Signs of Hope and Progress in an Angst-filled Back-to-School Season

by Jennifer Carolan, General Partner at Reach Capital

In my 25 years in education, I cannot recall a more angst-filled back-to-school time than now. This week, more than half of our nation’s children will have returned to school. For millions of kids, it will be the first time they have stepped foot inside a classroom in more than a year.

The school system they are coming back to is forever changed. Last year, families left the public system in unprecedented numbers, as schools wrestled with developing their online learning muscle while trying to ensure that their most vulnerable students were fed and emotionally supported. Educators stepped up heroically to a Herculean ask of a system that had long been under-resourced.

Children are coming back changed, too. A year of Zoom classes and cancelled sports and social events has adversely impacted their mental health. Screen time doubled, though not all of it was passive. Many deepened their engagement in the online worlds of gaming, investing and entertainment as they sought new connections to combat isolation.

Many signs point to another bumpy beginning this fall. Schools that started have already returned to remote instruction due to rising COVID case counts. A patchwork of inconsistent safety protocols have pitted schools against state authorities over practices like masking. Even curriculum has become a pawn of partisanship, as the country wrestles with how our history should be taught.

This is a crucible year for our schools, as it is for so many of our publicly-funded institutions. But unlike last year, when the challenges caught the system unprepared, we have seen what really matters when it comes to supporting our teachers and students. What we learned gives me hope, and never has there been a greater opportunity for schools to reinvent themselves from within, in ways that are aligned with what our kids need and what our democracy demands.

One key learning is that virtual schooling has value and will continue to grow. For decades, online schooling quietly grew in the shadows of our public school system under the “independent study” category, generally reserved for kids with illness or disability. Not wanting to divide their focus from in-person learning, districts often outsourced independent study to third-party vendors like K12 Stride. Meanwhile, homeschoolers began pushing the frontiers of virtual schooling as families sought online content and connection with other homeschooled children.

The pandemic forced traditional brick-and-mortar schools to embrace virtual learning and put their effort behind the systems, content and pedagogies needed to deliver school remotely. The learning curve was steep and painful at times, but the muscle was built nonetheless. Many families now want schools to provide virtual learning as an option indefinitely.

The new infrastructure, combined with state legislation encouraging homegrown virtual schools, has fed a proliferation of new virtual academies all over the country. In fact, 133 of the 200 largest school districts are offering their own virtual academies.

An optimistic take is that districts will finally have the resources and freedom to innovate and create new models that combine the best of technology and the best of in-person learning. A more pessimistic point of view is that since the dollars follow the students, districts will offer virtual academies just to keep them in house, but won’t put much effort into their quality.

I am hopeful. The staff leading the creation of these virtual academies are often innovators looking to unleash their entrepreneurial energy into creating something new and special. They are building upon what they’ve learned during the pandemic in an environment with fewer constraints. These virtual academies can become labs by which the best ideas get carried over into the districts.

An improved technology infrastructure has also allowed districts to become more comfortable working with remote educators to supplement instruction, mental health services and specialized interventions. It also opens new opportunities for those who prefer teaching remotely for lifestyle or safety reasons. Schools are extending their village of support for students and bringing on remote teachers to provide 24/7 homework help, reading specialists, guidance counselors and therapists.

This is a massive shift for our public school system, because so much inequity is driven by geography and under-resourced locations. In the future, schools won’t be limited by the staff and professionals available within driving distance.

Another key learning is that social-emotional learning has become the priority. Children’s mental health has been in decline for the past decade. From 2009 to 2019, the percent of high school students who experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased from 26 to 37 percent. The pandemic has exacerbated this crisis. Last November, the CDC reported an increase in the proportion of mental health–related emergency department visits among children under 18. Two-thirds of parents were worried about the long-term impact on their child’s mental health.

School leaders are taking action. Every ESSER III plan (part of the American Rescue Plan) submitted to the federal education department includes reference to mental health supports. As they invest more in resources and staff for intervention, schools are also shifting to a language, culture and environment that elevates mental wellness. And as the adoption of technology-enabled supports and the pace of change accelerates, the role of schools will move increasingly toward cultivating self-awareness, emotional balance and mental resilience.

The year ahead will challenge our public school system like never before. But never before have they had the funding, regulatory freedoms, technology infrastructure and social mandate to reinvent from within.