There has never been a back to school season like this one. Worry and uncertainty abound as the new school year approaches. Educators grapple with issues of safety, budgets, staffing, class size, and more, turning the once familiar ritual of returning to school after summer vacation into an unfamiliar and daunting landscape. Administrators and teachers are being asked to make impossible choices.  At a high-level, districts and schools are analyzing their ever-changing local circumstances, studying conflicting guidance, and choosing among three options for reopening: in-person instruction, distance learning, or a hybrid of the two.

Regardless of whether they’re heading back to the classroom or teaching from home, more than 50% of educators said they felt “worried” about how they’ll be instructing students in the fall, according to a recent Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) survey of 1,100+ preK-12 teachers. Moreover, 93% of educators said that concerns about providing equitable instruction to all students will be at least somewhat of a barrier to instruction this year.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, there’s one thing about which educators, families, lawmakers, economists, and medical professionals agree: Education is vital to the health and prosperity of children and communities. So, in the face of extraordinary challenges, educators are being called upon to go above and beyond for their students and each other. 

As the pandemic enters its sixth month, we’ve had a front row seat into what’s worked well for educators, what needs to improve, and the lasting impact this moment may have on education. As we look ahead to the 2020-2021 school year, there are five areas where we anticipate breakthroughs to occur in education, setting this year apart from all others:

1. Hybrid Learning Environments

According to our survey data, the vast majority of educators (88%) anticipate using more technology to deliver instruction during the 2020-2021 school year. This increase could be explained by the prominent role technology is sure to play in the hybrid learning environment that will almost certainly endure beyond the pandemic. Hybrid learning has the potential to facilitate seamless, year-round education that reduces learning gaps while giving students greater voice, choice, and agency in their learning. 

In a hybrid model, educators will be able to personalize learning based on power standards and assessments, then provide resources that can be accessed in class or at a distance. In order for this ambitious shift to occur, lawmakers and educators will need to bridge the digital divide and provide universal access to the internet and devices as Miami Dade Public Schools did, connecting all students within two weeks of school closures. Don’t be surprised if more school districts follow this model. 

2. Social Emotional Learning

In addition to addressing academic needs, welcoming students back from the summer will require special attention to social-emotional supports. The pandemic is a mass trauma event that has affected the well-being of students and adults in myriad ways from isolation to grief, loss, and abuse. Knowing students well and implementing trauma-informed practices is essential for students to thrive and learn – even if done virtually. This may include community circles, journaling routines, and restorative practices. Andrea M., a third grade teacher in Florida, created community and strengthened connections this way. “Every Friday, I have a Zoom party. We had a pajama party, a scavenger hunt, and a ‘bring a stuffed animal’ party.” Providing moments of joy, comfort, and safety to students will be even more vital this school year. 

3. Equity and Social Justice

Distance learning has revealed many inequities based on race, poverty, ability, and primary language — and teachers are concerned about how to address them. In fact, providing equitable instruction was a top concern in our latest poll. Ninety-three percent of educators said that concerns about providing equitable instruction to all students will be at least somewhat of a barrier to instruction this year. Eight-two percent pointed to lack of internet access.

With national outcries for racial and social justice, educators are examining their practices and systems of oppression in schools. Heading into the new school year and beyond, it’s critical teachers keep the conversation going, use privilege to be advocates for change, and speak up and out when they see racism in their own schools. We’ll likely see more teachers show up for students in the fall with a renewed energy to create more equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist schools. 

4. Home-to-School Connections

The pandemic moved education from school to home overnight and that is not likely to change in many places this fall. In fact, 30% of families in a USA Today poll indicated their children are very likely to learn from home. Across the country, interest has increased in micro-schooling and homeschooling models. In meeting the needs of some families, these movements could further exacerbate inequities in educational opportunities without support from schools and districts. While families do need support with academics, a separate TpT survey of families, conducted in May found they struggled the most with supporting their child’s emotional needs (46%). Could educators support students’ academic and emotional needs and keep families connected by facilitating micro-schools in the community when education in schools is not available? It’s a possibility and yet with so many challenges and budget uncertainties, we’ll just have to wait and see.

5. Student Engagement

Connecting with families also helps students engage with learning. We have heard from teachers around the world that maintaining student engagement, during school closures, has required a new toolkit. But it’s not easy to make academic gains in this disrupted learning environment. 46% of teachers are planning for remediation and additional academic support for students and 34% are developing plans for evaluating student learning loss.

That’s where teachers get creative, inviting guest speakers for read alouds and discussions and taking virtual field trips to museums and zoos previously inaccessible to them. Though forced to leave the four walls of a classroom, educators have an opportunity to expand students’ horizons virtually and fill instructional holes. Expect to see more of this as the pandemic continues. 

While educators long for schools to reopen safely to provide a robust, pre-pandemic, in-person teaching and learning experience, that may not be possible for a while. Yet, in the midst of adversity, innovations are occurring in every aspect of education and in this back to school season, teachers are the driving force behind innovation.