EdSurge’s 2020 Year in Review: The Top 10 K-12 Stories, as Chosen by You

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At the end of every year, EdSurge rounds up a collection of its top stories based on clicks, shares and website traffic—and no year in our short history has been quite as dramatic as this one. The pandemic that 10 months ago transformed daily life left educators with a slate of questions that would have seemed unfathomable just a year ago: How do I teach online? How do I keep students engaged? And how do I care for students’ mental health, as well as my own, during such an isolating time?

There were no perfect answers. The resulting collection captures not only the difficulties of a fraught and anxious year, but also the willingness of educators to find solutions to even the most vexing problems. To be frank, educators were asked to do too much this year, often with too little support. But they’re still teaching in classrooms and living rooms across the country. That alone is a comforting answer to how teachers rise to challenges and keep learning going.

This year, schools lost more than their physical campuses. Their regimented schedules disappeared as well, leading many to wonder: How much time should students spend each day on remote learning? As it turns out, there’s no consensus. We break down the guidance state by state, and share what online learning experts believe is actually a better approach to managing remote learning days.

America’s teachers were already anxious, burned out and overwhelmed before the pandemic. Then their lives turned upside down practically overnight. Christina Cipriano and Marc Brackett, two researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, lay out steps that educators and school leaders can take to support their own mental health and well-being during this critical time.

For new online teachers—and there were many this year—the experience can prove exciting, daunting, frustrating and scary—often all at once. Educators Reshan Richards and Stephen Valentine recall their first time in this letter to teachers, and the sights, sounds and nerves. Their advice: Be present. “Your presence is all that many of them have ever needed, and this does not change if you are teaching from your living room or local library.”

What does student engagement look like in virtual settings? And what can teachers do to make sure that their students are paying attention? Months after schools began going online, those are still open questions. But researchers have been trying to answer them for years. Two such academics break down the behavioral, cognitive and emotional elements of student engagement—and how anyone can put them to action.

Returning to school buildings after months away was likely a stressful event, wrote space design expert and former administrator Robert Dillon. That’s largely because so much was out of our control due to social distancing and safety requirements. Yet there’s plenty we can do to create welcoming environments, he says, starting with eliminating the teacher-only spaces from classrooms.

The COVID-19 crisis is leaving an indelible footprint on the hearts and minds of multiple generations of children and adults, write Yale’s Cipriano and Brackett. Yet taking care of ourselves, and each other, is paramount. “Give yourself and everyone around you the permission to feel all emotions,” they write. “It starts and ends with self- and social-compassion.”

Many students do worse online than in face-to-face classes, and the most vulnerable students are the most negatively affected, wrote MIT professor Justin Reich at the start of the pandemic. If schools can’t serve them well, he argued, perhaps students would be better served making up time later when schools are able to open safely. Here’s why at-risk students should be top priority.

Among the many questions educators had as schools closed was whether porting their reading routines over Zoom actually broke copyright laws. A trio of copyright lawyers and experts gave their verdict: Reading books online during the pandemic is actually covered under fair use policies, which are actually strengthened in emergencies. Still—like most things related to the law—there is nuance and a few finer points to keep in mind.

This spring, planning more than a week or two ahead seemed nearly impossible as daily lives adjusted to a new normal. When the think tank New America suggested four possibilities for what schools could look like, it became an instant hit. It was an early look at the realities of hybrid learning, and how flexibility and creative thinking could be marshalled to bring schools back from a seemingly indefinite hiatus.

Last December, before the pandemic scrambled our lives and routines, educator Danielle Arnold-Schwartz offered a prescient warning about the dangers of too much screen time, which became a viral hit on Facebook early in the year. Screens may occupy our attention and our time, but “the secret is out,” she writes. “Technology alone stinks as a learning model.” Instead, teachers should be at the center of edtech product design that prioritizes human connection. A year later, it’s still a powerful and urgent message for educators and families everywhere.

Editors’ Picks

How screen breaks, later start times and independent projects align to what students and families really need during remote learning.

Concepts like grit and mindfulness are popular in social-emotional learning curriculum. But they ring hollow in a system where a Black child can follow those lessons and still not make it home from a police encounter.

When a morning worksheet caused a student so much anxiety he didn’t want to come to school, one teacher began to reassess the role of rigorous academics in kindergartens across the country.

With the goal of helping children overcome developmental delays from the hardships they have endured, a specialized preschool offers mental health counseling, frequent home visits and a social-emotional learning curriculum.

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