How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda  

First in a Four-Part Series on Transition*


In the midst of wide-ranging, remote learning efforts during this initial triage phase of the COVID19 crisis, there is a clarion call emerging: What do we do next? The impact of a summer vacation may seem to provide some relief but will likely prove problematic.

What we don’t know.

  • When the return to on-site school will commence.
  • Geographically where and how it will occur.
  • What procedures for social distancing will be in play.

What we do know.

  • That there will be differences in policy responses to school reopening in different regions and different countries as we are seeing now in Denmark. 
  • That there will likely be a resurgence of the coronavirus.
  • That the understandable urge to “pick up where we left off” is a fantasy.

Let us consider real and actionable choices for curriculum design for the return and how we might arrive at those decisions. We will frame our exploration on two fundamental questions:

QUESTION 1: What have our learners experienced?

We need to acknowledge and ascertain the impact of COVID19 on them emotionally, socially, and academically in preparation for making curriculum choices for the upcoming school year. Each school community is its own ecosystem characterised by: a unique student population,  a specific location, demographics, language capabilities, cultural characteristics, degrees of transiency, age range, and aspirations. With this in mind,  our efforts need to focus on the degree of trauma our individual students have experienced that may have prevented them from meaningfully engaging in learning. In Part 3 of our blogpost series, we will explore specific strategies and efforts being made to assess the impact on our learners.

On the academic front, our students have had disparate learning  experiences and wide ranging degrees of engagement. Some of these disparities will be due to a lack of access , conflicting distractions at home, the quality of the programs offered and the level of interest in the experiences planned. Our students will be feeling a range of emotions, some readily apparent and others hidden. Certainly the age of learners will determine our response. In truth, many of our teachers and school leaders will have their own children at home and will be grappling with these questions.

With a central focus on learners, we would do well to include all members of the school community in this preparatory probe: families, teachers, school leaders, caregivers.

ACTIONS to consider:

Documenting and sharing stories. Representing the range of the experience on the part of learners and families, these can be handled directly between classroom teachers and their learners on current online platforms. These stories can also be addressed through organizations and groups that directly seek out and feature diverse perspectives of students to better understand their current situations as well as hopes for when school returns what might be most helpful to consider.

  • Lessons learned—what I didn’t know about myself and others
  • Stories of grief and loss
  • What I miss most about school and want to keep
  • Parental observations of children based on developmental considerations.

Online  forums and story-telling gatherings. The sharing of stories to be thoughtfully heard by others in the community.  (Zoom rooms)

School Community Virtual Summits to Navigate 2020-21. We urge you to host school community virtual gatherings between now and before the start of school so that families can describe the reality of what was experienced in homes to better understand diverse perspectives and guide decision making. These gatherings can continue through the school year whether virtual or on site pending local conditions.

Surveys that directly address questions, concerns and level of student engagement from all members of the school community. What is critical is that survey data not only impact curriculum choices made, but also school leadership present back new and revised learning plans with data from the school community.

Deliberate planning on relationship building in the first weeks of school. Start slowly and begin with two to three weeks of probing with learners about their experience, let them share, document, and begin some assessment of their readiness skills to engage.

Using an existing approach for SEL (e.g., Habits of Mind, RULER, CASEL Competencies) to help with common language, direct instruction, and responsive feedback. The power and push for social emotional learning over the past several years can really help with sense-making and healing. While SEL lessons might previously have been relegated to an “advisory” program or front-loaded at the start of the year, cognitive learning is deeply intertwined with social emotional learning.

Focus on counseling and medically supported approaches to manage trauma. It is critical not to overwhelm an already overloaded, anxious faculty, yet they likely see that it is essential to be prepared. We would do well to draw reasonable and simple strategies for recognizing signs of trauma in our learners. School counselors and psychologists can provide professional development webinars to inform staff and share approaches to assist. In a recent global forum, a Minnesota educator shared with Heidi that his staff had elected to receive professional development training in treatment strategies from PTSD. The faculty has  found it helpful in their interactions with learners and helping manage their own personal situations. It is critical to note that teachers should not be viewed as therapists here, but rather that they have better tools for red-flagging emerging problems.

QUESTION 2:  What will matter most in the design of the curriculum next year for our students?

Clarifying what is expected from staff and students is paramount as anxiety levels about standardized testing, making up for 8-10 weeks of unit coverage, may push people over the edge. Relentlessly focusing on getting units online in the summer months and moving through curriculum at a rapid pace when the school year begins will likely alienate many learners, families, and professionals. Every effort must be made to find out to what extent students were actually engaged in emergency remote learning efforts during the current Triage period. Key determining factors:

Our younger learners may be in a literacy hiatus due to the lack of formal instruction during these formative years. It will be critically important to determine where our children stand in order to move forward with reading, writing, listening, speaking, and numeracy. Frankly, these same concerns hold for other age groups who may be literate but will likely have slipped precipitously in their growth. It is reasonable to assume that there will be an increased learning gap between the end of the current existing online school year. We are suggesting that the readiness of learners needs to be handled thoughtfully in the opening weeks — balancing diagnostic assessment with developing classroom culture filled with optimism, possibilities, and creative choices.

In some communities there will be a sizable number of learners who had limited participation as school transitioned to remote learning for the remainder of the school year. That may be further compounded by the Triage grading system where some school systems have decided that “no one fails” regardless of achievement over the first ⅔ of the year. This may make it more difficult to ascertain individual growth on key skills and concepts essential to build on for the upcoming school year.

When formal and predictable instructional routines stopped, learning still went on. As students gained more control over how they spend their time, there are skills, topics, and ideas that students may have pursued due to necessity, boredom, curiosity, and/or aspiration.

Some OPTIONS to consider:

Examine core curriculum for the year in the remaining weeks of school. Ideally, this would be done with PLCs (e.g., subject area teams, vertical teams in Elementary) where they come to agreement on What to cut? What to keep? What to create? This culling of core curriculum from the beginning of the school year helps create a more coherent curriculum narrative, prioritizing skills and processes with a thoughtful reframing of content over the memorization of granular details. We will share a decision making tool and strategies to assist in making these critical choices in Part 2 in our series.  (*See below).

Recalibrate curricular content goals to emphasize the BIG PICTURE of concepts rather than diving into the granular in all subject areas. An effective approach that has gained international attention is the Big History Project. The premise: rather than teaching minutiae about history, we lay out the big story, the connected sweep of history in a way that allows us to take a deeper dive in a context. This approach can certainly be applied to many of our curriculum areas. So, for example, science teachers in a middle school might lay out their year with a handful of important storyline points or concepts. In Biology—what are the five or six main takeaways that conceptually will engage our learners? What are a handful of key details that will support that investigation? Let us be clear, for those learners who can and will take a deeper dive, there is a wealth of details to explore in any subject. The possibility for pursuing more information can be built into any curriculum design especially when we have self-navigating learners.

Develop a set and series of transition units that focus on reflecting on what their experience has been and what has been the experience of others personally, locally, and globally. These would be phenomena-based and clearly interdisciplinary and certainly designed to match the developmental needs of learners. Taking a humanities lens could consider the stories and social impact through ELA, Social Studies, and the Arts would provide opportunities for self-expression and appreciation for the point of view of others. A STEM lens would point to the science, diagnostic,analytic, statistical, economics of COVID19 but continue to keep the personal, local and global angle. Based on the age of the learners, the curriculum could draw from archives of the event via news sources (Newsela). This could be in addition to a revised core curriculum adapted to the needs of the learner.

Recognize the freedom and responsibility that learners had to demonstrate during COVID19 in planning their time, monitoring thinking, seeking assistance. Their level of autonomy can be strengthened through naming the language of dispositions/HOM, direct instruction  (e.g., managing impulsivity, persisting, thinking flexibly), student self-reporting about ideas and actions they pursued, and providing feedback. For example, here is a survey developed by a school in New Jersey.


What actions and options are you developing in relation to these two questions? Comment below to share your thinking and help expand possibilities for school communities around the world.

QUESTION 1: What have our learners experienced? 

QUESTION 2:  What will matter most in the design of the curriculum next year for our students? 


*NOTE: We will explore the range of options and key considerations that school leaders, learners, and families might examine as they move forward in our four-part blog series on the Transition.

Part 1:  The Return is Approaching: Curriculum Choices in the Transition to School Re-opening raises questions, offers some guideposts, and expands the menu for the design of learning experiences. 

Part 2: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep, and What to Create in the Design of Learning Experiences for 2020-21 School Year. Providing a tool to assist local educators in making these important choices.

Part 3:   Assessment and the Return to School: Engaging Student Voice, Self-monitoring, Meaningful Demonstrations, and Feedback 

Part 4:  Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces 

14 thoughts on “How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19”

  1. Our learners are existing in a vacuum. School fulfills a range of intellectual and socio-emotional needs beyond what we normally consider its proprietary functions. The interpersonal and structural aspects which are absent during remote learning are negatively impacting student health.

    It will first be crucial to avoid the naive rush to make up for lost time in an attempt to return to normal. A long view that recognizes the redesign of the existing curriculum will be a process that will occur over years (4 is a good number) a d that we must embrace the redesign as an opportunity to both meet the needs of students while also auditing and improving the existing curriculum.

    1. Appreciate your thoughtful comments on “avoiding the naive rush” to go back to normal as quickly as possible. I would contend that this significant disruption can help break free from many structures, practices, and policies that have been limiting learning. While also elevating timeless structures, practices, and policies that continue to build a culture of learning that is compelling and challenging.

  2. Indeed. We need to see and encourage educators to approach this work as an opportunity to rethink structures and practices and improve outcomes for all students. The mindset school leaders choose to adopt in approaching this new reality will be an important factor in the success of the school community.

  3. Priming the pump for possibilities and realities—thank you so very much for the purposeful thinking!

  4. I hope we all resist the urge to assess, assess, assess when students return. Thank you for pointing out the need to balance assessing with joy- filled learning.

  5. I think a focus on our own learning from this experience is essential right now. Some generative questioning that includes your questions, but also questions like, What can we learn from this experience? (Consider the difference between “what can” and “what have.”) Or, what has surprised us about this time? Look for the unexpected. Don’t limit our inquiry to utility.

    Thanks for this piece,

  6. Every challenge is an opportunity to learn. I strongly feel our traditional setting was battling a major issue, and that was the fact that our home-to-school connection was broken. With Distance Learning and remote instruction we have the opportunity to build amazing relationships. A child’s first teacher is their parent or guardian (particularly wherever that influence is coming from which builds their experiences). Once that parent-teacher relationship grows so does our true support along with the ability to really take advantage of the philosophy which states “it takes a village.”

    1. I absolutely agree that “every challenge is an opportunity to learn.” I have learned to record my own video lessons which are very close to my classroom instruction. When we come back to the school buildings, I will continue to record videos. I am even considering to flip the classroom. Students’ homework assignments should be to watch the videos and complete an online “exit ticket.” The online exit ticket will give me data how to approach my class. Some students will be challenged with more difficult math problems, others will get extra help from the teacher.

  7. I appreciate the thoughtful consideration given to building on what we have learned during this experience. What do we need to unlearn?

  8. In my view, the Covid 19 crisis affects the English Learners the most of all students. Some of them may not speak the language very well and they may feel uncomfortable asking for help. Others might have just arrived in the USA and they did not have a clue how to navigate the US educational system. Many English Learners also needed a laptop to continue their educational experience.

    Since I teach Algebra 1 and Geometry at RHS, the curriculum redesign of the these two subjects depends on whether our students will have to take the MCAS Mathematics Test. In my view, standardized testing in Massachusetts should be discontinued. This will give the freedom of teachers to redesign the curriculum to the specific needs of the students. The second option is DESE to publish a limited number of core standards that will be tested in the next MCAS Mathematics Test. These limited number of standards will create the backbone of the curriculum design for the next academic year.

  9. Experienced: Isolation, confusion, monotony, family stress, disengagement, lonliness

    What to focus on: Big concepts, developing self directedness, growth mindset, and reflection. Deep emphasis on literacy and numeracy, building on mastered skills.

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