Eight months after COVID-19 first shut down schools across the country, the state of education in the United States remains in flux. Students with disabilities, in particular, continue to be disproportionately impacted by school closures and lack of access to services. As cases tick upward once again, school leaders and administrators are likely to face tough decisions in the coming months. Despite the immense difficulty of the situation, we have identified several key strategies that will set school leaders up for success.
Accept that change is the new normal. Flex your adaptability.
With the timeline of a vaccine uncertain, we all must accept that schools—and society as we know it—are a long way from returning to the way they were. Instead of fighting against that fact, we must embrace flexibility. Instead of focusing on the way things should be, shift your energy to finding solutions that work with the way things are. And let’s be honest—the way school was designed in the past never actually worked for all students.
Prioritize frequent, open, and honest communication. Listen to learn, not to respond.
Students, families, and staff will look to you for a sense of stability and hints of what’s to come. Don’t limit your communications to a quick hello or an emailed survey. Make a genuine effort to continuously reach out to families and listen. Ask them what they need and what’s working. Be honest that you don’t necessarily know what things will look like over the coming months, but commit to working with them to figure it out. Strive for co-creation.
Take the time to build authentic connections. Relationships matter.
The human brain is hardwired for connection, and it’s something we’re all lacking right now. Disruptions to our relationships are impacting all of us—but especially young kids, and students who are working on social or executive functioning skills. Despite delays in reopening and shortened instructional time, don’t give in to the temptation to skip over community building. Encourage your teachers to prioritize engagement and sensitivity over instruction. Be real about the fact that everyone—teachers and students alike—is struggling to adapt to the new normal.
Create a point of contact for each family. Prioritize rapport.
Families of students with disabilities in particular are receiving communications from teachers, aides, specialists, and more. For already-stressed families, this can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Work to identify a single point of contact for each student with a disability and their family. This doesn’t have to be their teacher. Prioritize a staff member who has a strong pre-existing relationship with that student.
Work with students and families rather than for them. Elevate co-creation.
Everyone’s circumstances have changed, so it’s time to throw out the old playbook. Instead of working to provide students and families with a simulation of pre-pandemic schooling, work with them to identify new ways to deliver education that work within families’ current context. Co-create expectations and learning environments.
Ensure that IEPs are living, breathing, and dynamic. Think outside the walls of your school.
Rethink the way you approach IEPs, especially when it’s time to rewrite them. Standards should never be lowered—we must consider how to make them more flexible and adaptable to students’ changing circumstances. The transference and globalization of skills should remain front of mind. The pandemic has given some students new opportunities to practice and build skills outside of the classroom, and schools can work with families to maximize that learning by designing IEPs that make sense within a students’ particular context.
Maximize the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Remove barriers.
Basing curriculum design in UDL principles is always a great idea—but it’s essential in our current environment. While especially helpful to students with disabilities, UDL also benefits teachers and the school as a whole. We’ve spent months designing layers of contingency plans, but things continue to change. Design instruction with flexible choices and options to break down barriers to learning. Don’t rely on Zoom. By integrating UDL into our planning from the start, we can adapt to the changes to come without compromising on quality.
Acknowledge the intersectional traumas impacting students. Dismantle inequities.
2020 has brought with it multiple national traumas, and students and families are processing right alongside teachers and school leaders. Invest in more intentional and frequent professional development to help teachers understand the experiences of students and communities. Conversations about cultural sensitivity, racism, inequality, power, and privilege are essential. The root of trauma-informed practice is strong relationships—and only when we acknowledge and dismantle systems of oppression and inequity can those relationships truly blossom. Work to infuse these conversations and learnings into existing curricula.
2020 is testing all of us. As we work through the traumas we’ve faced and the challenges yet to come, a commitment to transparency and relationship building will go a long way. In this moment of forced disruption, school leaders have the opportunity to radically transform learning and build a better educational experience for students and families.