In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread school shutdowns, unleashing a frenzy of disaster responses across America’s K-12 landscape. The results have spawned school models as diverse as the children they sought to serve. Some schools opened to full classrooms in the fall and never closed again. Many charted a path between pandemic protections and the needs of children to be with teachers and their peers: opening and closing with the rise and fall of caseloads or patching together hybrid models for small groups of students to maintain distance while being together. Even among the schools that stuck with online learning for all students for the entire year, the models varied between synchronous (teaching directly to students) and asynchronous (having students learn while teachers are not present via videos or other platforms) learning.

No matter what model the school chose, innovation became the new normal. Whether in a face mask or on Google Meet, teachers devised new ways of reaching and teaching their students. Whether via Zoom staff meetings or YouTube family engagement videos, principals unleashed new creativity to bring together their communities. Every adult professional found themselves in a humbling new reality. Just like their students, they were all overwhelmed learners.

Now, as the end of the first year of pandemic teaching draws to a close, the question remains: what did they learn? We know based on data from the Center for Reinventing Public Education that some schools and districts adapted more quickly and offered students more — whether it was technological support, instructional hours, or face-to-face learning — in the face of the crisis. Other schools and districts foundered amidst political infighting, competing priorities, and budget crises. When we saw how widely divergent the pandemic response was, we wondered about how many of these crisis responses could become the foundation for permanent improvements.

Using data from four years of our College Success Awards, we reached out to a series of high-performing high schools whose results demonstrate they are exceptional as centers of equity and excellence. Not only do they support their students to and through college based on college enrollment, remediation, and persistence rates, but they do it without any special advantages of socioeconomic privilege or selective admissions. In fact, they are public schools that serve some of the most underserved communities in the nation. We hypothesized that schools that are already good at doing more with fewer resources would be particularly innovative and successful during this year of pandemic learning.

We asked them one simple question: What COVID-era innovations have you adopted that have worked so well that you will keep them when schools reopen?

Through a series of articles, we will report on what we learned. Now that scientists predict that the pandemic will become endemic, tomorrow’s schools may look less like a mirror of the past and more like a high-tech future transformed by this year of both crisis and innovation. The sooner we adapt to the optimal new normal, the better.

This article is part of a series detailing innovations in education discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic by some of the nation’s highest-performing public high schools.

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Updated: April 30, 2021