When schools reopen in the fall, they will welcome back students who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since mid-March. And students’ ability to participate in online and at-home instruction while buildings were closed during the pandemic closures varied enormously.

Academic regression is a given, with the average student lagging behind by seven months, according to an analysis by McKinsey and Company. Children of color and those from low-income families will lose even more learning, increasing disparities even more.

Faced with these challenges, teachers will need the full support of administrators and other school leaders to help students continue learning and making academic progress for the 2020-21 school year. 

Classroom experiences will look different in Los Angeles than they will in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. The common thread, however, is the historical significance of what we’re living through—and the degree of planning it will take to fully engage students likely focused on a lot more than turning in their homework.

“It’s almost virtually impossible to replicate what was going on in the classroom” before the pandemic, says National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García. “The most we can hope for is that kids have a meaningful experience.”

Reentry mode

Quality over quantity will be the name of the game in the fall as long as virtual education is in the picture, according to Karen Kukovich, a second-grade teacher at R.V. Haderlein Elementary school in Girard, Kansas.

“Instead of trying to push out a page with 20 math problems—which we do at school a lot, when we are there to help with it—we need to pare that down to something they can complete on their own,” she says. “We’ll need to focus on math, reading, and writing and try to work in social studies and science however we can—but keep it short.” 

Given that students weren’t expected to go as deeply into the material last spring as they would have had they been in the classroom, Dan Taylor, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Victor Junior High School in upstate New York, expects to teach more of an introductory, or condensed, version of the curriculum once school starts again.

Courses more sequential in nature—such as mathematics or a foreign language—may have a tougher time getting back up to speed, adds Taylor.

“The most creative teachers are those thinking about how to tie their schoolwork into the experiences that kids are having, from everyday life to the moment we’re in,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, based in Palo Alto, California. “And that’s very helpful because it gives them a sense of connectedness, relevance, agency.” 

Whatever form early assignments take, “it’s important that the mode of entry is reassuring, thoughtful, and engaging so kids are glad to be back in school—whether or not they’re still doing distance learning,” she says. “Once teachers are back in the groove, they can figure out what the steps are for accelerating instruction.”

One thing districts should not do? Start the year with standardized tests to determine “where students are,” cautions Diane Ravitch, an education historian, research professor of education at New York University, and founder and president of the Network for Public Education.

“What teachers need to know now is how to address the real needs of the students in their classes, and the standardized tests will provide no help at all,” Ravitch says. “We don’t need to rank and rate students, but to determine what help they need. Teachers can determine that by administering classroom tests, or by asking students to read out loud, or by devising the measures that have diagnostic value.”

New ideas and experiences

Teachers have been discovering new ways to deliver quality academics during the pandemic closures. A national survey of Association of American Educators (AAE) members, released in May, revealed that 48 percent of educators are using tools on which they have a little training or experience, yet 67 percent are planning to use these tools to enhance their traditional classroom when schools reopen.

“I don’t think there’s anything I’ve learned that I won’t now use in a regular classroom setting,” says geoscience and geography teacher Jacqueline Cooper at California’s Perris High School. “Everything can be flipped and rolled into what we’ve already been doing. Any amount of new information is a good thing.

Some teachers are dipping into their own pockets even more than usual to help keep lessons fresh and interesting. Chris Dier teaches senior-level world history and Advanced Placement (AP) human geography at Chalmette High School in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. He bought a couple of pairs of cardboard virtual reality glasses for his students.

a teacher smiles at the camera

“This way I can bring the world to them whether they’re going to be at home or in the classroom,” says Dier, who was the Louisiana Teacher of the Year and finalist for the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. His seniors could see what Auschwitz looked like during World War II or experience a World War I trench, for example, while his freshman could visit religious sites in Europe and India.

Equity is a big concern for Chalmette High, where 79 percent of students live below the poverty line and have parents working in fishing, shrimping, and oil refinery industries severely impacted economically by the pandemic. One of Dier’s students is one of five children who spent last spring sharing a single laptop for schoolwork.

Dier hopes districts find ways to identify achievement gaps as soon as possible so teachers can use them as opportunities for collaboration among students. “We could set students up based on different skills that they have, or different ways that they learn,” he says.

“We really need to take that into consideration because even the AP and upper-level classes are going to have more gaps than usual.”

Learning gaps

In rural Missouri, Hallsville Middle School physical science teacher Susan German made sure her students had equitable access to the materials they needed by driving to the homes of those whose parents were unable to get to the school.

Given recent circumstances, teachers, who may have to log even more miles making deliveries, say they hope students without frequent access to technology or backup materials are provided even more additional academic support than usual when needed.

“The children who have been left behind should be assured small classes and intensive instruction to help them make up for lost time,” says Ravitch.

For schools not keeping students with the same teachers they had in 2019-20, Darling-Hammond suggests having previous teachers share what they know about individual students—maybe even visit or become involved in formative or diagnostic assessments.

Remote learning has emphasized the fact that students learn in different ways and has presented challenges for certain populations—challenges that will continue depending on the role remote learning continues to play.

Lisa Cottrell, a special education teacher at Prospect High School in the Chicago suburbs, works in part with students who have autism and has found remote learning to be difficult because their patience levels and attention spans are short.

“A big part of being a special ed teacher is reading the room,” she says. “You have to read body language and negotiate the temperament of students, and you can’t do that when they’re in little squares on a video screen.”

Cottrell has discovered her students with autism do best with remote education when they can read or complete activities on their own time and then answer questions through a virtual program or email. That said, districts may need to consider investing in new materials or learning delivery systems to make the most out of remote learning. Cottrell no longer is able to use one of her virtual reading intervention programs because she needs to use her iPad, her laptop, and a projection screen simultaneously, “and I can’t do all of that and run a Zoom call at the same time.”


Adaptation is the name of the game for teachers this fall, whether it’s about what is being taught, or how—or if at all.

“One of the opportunities, if we can call it that—with the giant caveat that this is a bad [situation]—is that when you’re cut off from what you were expecting, it does reorient your priorities,” says Colin Sharkey, executive director of AAE, headquartered in Mission Viejo, California.

For all classrooms, involving kids in planning lessons will make them much more motivated to learn, says Darling-Hammond: “What are they interested in studying? What do they want to know more about? They have a lot of questions.”

Teachers can learn from students—and school board members can learn from teachers.

“People who have a title in front of their name need to ask the people who know the names of the kids, ‘How do we do this? How do we make this work?’” says NEA’s Eskelsen García. “If they respected us enough to ask those questions, we would find a way to make it work, because teachers have real power and authority to be creative problem-solvers.

“If we don’t do it right, it will be a disaster for a generation of children.”

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2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.