Adapting Education Policy: Lessons Learned From The COVID-19 Era

A student watches an interactive lesson on his teacher's SMART display.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to confront the ways U.S. education needs to transform. 

On July 15th, the Education Policy club convened educators and policy experts to have a special conversation that asked participants to reflect on “What Did We Learn Last Year? How Should Education Policy Adapt?” Here is a summary of panelist and audience insights.

Maria Worthen, Founder & Principal Consultant of Education Policy Strategies kicked off the conversation by discussing three things the pandemic taught us and corresponding ways education policy must adapt:

  • Family Supports Matter: Education policy must transcend different systems and be intersectional; we must break down silos between the different systems. Programs like food and nutrition, mental health, and high-quality childcare matter for students’ well-being and success.
  • Health and Safety Matter: Contrary to the traditional thought that places the most importance on student learning, we learned from COVID-19 that health and safety must be addressed before learning can happen. If students and their families are not healthy, they cannot learn, as in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • Learning Happens Everywhere: We need to lose the assumption that the only learning that matters happens in schools. We need to recognize multiple pathways and modalities of learning. Policy must change seat time policies, definitions of instructional time, and the way we assess and credential learning.

Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney, CEO of Nabaa Consulting reflected on missed opportunities of the past year.

  • Teacher voices were ostracized in the policy conversation, and we lost the opportunity to hear from them. Furthermore, teachers were pitted against schools and families in the public discourse. Policy needs to adapt by ensuring educators' voices are heard.
  • We overlooked social-emotional supports for all the relevant stakeholders (students, families, teachers, administrators) in terms of the health and safety conversation. Policies need to do a better job of fostering SEL (Social Emotional Learning) and mental health.
  • The disruptions to education in the last year give us an opportunity to take a pause and be more strategic on what we genuinely want for students.

Christine M. T. Pitts, Resident Policy Fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education spoke from her experience in a district leadership position at Portland (OR) Public Schools during COVID-19 and what she thinks should be done in the future.

  • Districts had to learn deeply and quickly to show up for students appropriately. Christine would like to see education policy “lengthen the runway,” meaning that districts and states should be more intentional about implementation, and being strategic and flexible. This will allow for infrastructure to innovate.
  • Out-of-school learning time, and community partners are crucial. Pitts’ district relied heavily on community organizations to connect to families and collect relevant data about their needs. In the future, we should engage community organizations in policy conversations; COVID-19 set a new, higher bar for centering families, students, and the community.
  • During COVID-19, districts often struggled to adapt new learning strategies down to the student level. We should frame every decision around what we owe students.

Fumie Ichikawa, Assessment and Research Director for a Large Urban District in Indiana, also spoke from her experience working in a district assessment and research leadership position.

  • The bureaucratic burdens of policies often get in the way of helping students and families. Institutional gatekeeping impeded support from getting to those who needed them. More flexibility would have allowed food, health, and technology programs to better reach their intended populations during COVID-19. Districts should reduce the barriers and bureaucratic processes that might prevent students and families from the resources they need.

Giancarlo Brotto, Founder of Global Education Catalyst, brought an international perspective from his work convening government officials on education.

In 2020, education ministries all over the world found themselves having to implement everything quickly; this gave greater rise to the concept of flexibility in school governance. With this flexibility the system needs to serve the learners, governments need to change to operate in that spirit.

How can we leverage what we are doing now to modify our long-term plans in light of what we learned from COVID-19? It is time to rethink where schooling happens, and acknowledge that there are a variety of approaches to learning and learners, and multiple modalities. Some ministers said they are revisiting their long-term plans with this in mind.

The workshop broke out for comments and perspectives from the audience, including the following:

An audience member agreed with Maria's statement about learning happening everywhere and not confining it to the classroom. Education is conflated with formal schooling; however, most people’s lives happen outside of formal environments. We have to make what happens outside of school central to education policy.

  • It takes a village to raise a child— COVID really shone a light on that. Communication can be better with parents; we should invite parents to the table  when discussing policies. Dr. Berthena spoke about how her district in Tennessee is engaging important stakeholders in the conversation. They will  have students joining the school board in the next year.
  • We need to ensure the health crisis doesn’t disrupt learning going forward. We should not be flying by the seat of our pants but dig deep on how to be a district that thrives in the midst of COVID-19.
  • Districts should add a thought exchange with relevant stakeholders; this allows a district to send out questions that parents and members of the community can respond to. Districts can engage with these stakeholders and not just have a one-way conversation.
  • We can no longer put policies in place that don’t serve students.
  • There is a need to subsidize high-speed broadband access, high-quality hardware that is durable and scalable.
  • We must modernize student information systems, and ensure their function aligns to goals.
  • Superintendent and principal advisory boards should include students. This will allow them exposure to how these policies are made and expose them to critical thinking skills.
  • Need to address attendance/seat time policies- allow class time/counting virtual days to count towards attendance. Policies that penalize students who keep their cameras off disproportionately penalizes Black and Brown students.
  • Policies need to address Black and Brown students’ needs specifically.
  • Access to learning should be broad enough to accommodate the needs of diverse students through multiple modalities.

About The Author

Tanya Borachi is a Policy & Communications Consultant with Education Policy Strategies. Previously, Tanya worked at Cody High School in Detroit as a College Advisor. She is passionate about dismantling institutional barriers that prevent marginalized students from obtaining the best educational opportunities. Tanya recently graduated from George Mason University with her Master's in Public Policy with a concentration in Education Policy.