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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, every school district faces a series of difficult decisions about what is best for children, families, and the community. It is now clear that picking up where we left off and returning to business as usual in education is not possible. But since its inception, our education system has been deeply unequal and erratic in delivering on the promise of a quality education for all of America’s children. This pandemic puts a stark light on an emerging truth—education as we know it is over, and we must think of “school” in deeply different ways.

As the crisis began, millions of children lacked fundamental internet and device access to make remote learning possible, creating even greater equity gaps than before. But some states and districts have risen to the challenge of providing ongoing learning and supports to students and their families. Many of their creative responses hold promise for new and enduring ways to address educational quality and inequity. We now have the opportunity to follow the many inspiring examples educators have set and to shift our very idea of school to match the demands of this historic moment.

Why We Should Aim for Reinvention

Our current system took shape almost exactly a century ago, when scientific managers were looking for ways to accommodate the huge influx of students into urban areas from migration and immigration, coupled with the spread of compulsory education. The primary goal was preparing students for manual work on farms and in factories, as factory and landowners sought efficiencies from the rise of assembly-line technologies and new model bureaucracies. Schools were developed to maximize rule following and rote learning and to minimize relationships.

Only a small number of students were identified for access to the higher-order skills needed for thinking work. Funding, school assignment, and tracking systems designed to allocate students to their “places in life” were enacted within contexts of deep-seated racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudice.

Educators and policymakers have sought to evolve this system over the ensuing decades, with recurring eras of reform that have made small dents in the systems we have inherited. However, in a moment when we have more knowledge about human development and learning, when society and the economy demand a more challenging set of skills, and when—at least in our rhetoric—there is a greater social commitment to equitable education, it is time to use the huge disruptions caused by this pandemic to reinvent our systems of education.

We now know a great deal that we did not know 100 years ago. We know much about how people learn; how to enhance children’s development through productive relationships in supportive settings; and how to enhance their learning through inquiry-oriented, culturally relevant pedagogy and curricula, as well as through authentic, formative assessments.

The question is: How can we harness these understandings as we necessarily rethink school? How can we transform what has not been working for children and adults? As state and district leaders prepare for what schooling will look like in 2020 and beyond, there is an opportunity to identify evidence-based policies and practices that will enable them to seize this moment to strengthen learning opportunities for students. Currently, these efforts are highly variable and inequitably available, but growing coordination across state and district lines can solve some of our greatest challenges.

While deep inequalities have pervaded every aspect of education since schools were closed in the spring, remarkable areas of innovation and change have also occurred. We have seen more rapid progress in 2020 in bridging the digital divide than we have seen in the last 20 years. We have seen more uptake of technology-driven innovations in teaching, more outreach directly to families, and more collaboration time for teachers than were thought possible even a few months before the pandemic shut down in-person learning.

The initial changes were made quickly to meet immediate needs, but a broader question should guide our efforts throughout this year and beyond. How can we redesign schools to be:

  • student-centered in ways that support the whole child’s social, emotional, cognitive, moral, and identity development;
  • focused on deeper learning that meets the demands of today’s society;
  • culturally and linguistically connected and sustaining;
  • grounded in collaboration among students, staff, families, and communities; and
  • equitable in the opportunities provided and outcomes achieved?

The Purpose of This Framework

Policymakers, educators, students, and families face daunting challenges as the 2020–21 school year begins. As communities continue to suffer from surging outbreaks of COVID-19, districts are considering a range of differing approaches to online, hybrid, and in-person instruction while they balance health and safety considerations. The framework presented here does not try to replicate the guidance that has been issued related to health and safety guidelines for reopening schools and how to organize school schedules to allow for social distancing, distance learning, and blended learning (see resources below).

This report builds on this guidance and focuses on how policymakers as well as educators can support equitable, effective teaching and learning regardless of the medium through which that takes place. It provides an overarching framework to inform the restart of schools for the 2020–21 school year while also providing a long-term vision that can guide leaders toward new and enduring ways to address educational quality and inequity (see Figure 1). The framework provides research, state and local examples, and policy recommendations in 10 key areas that speak to both transforming learning and closing opportunity and achievement gaps.

Figure 1
A Framework for Restarting and Reinventing School
Infographic showing Ten Priorities for Restarting and Reinventing School

This framework builds on and recognizes other student-centered, equity-oriented frameworks that have been developed, synthesizing key ideas while organizing them within a broader framework focused on authentic learning and equity and grounded in research spanning early childhood through secondary schooling. Woven throughout the framework and included, as relevant, in the areas of focus identified above is the important role that engagement of children, families, educators, and communities plays in creating and advancing a vision for quality and equity in our schools and school systems.

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All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings (National Education Association)

This checklist from the National Education Association provides guidance for safely and equitably reopening schools and campus buildings, including three key requirements that must be addressed for a safe return to in-person learning.

A Blueprint for Back to School (American Enterprise Institute)

This framework primarily focuses on the immediate challenges of reopening schools, but it also discusses the need to integrate long-term social and emotional supports that tend to the needs of the whole child.

Considerations for Schools (CDC)

These guidelines from the CDC focus on the health and safety minimums needed to safely reopen school buildings as well as recommendations to adopt cohorting among smaller groups of students.

COVID-19 Resources for Field Leaders (SoLD Alliance)

This website, focused on the science of learning and development, links to dozens of school reopening plans and resources and organizes them by their intended audiences, including students, families, and educators.

Framework for Reopening Schools (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)

This brief from UNICEF provides a decision-making framework for how to reopen schools safely that acknowledges the risk factors but also considers the negative impacts of remaining closed for marginalized children.

Guidance on Culturally Responsive-Sustaining School Reopenings: Centering Equity to Humanize the Process of Coming Back Together (Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools)

This reopening guidance for schools, authored by Dr. David Kirkland, contains a series of thought-provoking statements on how districts and teachers can be culturally responsive and equity-based in the era of COVID-19 and beyond.

Guidelines for Reopening Schools (AASA)

These guidelines, produced by The School Superintendents Association, offer 10 priority areas to shift schools toward more virtual and personalized models that are trauma-informed and trauma-skilled.

A Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities: Guidance for Imagining a New Normal for Public Education, Public Health and Our Economy in the Age of COVID-19 (American Federation of Teachers)

This guidance, described as a living document, recommends that districts work in partnership with local unions and to avoid reopening schools physically until there are 14 days of declining cases.

Planning for Reentry & Recovery: A Guide for Promoting Equity, Improvement, and Innovation (FourPoint Education Partners)

This guide includes a self-assessment and other reflective activities for district leaders to use as they assess their reopening plans as well as their strategic planning beyond the immediate crisis.

Ready Schools, Safe Learners: Guidance for School Year 2020-21 (Oregon Department of Education)

Oregon's comprehensive guidance to school reopening is among the most thorough and evidence-based, and it emphasizes the importance of anti-racist practice, performance assessments, and community schooling.

Recommendations for Prioritizing Equity in the Response to COVID-19 (Alliance for Excellent Education)

This report offers recommendations in six areas to support equity-focused responses to COVID-19, including how to expand and improve remote learning, and how to ease the transition to college.

Reopening Schools in the Context of COVID-19: Health and Safety Guidelines from Other Countries (LPI)

This LPI brief from May 2020 offers an international comparison of how five different countries are approaching the challenge of reopening schools in keeping with health and safety guidelines.

Reopening: Moving Toward More Equitable Schools (EL Education)

EL Education's recommendations for reopening include an emphasis on deeper learning and a compelling curriculum where students act as leaders of their own learning, all placed within a system of social and emotional supports.

Restart & Recovery: Considerations for Teaching & Learning Overview (Council of Chief State School Officers)

This short, 11-page PDF provides a series of graphics to support the thinking of systems leaders and state policymakers as they redesign school schedules and other structures to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

The Return: How Should Education Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond? (Chiefs for Change and Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy)

This short, 10-page PDF from May 2020 discusses strategies for school leaders to use to enact authentic, formative assessments as well as how to prioritize social and emotional needs as they reopen schools.

Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Roadmap for Reopening School (CASEL)

This comprehensive road map from July 2020 offers extensive guidance with activities and tools organized around four critical social and emotional learning practices for reopening, including using data as an opportunity to share power.