Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of Students and Teachers and Shaping Both Physical and Virtual Learning Spaces

Part 4 of a 4-Part Series
By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda

The summer of 2020 is not a vacation for many educators who continue to work tirelessly to engage with their community on how to open school for the upcoming year. Each school and district continues to receive guidance from state, ministry, and national governments which may change suddenly given the unpredictability of the pandemic. In addition, the reality of implementing governmental guidelines may conflict with staff who may have their own children and live in neighboring districts where policies could conflict.

Because of the complexity and uncertainty of how to approach the upcoming school year, agility is becoming the mantra in school response plans as decisions are being considered for a range of return scenarios:

On-site with social distancing precautions.

  • Clearly the initial phase of reentry to school will entail social distancing and sanitizing precautions that will change as the medical community makes headway in the treatment and prevention of the virus.

Home learning via online platforms.

  • The phrase Home Learning certainly is predicated on the use of on-line learning but needs to be distinguished from the fact that on-line learning can occur at a school site or any location.

Hybrid models which combine features of both on-site and online.

  • State education departments will be initiating policies that may provide for parents to have a choice as to whether their students are allowed to stay home or to go to the school setting. There are obvious implications for staff who have their own children in neighboring districts.

There is an array of variables that each school and district must sort through to respond purposefully and effectively. In making your moves to re-enter school this fall, we reference two laws of physics: 1) the whole is sum of the parts, and 2) form follows function. By this we mean, the four programmatic structures that have everything to do with that is possible in the learning programs created for our students. In Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments (ASCD), Heidi and her co-author, Marie Alcock, detail four critical structures and their interplay as paramount in creating that quite literally shape how our curriculum and learning experiences are planned.

  • Schedule. How we use time to structure learning plans.
  • Spaces. How we organize and use spaces to engage with learners.
  • Learner Grouping. How we intentionally group learners to grow their interests, skill sets, and discourse.
  • Personnel Configuration. How we intentionally organize personnel to be responsive to what the schedules, spaces, and learner grouping demands.

The Structural Nest

We have a genuine opportunity to reconsider format decisions in preparation for re-entry to school this fall presents challenges and possibilities regarding the structural ‘nest.’ There is an astonishing natural beauty to a bird’s nest in its form and function. The nest’s structure is responsive to climate, purpose, and available resources in order to be a place where nurturing the young is possible.

Our post generates options for each structure to correspond to the three response plans in consideration by schools and districts based on what we have seen pre-pandemic and in this transition phase. We strongly advise that the format structures are not selected in isolation by schedule, space, grouping of learners, and personnel configurations, but rather orchestrated to work together for cohesion.

Possible Options for Structural Nest

Possible Options for Structural Nest - V01 Draft

Click here to Review and Download 4-Page Possible Options.

The intention of the chart above is to lay out a menu of options to inspire fresh thinking and encourage you to generate additional options with your school community.

How might you leverage some of those ideas in continuing to develop your own reopening plans? We advocate the drafting of multiple prototypes that reflect these sets of connected choices. As you imagine the possibilities of one option, continue to envision other interconnections that are now on the table. To assist, we suggest a design tool to assist such as the one we have created below:

Link to Continuum Above:

As a design tool, we suggest that teams review and research a full range of options to coordinate schedules, the use of virtual and physical space, possibilities for learner grouping, and different ways staff can be figured. The various combinations then can be developed as prototypes whether on-site, hybrid, or fully home learning based. Certainly, there could be multiple prototypes for any one of the three fundamental approaches that might emerge. With the array of prototypes sketched out, the pros and cons and each can be weighted by a leadership team or task force. What is more, it is quite possible that there may be a start of school in one return scenarios and find that due to changes in either the spread of the virus or hopefully its elimination due to a vaccine, that a school will have to very quickly adapt to another prototype. Preparation and as stated, agility, are key to an effective response.


This blogpost is our last in the four-part series dedicated to developing strategies and approaches to assist schools as we grapple with COVID19’s startling challenges. We have attempted to provide a connected throughline between decisions regarding establishing future forward learning goals, planning curriculum, designing learning experiences, reconsidering assessment, developing learner agency, and structuring formats conducive to implementation. Coupled with the throughline, we took a deeper dive into recommending specific actions to add to the menu of options school communities consider as they shape contingency plans for the return to school.

In writing these blog posts, we do see that there are some seismic shifts that are already having a profound impact on learning-life in and outside of school.

  • Communication directly between teachers, parents, and learners has become paramount.
  • The actual formats and methods for developing activities and learning experiences have become streamlined.
  • Teachers have become skillful at utilizing online learning tools.
  • Curriculum as we have known has now consolidated.
  • Meaningful, ongoing feedback for students based on formative demonstrations of learning needs to replace the old assessment checklist.
  • The structures of school formats are becoming more agile and adaptive.

Moving forward as of this writing, it is impossible to know how long the current crisis will last. Given the resilience and commitment of learners, parents, and educators to see it through, there is great potential for the post-pandemic education landscape. Silver lining is an uneasy phrase to use in application to a crisis as devastating as a pandemic, but we lead with realistic optimism to design a future-forward school that offers safe and brave places for students to imagine, question, analyze, create, and share.

Our Four-Part Series

Part 1: How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19
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: What COVD19 Has Illuminated about the Power of Self-Evaluation to Make Assessment Meaningful
Part 4: (WHAT YOU JUST READ) Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces.

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