Amy Clarke, director of student services and special education at Middletown Public Schools, gives teachers a training about social emotional learning for the fall semester on Thursday, August 20 at Middletown High School. Meeting students' social and emotional needs became more crucial after many students have been socially isolated, Clarke said. "What we thought would be only two weeks has stretched out to nine months." She said. "Certainly the need is greater this year." Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
In-school teaching and learning continues to take place across the state thanks to the implementation of effective mitigation strategies. Yehyun Kim / CTMirror

With months of remote and hybrid learning to go, families and educators continue to adapt and innovate to meet the moment. Since August, we’ve spoken with hundreds of parents, caregivers, family support groups, educators, and students across Connecticut and the country about things things that have worked –strategies, big and small, that have made this time more manageable and helped children learn and stay connected with peers. Their tips and suggestions fill the Making Learning Work Family Guide to remote and hybrid learning.

We also asked about the things that schools can do to help. Families spoke with a clear voice: big, structural changes are needed for schools to provide an equitable education.

But families also shared actions that Connecticut schools can take right now to support students and caregivers.

1. Help families meet their basic needs and support their mental and emotional health.

Families want touchpoints with school staff to support their children. Districts can use regular check-ins and home or porch visits to learn about students’ individual needs and problem-solve challenges. Educators are also using these opportunities to identify children’s interests, celebrate their strengths, and set goals.

Schools and districts can also activate community partnerships. Some have worked with community-based organizations to stand-up free learning hubs that provide childcare and learning support before, during, and after the school day. Others have worked with philanthropies and grocery stores to create billable accounts that families can use to purchase food and essentials.

2. Provide clear, streamlined communication in families’ primary language.

Families want consistent, clear communication. Districts can streamline messages to families at the district, school, and classroom levels, providing updates at regular times. This predictability–along with providing all communications in a family’s primary language–is key to helping families from traditionally excluded communities support their children.

3. Use high-quality, tech-enabled instructional materials.

Families need tech-enabled learning materials to support remote schooling. These materials need to be consistently laid out to help students independently navigate the school day.

These materials also need to be aligned to standards and provide support for students struggling to learn key skills and content. To help caregivers support learning at home, schools can post family-friendly videos and share resources that explain, in family-friendly language, key concepts and skills.

4. Foster a community that celebrates diverse cultures and backgrounds.

Families need educators to model respect and celebrate diversity in their interactions with students and caregivers. Students stress the importance of carving out space (using one-on-one and small-group check-ins) for teachers to get to know them virtually. These check-ins provide opportunities to demonstrate a genuine interest in students’ cultural backgrounds, hobbies, and learning styles, helping all children feel valued and modeling respect.

Schools and teachers must also incorporate diversity into lesson plans, foregrounding voices that have been historically marginalized in the curriculum. Teachers should reinforce civic and cultural connections by incorporating real-world issues into lessons, and, with the ease of Zoom, inviting diverse speakers with varying viewpoints into the classroom.

Districts can also think beyond the typical school boundaries by bringing together (virtually) students who would otherwise never share a classroom. Some are doing this through electives, while others are expanding opportunities to take advanced classes.

5. Problem solve with families in ways that leverage their differentiated strengths and cultural backgrounds.

Families want to partner with schools to address the challenges their children face. Caregivers have insight into their children that is otherwise inaccessible to schools. For educators, this means avoiding coming to caregivers with preconceived problems and solutions. Instead, have conversations. Ask families to share their experiences, celebrate what is working, and work together to create solutions to challenges.

For schools, this means giving teachers and staff the time and tools to meet with families. Adapt staffing and schedules to allow space for proactive and regular check-ins with families, and train staff to be culturally responsive, problem-solving partners.

These actions won’t make our schools fully equitable –big, systemic change is still needed. But these small changes are a place to start–a way to make learning work better for Connecticut students and families during COVID and beyond.

Mike Arrington is a fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL). Erika Haynes is the Director of Community Engagement for the School + State Finance Project.

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