6 ways the COVID-19 era might change the 2020-21 school year

May 13, 2020

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson addressed the Utah State Board of Education last week about reopening schools in the fall. “How do we create scenarios where at any given time we can be nimble? That really means a new level of adaptation that we haven’t seen before.”

In a system where change can be inordinately difficult due to multi-layered administration and interest group politics, Utah’s education leaders should be commended for being forward-thinking about the need to change and adapt to the current realities schools face. Whether for restaurants, healthcare or public schools, innovation for the long term in response to the pandemic is on everyone’s minds. 

Sutherland Institute and other experts have analyzed how school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic could potentially advance innovation in education. While all this has come with plenty of stress and struggle, the good news is that long-term adaptations are likely to benefit a broader range of needs among the diverse set of public school students.

Each adaptation has pros and cons. Below we analyze six innovations being discussed at the state and national level.


One idea is “looping,” which allows students to stay with the same teacher or classroom for part or all of the next school year. Looping can give students a sense of continuity in their studies, a chance to address learning gaps with the teacher who was working with them originally, and a sense of security for both. This could also potentially help teachers. Rather than being presented with a brand-new cohort of students – already a big learning curve in a typical year – looping could reduce the added burden of diverse needs, learning gaps and advancement that teachers would need to deal with. Alternatively, this could create more confusion for teachers who are prepped to teach content for a specific grade or course. Either way there will be a tall order waiting for teachers next fall.

Digital Learning

Another innovative adaptation from these changes is increased virtual or online learning. In some ways, the increased presence of technology is simply going to be a reality not up for debate. It was already a trend, and it’s likely to continue. However, the question remains: How intentionally will schools, districts and the state facilitate and provide for it? Online learning expands the flexibility of pacing, place of learning, and increases access to content that may otherwise be limited by space or location.

But online learning has its downfalls. There is something to be said for human interaction – especially and simply if a student says so. A recent article discusses the reality that online learning is as effective as the child’s response to it. We already know every child is different, and the impact of online learning is no exception. Likewise, teachers range in their comfort levels and abilities with digital learning. Some may enjoy or thrive using it, others may feel intimidated without further training, and some may simply prefer in-person teaching no matter what.           

Shared Delivery

Shared delivery is a response to what is described above – in short, it means having a mix of in-person and online instruction. It’s difficult to get one public school system to adapt in a way that meets every student’s needs. Having a school, district or state shift toward one particular mode of learning in response to shutdowns will inevitably leave some students without a method that works for them. However, offering both (or more) modes of instruction could increase the likelihood that students get what they need. Teachers may also benefit because, just like students, they have a range of strengths, weaknesses and preferences. Shared delivery can expand opportunities for them to teach in ways that fit their preferences as well.  

Staggered Schedules  

At the heart of staggered schedules is a hope to achieve social distance. In function, it means that smaller groups of students are rotating instruction time in the classroom. In a pandemic world this means that desks can be spaced to keep students and teachers safer. In a state that has long filled classrooms with large numbers of students, staggered schedules may help students get more one-on-one attention, improve a teacher’s ability to manage student behavior, and give teachers the opportunity to try new pedagogy in the classroom.


One-size-fits-all policies can be modified by waivers – sanctioned exemptions from law. For example, the Utah State Board of Education granted waivers from the civics test requirement needed for high school students to earn their diploma. Garfield County was also granted a waiver to pursue a four-day school schedule rather than the typical five-day schedule. Each school day will add extra hours in order to meet the required days/hours of instruction. Waivers are not always a perfect policy solution because they inconsistently apply the law; however, they also recognize the realities of life. This is especially important in education policy, where circumstances vary so widely. As we move forward, rather than seeing waivers as the go-to option in dealing with the possibility of school closures, perhaps we should regard them as a reminder that education policy ought to build in flexibility and options upfront.

Increased Choice

Increased education choice through policies like an education savings account – which allows parents to purchase a range of education services or programs – builds into the public system flexibility and options. Such flexibility takes some of the stress off a system that can have difficulties molding to the ebbs and flows of a changing society – especially an ebb caused by school closures and a transformed school environment next fall. Increased choice can also reduce the need for waivers in the future, since unique needs are being addressed in the educational decisions that parents and students are making.

We look forward to seeing how schools are able to innovate to meet the needs of students and teacher alike in the 2020-21 school year and beyond. We encourage leaders to innovate in ways that build flexibility and choice into the system for the long run.

If you have ideas about how to improve the public school system in the COVID-19 era, email [email protected].

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