The projected ‘COVID Slide’, or tremendous learning gaps left as a result of this current crisis, means that when kids come back to school this fall they will need more support than ever before. Granted, some kids are actively engaged in, and even enjoying, online learning. But for the 20% of students nationwide who lack the tech to participate in this form of learning, it’s a huge learning loss. It could leave some nearly a year behind academically. On top of that add unstable home environments, fear about the future, and a sudden loss of routine. Many kids are anxious, stressed, and struggling to cope. How will their needs be met during the coming school year?

In a recent webinar addressing ‘COVID Slide’ Mike Mattos from Solution Tree discussed ways that schools can rework their master schedule — right now — to help fill in the learning gaps. The master schedule planning process is a long and tedious one, so any re-working of this process should be started sooner rather than later. If you’re a school administrator, collaborating with other administrators and teachers to create a master schedule that will support student needs is no small task. What are some ways to manipulate the master schedule to help ‘fill in the gaps’ for students? Mike Mattos identified 3 master schedule outcomes that would be essential in doing this. 

1. All students must have access to grade-level essential curriculum. 

Access is key to equity. If anything, this crisis has highlighted inequitable practices in schools, including those in the master schedule. For example, think about how often students are grouped by academic ability, perhaps even getting priority. 

So when planning out a master schedule for this school year, identify what students need from the curriculum and make sure all students will have access to it. 

The proposed curriculum available to teachers is extensive. However, Mattos brought out that, as most educators realize, not all of that is essential. So now, especially at a time when students will need targeted interventions and even relearning, as well as social-emotional learning, the focus should be on essential curriculum. 

This means that the types of supports and interventions that will help students reach proficiency are in addition to the essential grade-level curriculum, not in place of it. But if students are really behind, why not just teach them ‘at their level’? Because, Mattos said,  if you teach below grade level all year, the kid will end the year below grade level, and the finish line for graduation doesn’t change. So, teaching at grade level, and then making time for additional intervention, will ensure that students are both on track and getting the needed help. This brings us to the next point.

2. There must be time during the school day to retract and extend.

Students need varying amounts of time to learn the same material. This is just common sense. Some students may grasp a new idea right away, and at the other end of the spectrum, some may still be struggling with things they learned during the last school year. In order for students to grasp grade-level material, time is needed in addition to the regular instructional time. This will not only help students who struggle, but it will also prevent the students who already get it from being held back.

Having a flexible period of time built into the master schedule will address the needs of all students. The students who are grasping the grade level material could use this time to potentially learn more than just the ‘essential’ curriculum, or take part in other enrichment activities. For students who do need interventions, this time enables them to get that targeted help exactly where they need it. And this isn’t necessarily just about academics. A flex period is extremely beneficial for social-emotional learning and mental health support as well.

3. Some students will need daily remediation in foundation skills. 

Remediation differs slightly from intervention. How? Intervention helps students who need some extra time and support to learn at grade level. Some students, and especially in the coming school year with greater-than-usual learning gaps, need help to learn the skills they should have learned the year before. Helping students to build prior-year skills is referred to as remediation. 

Again, it’s clear that there needs to be a specific time for this during the school day, in order for it to be effective. Instead of teaching all kids prior-year material so that they can catch up, remediation is offered in addition to regular grade-level curriculum. A flex period would be used to support both intervention and remediation for the students who need it most.

How do we build flexible time into our master schedule?

This is often the question that stops scheduling changes in their tracks. Mike Mattos used a great illustration: Imagine you have a pitcher of water and an empty glass. The pitcher represents the curriculum. All of the water in the pitcher is not going to able to fit into the water glass. Now you’re also being told that you need to make room for some orange juice (intervention) and kiwi smoothie (remediation) in the glass. 

So, many educators would contend that if you can’t even fit all of the proposed curriculum into the school day, how could you ever have time for anything extra? Mattos referred back to point #1 about defining essential curriculum. No, it won’t all fit. But that’s ok because it’s not all essential. Defining essential curriculum can actually mean that you don’t need to fill that water glass. Now, there will be room for some orange juice and some kiwi smoothie.

Many schools that we have worked with have done this. They ‘shave’ minutes off of each period in their daily schedule to create a flexible period for intervention, advisement, remediation, etc. But what about pushback because of the idea that this results in lost instructional time? Well, is it really a loss? Let’s think about that in connection with the 3 master scheduling outcomes we discussed at the outset. 

If you are losing, for example, 5 minutes from each instructional period to form a 40 minute flex period, you are actually gaining learning time for those who need it. What about the kids who don’t need it? Then they are learning the grade-level curriculum just fine without those extra 5 minutes. And, now they could potentially use this time to extend their learning into some of that non-essential curriculum. It’s a win-win. See some flexible scheduling examples here and learn How You Can Create a Flex Block.

Yes, there will be extensive learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a specific challenge that educators have never faced before. But finding a system that will meet student needs without causing further damage is possible. Likely, there will be a great need for flexibility and learning along the way. It won’t be perfect, but we hope some of these suggestions will be helpful as your teams build your master schedule for the coming school year, with the welfare of your students is at its center.