How Focusing on the ‘New Now’ can Help Utah Education Prepare for a New Future

By Sydnee Dickson, Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Originally published in the Deseret News

In a normal year, students in our K-12 public school system would be returning from spring break and looking forward to end-of-year rituals, but nothing seems normal now. We are all adjusting to a “new normal.” I prefer to think of it as our “new now” building to our “new future.”

In the “new now” we are focused on five priorities:

  1. Provide academic learning opportunities for all students.
  2. Ensure graduating seniors have the content they need to transition to post-high school opportunities.
  3. Maximize opportunities for students to receive meal services.
  4. Support the social and emotional needs of students and staff.
  5. Make every effort to keep all staff gainfully employed.

I take pride in our educators and staff who have risen to the occasion; providing learning materials, including digital tools and language services where possible, to support education at home.

Utah schools have been engaged in a statewide digital teaching and learning initiative for several years that includes an increase in the number and use of digital tools and professional learning for our educators. Not all homes are digitally equipped, but schools are providing devices. Industry partners are providing discounted or free Wi-Fi services. The Utah Education Telehealth Network provides school communities with network capabilities and resources through Educators are supplementing learning through printed packets, phone calls, and whatever means necessary. Everyone is coming together to ensure equitable access to learning materials.

The efforts of schools to feed our children has been remarkable. Thousands of meals are being served daily.

An entire school community of support is working behind the scenes. Paraeducators, aides, bus drivers, food service workers, school secretaries, custodians, etc., are part of the landscape of success. Schools are being adaptable and innovative to keep all employees working.

Even as our work progresses, we recognize the challenges and losses many are facing. High school seniors feel especially vulnerable. Students who were on track to graduate will continue to be able to do so on-time. USBE is working with schools to provide credit upon completion and celebrate accomplishments when it’s safe. Students are also experiencing loss of anticipated rituals, routines and daily interactions with adults and friends at school. I am so proud to see the creative ways teachers keep in touch with students. Mental health workers continue to reach out to students and teachers, helping them feel safe now and optimistic about the future.

While educators are rightly focused on the “new now” and delivering on the five priorities, this challenge is an opportunity to inform our future. Eventually, we will be able to return to face-to-face instruction and engage in the rituals that we’re missing at this time. But, we need to recognize that the “normal,” has inevitably changed. The “new future” is one where we fully appreciate the importance of human connection and relationships in learning. It is one where lessons learned from digital teaching have informed efforts to personalize instruction for every learner. This time physically apart paves the way for validating student learning based on mastery, as opposed to some of the time-based constructs the system often relies on.

In our ever-changing environment, it can be hard to find reflective moments, but when they come, I encourage you to pause, and absorb what your “new now” may mean for your “new future.” How we come together and respond in this “new now” will lead us to an improved “new future” for education in Utah.

Sydnee Dickson is the state superintendent of public instruction and serves on the Utah COVID-19 Task Force.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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