Across Tennessee, school districts are resuming classes in a wide range of formats that respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The most responsive district plans are prioritizing learning and safety by offering parents more than one option for meeting the needs of their students and families.

Since schools had to close their doors in March, we’ve been reminded of the many benefits that schools offer to students — the great teaching that research says is the most important factor for student learning, nutrition and exercise programs essential to good health, music and art opportunities that foster creativity, and early postsecondary opportunities that help students develop their plans for college and careers. Schools also provide the counseling and social interactions that help students build relationship skills for thriving in a civil society.

As we restart the school year, SCORE has been examining what research tells us about the best approaches for these unusual times, and we’ve been looking at Tennessee district reopening plans to find the flexibilities and innovations that are being introduced to prioritize learning options for all students, especially students from historically underserved groups.

Research underscores that some students in particular need in-person learning: our youngest learners, students with disabilities, students who are learning English, and students who are behind grade-level expectations and receiving intervention. Although there are other examples statewide, the following are highlights of a few districts that are working to ensure that in-person learning for these groups is part of their COVID-19 reopening plans:

  • Students in K-3, a pivotal time for building a strong foundation in reading, often are not ready for extended periods of online learning. Trousdale County Schools prioritized early learners in a hybrid reopening plan by offering an additional day of in-person enrichment exclusively for their elementary students.
  • Students with disabilities, who were particularly vulnerable to learning loss in the spring, advance faster with some in-person instruction. Metro Nashville Public Schools is making sure that students with disabilities have access to necessary support and resources by bringing them back to receive in-person instruction while other students remain virtual.
  • English learner students (EL) require specialized instruction to support language development. Valor Collegiate Academies is focusing on providing consistent and individualized communication supports for EL families to ensure students can be successful.
  • Students without the devices or high-speed internet for live virtual learning must have in-school learning opportunities with their teachers and their classmates. Lenoir City Schools, a rural district with the state’s second-largest proportion of English learner students, opted for a mixed in-person and hybrid model this year to ensure students have access to high-quality, live instruction.

Whether school is in person or online or both, we must continue to insist on high expectations for all students and outstanding instruction. Teachers and students must have frequent, high-quality opportunities to work together in mastering new material. Remote learning plans should ensure students have appropriate devices and high-speed internet at home for live instruction. Hamilton County Schools launched HCS EdConnect to provide internet access to nearly 30,000 students on the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Students also must receive instruction aligned to the standards in order to meet grade-level expectations. High-quality, challenging instructional materials support teachers and students to stay on track with grade-level expectations. High-quality instructional materials are especially important for early grades reading. Lauderdale County Schools, a LIFT network district, has made sure their teachers have the tools to be effective this year by leveraging high-quality curriculum and instructional materials in both their remote and in-person classrooms.

This fall is presenting new challenges for Tennessee educators and students. A recent SCORE poll indicated that a majority of Tennessee parents are concerned about their children falling behind academically and developmentally because of the COVID-19 crisis. That helps explain why 60 percent of parents indicated they want at least some in-school learning for their children. Innovative educators are meeting the challenges and the needs of students by building flexible options that emphasize learning and safety.

Dr. Sharon Roberts is chief K-12 impact officer at SCORE.

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