Simplification: School Policies and Practices to End During COVID-19

Chris McNutt
March 15, 2020
It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that all students are supported through this event. It will take proactive, decisive planning and decision-making by teachers to make this happen.

We are living through anxiety-ridden times. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, students reported record high anxiety and depression rates which continue to rise. Obviously, COVID-19 will exacerbate this. It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that all students are supported through this event. It will take proactive, decisive planning and decision-making by teachers to make this happen.

With that being said, our recent conversation with Jesse Stommel, as well as through the advice of virtual learning experts, has led me to the belief that the primary goal for this virtual shift should be simplification. As opposed to adopting new pedagogies, ensuring “accountability”, or continuing “business as usual” — our goal is to create simplistic learning structures that maintain some semblance of schooling while recognizing the unprecedented event before us. And given multiple accounts that schools may be closed through the entire school year, as well as the potential threat of the intense reemergence of COVID-19 in the Fall, we must take a hard look at what teaching practice could look like in a time of crisis.

Our educational decisions should maintain some structure — as students are living through uncertain times — while recognizing that uncertain times means we must be as flexible as possible.


The use of packets is the “go to” for many districts without easy access to virtual learning. Although this is more equitable in terms of connectivity, it does place an emphasis on busy work when there’s much more pressing matters available. In my view, there is no valuable learning opportunity in completing a packet, and the purpose of assigning a packet is purely for state documentation (the same reason why many assign packets for sub plans — it gives students something to do.)

Therefore, I would recommend to not assign packets to students. There’s no academic reason to do so. We can design open assignments that still meet a state requirement, if need be. Dr. Ken Robinson speaks about his formula for daily homework — students and parents should:

  1. Spend time with their families: the single strongest predictor of academic success and fewer behavioral problems for a child, 3–12 years old, is eating as a family.
  2. Make planned time during the day to catch up with your child, talk to them about what they’re learning, and encourage them to achieve.
  3. Play outside or create something, preferably without a screen. Let them dive into their passions. Explore free online resources to discover new skills and interests.
  4. Read by themselves or with their family: one of the best ways to learn about the world is developing a lifelong love of reading. Children who prioritize reading are more motivated to learn and see drastically improved academic outcomes.
  5. Sleep well: elementary students should sleep at least 10 hours each night and adolescents, 9 hours. Being awake and ready to tackle each day keeps us energized and healthy.

Creating a daily or weekly reflection — something that does not take a lot of time and is not too taxing — allows students to still prompt learning while not forcing busy work. As we know, learning happens all the time, and now we’re offered the unique learning opportunity to let students really explore the world around them, albeit through purely virtual and fairly individualistic outdoor environments. (The above advise mirrors what we believe a model for homework for all grade levels should look like, in normal circumstances.)

Further, some districts have opted to create “hour by hour” schedules to follow during the school day. These measures are ill-conceived and will not lead to whatever well-intentioned outcomes they were meant to obtain. Although — optional schedules would be a great way to help provide tangible structure in uncertain times, there are far too many variables to attempt to enforce or institute this.


If schools are not to be making up these days, it is realistic that states will require some means of attendance-tracking — especially for virtual classes. Requiring all students to maintain a regular schedule online is unrealistic. Many students will be taking care of siblings, dealing with ailments of family members and friends, and may just be facing overwhelming stress. It’s a scary time and we must acknowledge the impact that will have on our youth, let alone ourselves.

If we must take attendance, we need synchronous and asynchronous options. Whether it be attending an online conference discussion or submitting a short reflection by that evening, we must be flexible. Further, making up those days if one is missed should be painless. Our goal should be to increase communication tenfold to keep track of how all of our students are doing. Relationships and our connectedness as human beings are more important than any attendance policy or academic success.

State Testing

It seems highly likely that most schools will be closed for nearly — or all — the rest of the school year. Therefore, I see very little chance that state testing will occur. This unlocks some fantastic opportunities for learning beyond our curriculum — and in my view, that allows for an emphasis on learning about COVID-19. In order to lessen tensions, as educators we have a unique opportunity to guide students through these times.

Further, the lack of state testing lends itself to question what “accountability” measures will honestly be held on attendance, homework, curriculum, and the like. Given the sheer volume of students each state will have to track, it would be highly improbable that much oversight will occur. This is not to say that schools should do nothing for their students — but to lessen fears of educators/districts that they need to “document” all of their traditional standards.

Staff Attendance

The CDC has stated that Americans should avoid all “non-essential” meetings. Without students at school, there is nothing an educator does at school that can’t be done online. Shifting to virtual conferencing tools for staff meetings (e.g. Zoom) is needed. Most virtual conference softwares can be used with a cell phone. Not to mention, educators have families too — and they need to be at home to support them.

There is something to be said about districts requiring teachers to place themselves at risk — especially when the solution of online conferencing is relatively simple. As David Perry writes,

If we’re telling students and faculty members to work remotely — while demanding that staff members come in and share office space with one another — the message is clear about whose health matters to the institution.

Complex EdTech Tools and LMS Adoption

Educators want to still make their online courses fun — so they’re switching to really interesting virtual games and software. However, if students aren’t familiar with these tools — it can be more burden than engagement. Although it’s a good idea to potentially utilize an EdTech tool slowly overtime, we should not attempt to radicalize our classroom with a bunch of new things. Right now we’re at the stabilization period — keep everything basic and easy to understand.

In the same vein, some educators are trying to learn a whole new LMS. It’s not wise for an educator to reinvent the wheel while they’re already reinventing the wheel — instead focus on what you know. In our recent podcast, Jesse Stommel recommended simply using email if need be.

Grading and Assessment

Being a tough grader has never been a worse trait than now. Students need clear directives on how to do well in their courses, and we should offer incredibly simple methodology. Plenty of institutions and schools are taking steps to eliminate finals and reduce the stress of grades. Allowing students to easily obtain A’s (or at least P’s) is a no-brainer right now. Ultimately, these troubled times will hopefully bring to light the unnecessary use of grades to begin with.

A Shift to Progressive Education

In a strange way, our shift to virtual classrooms may organically lead to progressive education. Looking at the silver lining, in order to effectively teach right now, we’ll need to develop close relationships with our students, work one-on-one, and be incredibly flexible. We’ll need to create classrooms that focus on empathy first.

Further, we’ll be forced to reckon with questions about the system at large:

Of course, this is in addition to all of the social norms being questioned in general — such as the sizable number of jobs that could be done at home, regardless of COVID-19, or a lack of free health care, or any safety net for our workers…

At the end of the day, our job is to ensure our children are safe. As educators, making sure that that happens will involve connectedness and understanding with our students. Learning will happen naturally without force or punishment. We just need to provide ongoing support and to simplify this process, as best as we can.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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