Restoring Pandemic Losses will Require Major Changes in Schools and Classrooms, Superintendents Say

Though kids are learning this year, many have fallen even further behind grade level. A new report from Brookings, written by Paul Hill and Kate Destler, draws from a national survey of school districts and in-depth interviews with six school districts. Highlights from the piece appear below: 

Many school and district leaders had hoped to accelerate learning in 2021-22 by teaching kids at grade level and providing just-in-time help with ideas or skills lost to pandemic absences. But uneven classroom attendance—among students and teachers alike—prevented steady progress. One major district leader reported that half of high school students were missing too many days to pass their courses. Others said one or more schools closed every week for lack of teachers. 

System leaders also reported unprecedented levels of stress among children and adults, which interfered with their ability to focus on academics. “The level of maturing and engagement among students is not there,” one district administrator told us. “It’s not just a child who has lost ground in reading, it’s that they don’t even know how to function in a classroom with other kids.”

Teacher absences and resignations were doubly disruptive in the five of our six districts where the pool of substitutes had dried up. Though most teachers were staying on the job, many fewer people were looking for teaching jobs. Districts were forced to poach from one another, and some were using federal windfalls to sweeten salaries and draw teachers away from other nearby districts.

Big-city districts in the sample reported few problems with culture-war politics. But smaller and less urban ones were heavily distracted by them. Vaccine mandates, masking directives (and prohibitions on masking directives), and conflicts over curriculum stressed school boards and strained previously smooth relations with parents and among teachers.

With few new tools to address these surprising challenges, many top administrators think restoring pandemic losses will require major changes in how schools and classrooms work, and they worry that schools will not be able to do it alone. At a time when unity and concerted work is essential, district leaders lamented the loss of normal levels of parent support and staff divisions over work issues, safety concerns, and politics. Some also fight their own fatigue and loss of joy in work.

Superintendents struggle with the fact that everything from course content to the school schedule and the teacher contract were built for another era. Such mismatches lead to stress and frustration, not only for leaders but also teachers and parents.

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