As schools across the country grind through their last weeks of pandemic-imposed distance learning, teachers and administrators have begun to think about how the coronavirus will change high schools next fall. Although several articles have been published on how schools will look and function differently in the new school year, less has been written about how we could take this pause as an opportunity to substantially rework teaching and learning.

Michele Back

What if we actually took the plunge to fix what we know is broken about the entrenched, traditional high school system?

As an educational researcher and the mother of a 15-year-old son finishing his sophomore year in quarantine, I have thought about three significant, yet highly doable alterations that would benefit him and his peers. There is growing consensus about all of these ideas; now that normal constraints are up for negotiation, we should take this time to put them into play.

Start School Later. A benefit of distance learning has been that my son can get a lot more sleep. Instead of rising at 6  a.m. to catch a 6:40 bus for a 7:25 school start time, my son wakes up between 8  and 9 a.m.. As a result, he has magically transformed into an affable, easy-going person.

The conflicts I dreaded as a result of our ongoing close quarters have, for the most part, not taken place. My personal experience is supported by numerous studies and policy statements arguing for later high school start times. Simply put, circadian rhythms are different for adolescents, and telling our teenagers to “just go to bed earlier” doesn’t work. My son has told me that during the school week (and our enforced early and device-free bedtimes) he often lies awake for hours before finally falling asleep.

Distance learning has allowed him to take full advantage of his normal biological sleeping patterns; I would imagine that other parents of teenage children are seeing similar results. Studies have also shown that getting enough sleep reduces behavior issues, traffic accidents, and sports-related injuries. Moreover, those school districts that have implemented later start times have seen increases in test scores and even athletic achievement.

What if this quarantine could get us all on the same page of respecting adolescent biology, allowing us to move high school start times accordingly?

Flexible Scheduling. While there has been a great deal of hand-wringing about “COVID slide” and other learning gaps, I have witnessed in my house a young man who is independently prioritizing and deepening his knowledge in the content about which he feels most passionate.

At the same time, most of his teachers have done an amazing job of creating lessons that focus on essential takeaways, rather than busywork.

A flexible, asynchronous schedule —combined with reliable internet access, something that I readily acknowledge not everyone has— has enabled my son to access numerous resources to supplement what he receives from school. When he is not studying, he is engaged in individual development training for his soccer team, or tutoring middle schoolers in math via Zoom as part of a community service project.

A recent article in Bloomberg spoke to the liberating potential of “Half-Time High,” in which adolescents could pursue learning in a more flexible, engaged manner. High school students are at an age where they both long for greater autonomy and challenge the relevance of sitting through a one-size-fits-all series of courses.

What if we could refashion high schools as flexible learning communities, where students could design their own curriculum with teacher input and facilitation? Incorporating flexible learning —in short, making high school a little more like college— could go a long way toward increasing student engagement, and better prepare students for life after high school.

Life prep, not test prep. Better preparation for post-secondary life also means moving away from our assessment-obsessed pre-COVID school culture.

High schools should capitalize on this year’s cancellation of the SAT and ACT college prep tests, as well as many colleges and universities opting out of requiring these test scores for admission, by recommitting to teaching the content and life skills that students will need to thrive after graduation.

My son’s freshman year math and English dedicated a significant part of their curriculum to SAT prep; despite this, he was relieved to hear that he did not have to take the PSAT this year. Rather than drilling the components of an artificial gate-keeping assessment shown to be a poor predictor of college achievement, what if schools could provide learning experiences that enable students to tackle the various challenges of college, a career, and life in general?

A Spanish teacher I know extolls the benefits of his project-based learning curriculum every year during open house by asking parents, “How many of you walk into your job on a daily basis, sit down, take out a pencil and paper, and take a test?”

From a curriculum like that of my Spanish teacher colleague that demands the critical thinking and flexibility desired by colleges and the workforce, to apprenticeship options for students considering a trade, to courses in financial literacy and yes, home economics, high schools are in a prime position to scaffold truly meaningful learning experiences, giving teenagers the necessary tools to forge their own path to adulthood.

This pandemic has been a stressful event, yet it has also made many of us realize what is important in our lives, and what we might not need to return to when we are all able to be in contact again.

As we piece together what the new normal might look like in our high schools, we should take advantage of this disruption to reconfigure the many moving parts that have been used as excuses for maintaining the status quo.

Bus schedules, athletics, and admissions requirements all pale in comparison to the destructive —and potentially regenerative— potential of a global pandemic. Let’s use this pause in our lives to help our teenagers become the well-adjusted, engaged, and prepared adults we want them to be.

Michele Back is an Assistant Professor of Secondary and World Languages Education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut.

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