline practices that promote safe and inclusive learning environments are more effective than zero tolerance exclusionary approaches.

Schools should take steps to ensure that school policies and practices “do not further perpetuate racial disparities, the handbook says. “This includes reexamining the use of exclusionary discipline practices which have a disparate impact on students of color who are frequently disciplined more harshly than their white peers, especially for subjective offenses.”

Mental health

It may be difficult for students to return to classrooms after having their lives disrupted for so long. So school administrators must be mindful of addressing the social and emotional needs of those still feeling the effects of the pandemic.

“While there is concern regarding the impact of lost instructional time as it relates to student academic performance, meeting the social and emotional needs of students must be foundational to efforts to improve academic outcomes for students,” the handbook says.

Students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners are most likely to be living in communities that have been hit hardest by Covid-19, and their schools are more likely to have been closed longer for in-person learning compared with schools in more affluent communities, the Education Department say. In those areas, “it will be especially important for school communities reopening to develop and operationalize a plan for conducting mental health first aid, mental health screenings, and procedures for referral,” the handbook says.

School-based mental health professionals—counselors, social workers, and psychologists--may need to provide additional support to students with needs that have been caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.

“A districtwide or schoolwide approach to meeting social, emotional, and mental health needs that is responsive to the trauma of Covid-19 and grounds itself in equity can help all students feel seen and valued,” the handbook says.

Physical health

Those who work in and manage educational facilities have been raising concerns for decades about the inadequate condition of many learning environments. Schools and universities have made some progress in improving facilities, but too often, in the competition over limited financial resources, building maintenance loses out to needs that are given higher priority. Covid-19 shined a brighter light on the deficiencies in some school facilities and the harmful effect they can have on the health and safety of students and staff.

“Many students are in dilapidated school buildings with windows that do not open; outdated heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) systems that are costly to replace or update; and other environmental dangers such as mold and leaks that contribute to poor air quality,” the handbook says.

Bolstered with unprecedented financial aid from the federal government, schools have additional resources to upgrade outdated and inadequate facilities.

“School districts should do what they can to address…infrastructure issues, such as ensuring that preexisting ventilation, roofing, and plumbing needs do not inhibit healthy learning environments as students return to school buildings full time,” the handbook says.

Building administrators should pay close attention to make sure the custodial staff is carrying out the recommended steps for cleaning and disinfecting school space.

“Principals should make it a habit to tour the building to monitor cleaning and provide remedies in areas of need,” the handbook says. “This may include, but not be limited to, changing or expanding custodial schedules to maximize cleaning, augmenting the budget to ensure necessary supplies and staff are readily available, and communicating cleaning protocols to families to assuage concerns regarding spreading the virus that causes Covid-19.

Making up lost time

Even though some students have been able to continue their education through by connecting to online classes or attending in-person classes part time in a hybrid schedule, the loss of instructional time has resulted in many students falling behind academically. The Education Department says administrators should consider ways to help students make up that lost time.

“Education leaders are encouraged to consider whether to pursue an expanded day, week, or year to provide additional instructional time,” the handbook says. “While each of these approaches has the potential to benefit students, the extra time should be used effectively, including providing students with access to a well-rounded education and opportunities for enrichment, and staff should be adequately supported and compensated.”


Computers and online connections have become a routine part of the education infrastructure, but the pandemic took schools’ reliance on technology to a new level. Administrators, teachers and students were forced to take a deep dive into technology when Covid-19 made in-person instruction unsafe.

Some of the ways that schools incorporated technology into instruction during the pandemic may become more common as students and teachers become more comfortable with online interactions and learn to take advantage of the technological capabilities available to them. But the concern raised by the Education Department is that a move toward greater dependence on technology to deliver instruction to students will widen the gap between those who have access to robust technology and training and those who don’t.

“Unfortunately, too many students, including English learners, students of color, students in rural or tribal communities, and students from low-income backgrounds, have less access to the internet, digital devices, and high-quality, technology-enabled learning experiences focused on inquiry, collaboration, and content creation,” the handbook says. “Expanding access to the internet and devices (the digital access divide) without also addressing the divide in how technology is used (the digital use divide) runs the risk of proliferating low-quality learning experiences for students.”

Studies have shown that students from low-income backgrounds and students of color tend to receive instruction that leverages technology for routine drills focused primarily on repetition with lower levels of adult support, whereas students in higher-income schools experienced technology as a creative and playful medium.

“As schools reopen and move to use more technology-based solutions, it is likely that these inequities could be exacerbated if particular attention is not given to the quality of the technology-enabled experiences,” the handbook says. “Any effective use of technology must be part of a coherent model of instruction aligned to instructional goals that addresses any inequities in student access.

Equitable resources

Fights over how funding for schools is allocated have been taking place for decades in nearly every state. During the pandemic, the effect of some of those inequities became more evident, and the interruption to school brought on by the pandemic may have made those inequities more pronounced.

“Not all students have access to well-rounded educational opportunities, and Covid-19 has only served to further limit those opportunities,” the handbook says. “Prior to the pandemic there were clear differences in opportunities and access for underserved students compared to their peers throughout their educational careers.”

The Education Department urges states to re-examine their school funding formulas and direct more resources to underserved communities and students.

“Recovering from the impact of Covid-19 will be incredibly difficult if the resource inequities that existed prior to Covid-19, and which have only been further exacerbated, are not addressed,” the handbook says. “…Adopting more equitable funding formulas is an opportunity to direct additional financial resources to schools in ways that account for the additional support students may need (such as students with disabilities and students experiencing homelessness).”

Addressing hunger

Before Covid-19, about 22 million students in the United States received free or reduced priced lunches at school each day. The school shutdown in March 2020 jeopardized not only those students’ academic performance, but also access to meals that were critical to their well-being. The federal government granted waivers and allowed more flexibility in distributing meals—setting up drive-through or walk-up “grab and go” locations where students could continue to receive meals away from their schools. Some of that flexibility still may be needed when the 2021-22 school year begins.

“As more schools plan for reopening, feeding and food distribution will continue to be essential,” the handbook says. “School leaders should communicate with nutrition directors to assess how the meal programs are faring financially and plan for ways to address any challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Retaining teachers

Getting students back on track is of paramount concern, but that will be impossible without a plentiful corps of committed and effective teachers. Many of the nation’s teachers have not fared well as they coped with the effects of Covid-19 in their personal lives while figuring out how to continue to provide instruction to students.

“Educators and staff will also be returning to school changed,” the handbook says. “Some will be coping with grief, elevated levels of anxiety, and loss….To be effective in meeting student well-being and academic needs, the adults in the community must prioritize their own basic mental, emotional, and physical health needs.”

One survey reported that teacher satisfaction with their employers has dropped more than

25 percentage points from 2020 to 2021; after the experience of teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, more than a third of teachers say they have considered changing jobs.

“Covid-19 has exacerbated pre-pandemic challenges in the educator workforce,” the handbook says. “The most common reason educators have cited for leaving school employment in the last year is stress, followed by insufficient pay and challenges related to remote instruction and technology.  As educators continue working during a global health crisis, educator well-being and support will be essential to school and district success.”

Sidebar: ESSER Aid

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the creation of an acronym that will quickly become familiar to those involved with school budgets and spending. ESSER—the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund—is the source of the billions of dollars of aid that Congress has appropriated to help schools recover from and respond to issues related to Covid-19.

For 2021, Congress has passed two relief packages that provide ESSER funding. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed in December 2020, provided $54.3 billion in funding (labeled ESSER II, and the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, provided $122.7 in funding (labeled ESSER III). Allocations to school districts are based on the formula used to distribute funds for Title 1, which provides aid to school with high percentages of low-income students.

Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm, has compiled an online database that projects how much school systems will receive in combine ESSER II and III funding., based on how many children aged 5 to 17 are in those districts. Here are 10 school systems in line to receive the most ESSER II and III funding.

  • New York City                                   $7.4 billion
  • Puerto Rico                                       $4.5 billion
  • Los Angeles Unified                        $4.1 billion
  • Chicago                                             $2.7 billion
  • Philadelphia                                      $2.6 billion
  • Houston                                             $1.54 billion
  • Miami-Dade County, Fla.                 $1.53 billion
  • Detroit                                                $1.4 billion
  • Clark County, Nev.                            $1.2 billion
  • Dallas                                                 $970.8 million

Sidebar: Outside the box

One of the facts that people absorbed as they navigated the do’s and don’ts of personal behavior in the Covid-19 pandemic is that the threat of becoming infected is reduced by being outside in the fresh air.

And even before Covid-19 struck, many schools and universities—especially those with an agreeable climate—had been looking outside the confines of their buildings and embracing the philosophy that learning can take place anywhere—including the outdoor spaces on a campus.

Mission College, a community college in Santa Clara, Calif., already was undergoing a makeover of its campus to provide more appealing outdoor spaces for students. It had torn down the main building on campus and was converting the space to a central plaza of about 190,000 square feet with outdoor spaces for classrooms, performances and informal gatherings.

“We were already planning for these outdoor spaces,” says Rusty Case, an associate principal at Gates + Associates, a landscape architecture firm. “The college was interested in getting the students to stay on campus; hang out, socialize—really use the campus in a different way.”

The onset of the pandemic has made the availability of the outdoor space fortuitous for Mission College. Although few students have been on campus this school year, they are expected to take full advantage of the space later this year when the fall semester begins.

“Creating all those numerous outdoor social spaces has provided additional outdoor learning opportunities,” says Chuck Gardella, a landscape architect at Gates + Associates. “We have outdoor classes on campus, and we have these different flexible spaces that can be used for events.”

Other schools and colleges have taken advantage of outdoor spaces not to only to expose students to fresh air, but also to provide the additional room to achieve social distancing. The Ed Covid-19 handbook notes that some schools in New York City have converted blacktop roofs into outdoor classroom when weather permits. In warmer areas like Arizona, opening outdoor classrooms has become common in the pandemic.

Mission College is equipped for some its classes to migrate outdoors to the new quad.

“All of the spaces have power and wi-fi,” Case says. “They have everything they need. As more people start coming to the campus, this quad is teed up and ready to meet them.”

The outdoor spaces include areas shaded by canopies, and eventually by trees as they mature.

The appeal of outdoor spaces as the nation emerges from a pandemic is an unplanned benefit of the Mission College quad. The initial motivation for the campus transformation was to make it feel less like a commuter college and more like a campus for a four-year college.

“As a commuter college, a lot of the students went to their cars between classes and would hide out,” Gardella says. “There was not a great outdoor space. The main building was taken down and replaced with a green space at the heart of the campus…The reality is that people do want to see a nice college campus.”

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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