May 26, 2020

Looking Ahead: The Future Implications of Social Distancing on Education

Prannoy Nambiar
A student works on homework in front of a laptop

If the last two months have shown anything to education leaders, it has been the very real opportunities for change in the future. The now-commonplace refrain of social distancing has not only taken its toll on parents, teachers, and students, but has also done so for education pundits and analysts. As school years come to a close and the summer arrives, the questions that arise are not how schools are dealing with this unusual situation, but what they have learned and what they will do going forward.

This reflection and forecasting is not solely for the next school year, but for years down the line. It is hard to discount the effect of this as anything but a generational shift, so where does that leave public education and schooling? By understanding what can be learned thus far, the future implications will become clearer.

What Have We Learned?

Virtual teaching requires a unique skill set that is quite different to traditional teaching

We have learned that highly qualified teachers are not, by default, highly qualified virtual educators. Distance learning and distance teaching requires focused training and possibly additional certification. Educational tools have expanded to include Zoom webinars, pre-recorded learning videos, master classes, and children’s entertainment. There is now an evident skill gap in teaching for virtual settings. The other problem is the inability of many in-person teachers to adapt to the virtual community building that is required in remote learning environments. The skill set is simply not transferable.

Families need support in at-home education

In-person guardians, caretakers, and educators can control only so much about a student’s environment when they are not physically in the same room as them. Students will undoubtedly become restless in front of a screen for all-day, at-home school and will need unstructured time to do what they like doing: playing, socializing, and exploring. Much has been written in recent weeks of the struggle that parents, students, and educators face with the distance learning phenomenon, and it has become clear that more support will be required for students to navigate at-home education in the future.

Public school administration can be a hub of support

Whether it is technology, food, programming, or other resources, public school districts have shown numerous examples of stepping up to the plate to provide structure and support to those at home. This must continue in a new era of schooling. Schools and districts have always served as community centers of support, but recent indications have displayed their capability to do so on a completely different level. Securing and providing access to devices, meals, and support will only continue to increase in importance as districts seek to make a meaningful impact on their students and families.

Future Possibilities

The learnings above can distill themselves into many different future use cases. Here are just a few potential ideas of what might come into the forefront of educational practice in the coming months and years.

1. School districts will serve increasingly as a technological support arm for its families.

The demand for technology and resources will only continue to increase at a district level and, as such, districts and schools will engage even more in the support role for families. Any controversy in 1:1 technology learning environments will be reduced. Access to technology in order to facilitate remote learning environments from any household will become the norm and the benchmark in school districts.

As the demand for technology increases, so too will the expectation that local, state, and federal funding be used to help fund it. School districts’ budgets will see a reallocation occur toward technology solutions.

2. Schools will further adapt to cater to the physical environment.

Food, physical health, technology hardware, and physical spaces will all require a second look. We can imagine how class sizes and school schedules could change as a result of social distancing and public health measures. Specifically, we could expect smaller class sizes with larger virtual offerings. Several European research institutions have shown that smaller class sizes will result in slower spread of communicable diseases and, as such, schools have made attempts to limit class sizes for their students through staggered scheduling.

There is also the obvious, existing proof that smaller class sizes give students a learning advantage as well. We will see more schools fight for smaller class sizes and staggered scheduling to not only respond to the recent public health demands, but also for the sake of their students’ learning outcomes as well.

3. Schools will further adapt to cater to the emotional needs of students

Therapy, social-emotional learning, mentorship, and counseling for students from multiple avenues will grow in significance. The need for teletherapy had already shown itself before the recent months, but the demand has assuredly accelerated. More solutions and programs around SEL technology solutions that are accessible at home will find their way to districts’ portfolio of enterprise technology as well.

The current societal landscape is uncertain, which makes the future more so. However, there are distinct moments that have shown educational leaders the areas of improvement in processes and technology systems. The opportunity for school district leaders to act is now, in an era of change and progression, to set up the foundation for the future of education.