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What students learned: New perspectives on life

A year of remote school allowed many opportunities for learning to manifest, including new levels of empathy and patience, writes Morgan Park High School principal Femi Skanes.


March 2020 abruptly changed the landscape of education in ways that no one could have imagined. Almost instantly, schools were forced to include various forms of e-learning into educational programs while also making sure students had access to Wi-Fi, laptops and other equipment. Most schools were able to create models that were sustainable until the end of the school year with hopes that the new school year would return to a traditional school model. Unfortunately, the science did not agree, and for many students, e-learning was the reality for the entire 2020-21 school year, too.

Although many educators, students and parents voiced frustration with the e-learning model, others found virtual learning an appealing model. The effectiveness of e-learning continues to be widely debated, but there is one fact that cannot be argued: The necessity of e-learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to rapidly re-evaluate their instructional practices, student learning goals and schoolwide priorities.

As I enter my 10th year as a high school principal, I have never been more excited to welcome students back into school. To describe the previous school year as difficult just doesn't adequately reflect the inordinate amount of stress that I faced. The ever-shifting national COVID guidance continued to alter state and district guidance for schools, which ultimately made it difficult to create stable plans. Teachers and staff needed clear instruction so they could effectively create lessons. Parents needed answers so they could make the best decisions for their families. Students also needed answers about how COVID would impact their overall school experience. Attending to the needs of all stakeholders was exhausting.

There were days when the weight of leadership seemed almost too much to bear. Nonetheless, I stayed focused on working with our school community to ensure that we met the needs of our students, even in a virtual environment. In fact, the urgency around building a new instructional model in a short period of time sparked a new level of leadership innovation. We learned to utilize virtual tutoring options, launched shared college-level courses across multiple high schools and created flexible asynchronous professional development opportunities for teachers. These are just a few practices that were born out of the COVID experience that should continue to live in our school communities.

In hindsight, I do see one glaring flaw in our pandemic thinking: To equate students' lack of traditional school experience with learning loss was—and is—a mistake. It is true that some standards may not have been taught as thoroughly as they may have been covered during in-person instruction. However, many other opportunities for learning were manifested. For example, one of our student-led teams turned their passion for videography and photography into an opportunity to livestream all the sporting events and other school events that we were unable to attend in person. Other students learned new skills, such as cooking, baking and crafting, during quarantine. And all students learned a new level of empathy and patience for each other because of the pandemic.

It will be important for schools to focus on closing any academic gaps that may be related to a variety of COVID-related circumstances. Nonetheless, I believe students will benefit the most when schools use asset-based thinking paradigms to leverage students' newly acquired skills to propel student success.

Our students will not be returning to us as broken vessels this fall. They will be returning to us with new perspectives on life. My charge as a principal is to work with teachers and staff to create a post-COVID learning environment that capitalizes on the innovations of e-learning while attending to potential academic gaps in a way that honors students' new ways of seeing the world. I am optimistic and excited about what the new school year will offer.

Femi Skanes is the principal of Morgan Park High School.


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