The Hutchinson High School staff have embarked on a series of conversations with me regarding what we, as a learning community, have observed during our current “pandemic education” environment. The purpose of this exercise is to identify what we have learned that we will be able to carry with us as we move towards the end of the pandemic and, as soon as possible, back to a more recognizable educational setting. How has the pandemic forever changed us as individual educators and in our professional approach to educating the young adults of Hutchinson?

The observations that follow have been gleaned from these “future forward” conversations. While the examples represent only fragments of the conversations completed thus far, there will certainly be much more to consider and reflect upon as we progress.

First and, perhaps, most obvious is the observation that the process of learning is a communal exercise. In fact, there is an entire area of educational psychology based upon this premise: social constructivist theory. Within this framework is the general belief that it is impossible to separate learning from its social context. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: First, on the social level and, later on, on the individual level.”

Distance learning — and, to a lesser extent, hybrid instruction — suffers from an obvious and significant lack of this critical social aspect. While, yes, students are functionally able to connect with one another by technology, the interactions that result are certainly not as personal, meaningful, or impactful as they might be in person.

Student achievement suffers in distance learning environments, as well. Academic performance as measured by standardized assessments and course grades are generally lower for students learning via distance. In addition, student absences and overall engagement decrease. Each of these factors individually and collectively diminishes a student’s ability to stay on track for graduation. Educators will often ask, “What is best for students?” Distance learning certainly is not.

The glass is not always half empty, however, and the pandemic has certainly provided opportunities for positive professional educational outcomes. First among these is the critical eye with which many HHS teachers have been reviewing and contemplating both their curriculum and their instructional methodologies. Employing multiple modes of instruction (distance, hybrid and in-person learning) all within the same school year forces reflective practitioners to sincerely contemplate how students might best understand, apply, analyze and create based on new concepts and information. In short, our HHS curriculum models and practices will be stronger following this pandemic.

Similarly, teacher expertise regarding digital and online tools has grown exponentially during the pandemic. During the 2018-19 school year, HHS teachers piloted “e-Learning days” for use in the place of snow days. Collective knowledge regarding synchronous versus asynchronous instruction, Jamboard and Google Meet breakout rooms was at a novice level, at best. Fast forward a mere two school years and the HHS staff can quickly and effectively employ highly effective lesson plans approachable by all learners within distance, hybrid and/or in-person instruction.

Teacher understanding of locus of control has increased during the pandemic, as well. The ability to accurately recognize those things that are within a person’s own control while also acknowledging and cognitively releasing those items that are beyond personal control is both reinforcing and freeing.

Finally, the ability of members of the high school general student body to easily adapt and to achieve an appropriate level of intrapersonal resilience has been remarkable. While individual results have varied, the vast majority of HHS students have displayed a remarkable ability to quickly adapt to change in the face of adversity. Our students have, once again, provided a model for all of us to acknowledge, commend and learn from.

With the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations now underway, the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel each day appears increasingly within reach, and the challenges of pandemic education are becoming more evident as growth opportunities. Adversity makes us stronger, and growth mindsets make us wiser.

Robert Danneker is principal of Hutchinson High School. You, Your Kids & School is a twice-a-month column from School District 423.