Editor’s note: This commentary from Bruce Hermie, director of school partnerships for the American Federation for Children, appeared earlier this month on the AFC blog.

Widespread school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have launched many school leaders into uncharted waters.

Educational strategies have been executed on digital or distance platforms and budgets that were set in January are now requiring reassessment and, in some cases, painful cuts that will have long term ramifications on school vitality and growth. Now, more than ever, it is imperative school leaders look to the future and give consideration of not only how to survive their immediate reality, but find the inspiration and courage to help their schools emerge stronger and more effective to meet the multi-faceted needs of their students, teachers, and communities.

It is said that fortune favors the bold. If there was ever an opportunity for school leadership to rethink their approach and redeploy resources to meet the challenges ahead, that time is now.

As each school is its own unique learning organization, the search for one magic panacea that will work for a flawless and safe path forward for every school is fool’s gold. School leaders who understand the nuances of their schools and communities will be best served assessing their own resources, finding what avenues for instruction and safety are possible, and pairing that to guidance being given by health professionals to set forward a plan that meets the needs of their students and faculties in a multi-pronged approach.

Most school leaders have come to the conclusion they must prepare for in-person, hybrid, and online learning scenarios. Instead of guessing at which of the three could occur, why not empower students/parents and teachers to choose the method of delivery which best fits their own realities?

A recent poll that appeared in USA Today found that one in five teachers reported they may not report back for the start of the school year. A separate poll indicated 60 percent of parents said they were willing to pursue at home learning options for their children as opposed to returning them to in-person classes when schools resume in the fall.

This information should serve as notice that options for mode of education are more necessary now than ever.

In schools where multiple classes per grade exist, why not embrace flexibility and give families and teachers the option? If schools were to designate one or two teachers to be the “online” teacher for their respective grades, families could then choose whether distance learning or in-person education best fits their needs and comfort level.

Teachers at risk from a health standpoint would also have the ability to continue to work and educate from the safety of their home while those who crave a return to in-person instruction can return to campus. One benefit of committing to such a model full time is it allows for professional development and evolution of distance learning strategies and competencies should the need to pivot to full-time online instruction for all students occur again.

Schools may find other unexpected benefits in diversifying the way they educate. In the short term, diversification will lend to a smaller number of in-person students on campus, making the adherence to CDC guidelines for safety more manageable. In the long-term, schools may see an increase in enrollment as families who seek this flexibility for a myriad of reasons including health, special interests outside of the academic realm that require flexible scheduling, and a simple desire by parents to be more deeply involved in the education of their children.

In a time filled with many stresses and an unknown future for many school leaders, the best thing to do is what always must be the priority for any educator: serving the children effectively, keeping them as safe as possible, and allowing them the room to grow into capable young women and men who have a positive impact on society.

Schools that find ways to do this effectively and have courage to move past the status quo will thrive while those who fail to be imaginative struggle to regain a lost normal.

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