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Recovering from interrupted learning: Minimizing the impact of the COVID pandemic on children and staff

By May 3, 2021May 5th, 2021No Comments

At long last, the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight. As of this writing, COVID-19 is not yet behind us, but we can at least see some breaks in the clouds, so to speak. Vaccines are now widely available, infection rates are dropping in many places, and more schools are back to in-person learning—or planning now to be back next school year. Soon, we will re-emerge from the pandemic and, like after any storm, we’ll begin to survey the aftermath.

It’s important, though, that we don’t frame our assessment and consideration of next steps solely in the negative—using phrases like “learning loss” or kids falling behind, which some educators worry may stigmatize an entire generation of students. Likewise, if we focus only on students’ traumatic experiences and anxieties, we may overlook the resilience, compassion, and independence they displayed during the pandemic.

Yes, many students and their families endured (and still endure) some real challenges and traumatic uncertainties. But if we focus only on what went wrong for students, what they missed and what stress they endured, we may fail to see what went right—what new learning they acquired and what strengths they may have developed.

Here at McREL, we ground our research and support for school transformation in decades of research that include empirical studies in both education and positive psychology, which together point to powerful ways to create better outcomes for all students by tapping into their natural curiosity, intrinsic motivation, and personal strengths while at the same time employing asset-based thinking to recognize and build on strengths already present in our teachers, schools, and communities. We call this an “inside-out” approach to transformation—one that encourages teachers to engage in shared professional inquiry that builds their individual and collective efficacy to achieve more than they initially may have thought possible for themselves and their students.

Building on bright spots doesn’t mean ignoring challenges. To the contrary, it’s crucial to start with an honest assessment of what’s really happening in schools, classrooms, and students’ lives. Yet even amidst discouraging data, it’s possible to find positive outliers—students and teachers who are thriving, new approaches that are working, and classrooms where students are flourishing—that point to a better way forward. Looking for bright spots also helps school systems decide what to keep, what to restore, what to scale up, and what to discard.

In an upcoming series of blog posts, my McREL colleagues and I will explore some key areas educators should consider as they return to in-person teaching and learning—sharing insights from research and our positive approach to help you see and build on spots in your own schools and classrooms.

In particular, we’ll examine the following challenges—and opportunities—for ensuring that we don’t simply return to normal, but rather, experience the beginning of a new and better normal:

  • Supporting social-emotional learning to strengthen students’ sense of compassion, confidence, and resilience
  • Rebuilding in-person school routines and structures to ensure all students feel welcome and supported
  • Taking a balanced approach to making sense of student assessment data while focusing student learning on essential understandings
  • Accelerating learning and engagement to help students recover quickly from interrupted learning
  • Restoring teachers’ well-being, engagement, and collective efficacy as they return to onsite operations
  • Simultaneously solving operational challenges with real-time technical solutions (e.g., providing students with out-of-school access to internet and meals) while adopting a long-view, experimental mindset to address complex, adaptive challenges (e.g., ensuring equity, creating student-centered learning environments, helping students thrive in the midst of trauma, encouraging school and classroom innovation)

As always, please share with us your challenges and successes in supporting students as they return to in-person learning. We’d love to hear from you!


Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO, and Faith Connolly is a research director, at McREL International.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.