Opening Middle Schools for the 2020-2021 School Year

As educational leaders look to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the only thing for sure is the uncertainty of the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. How school opens will largely be based on the situation in each community. Local and state mandates will play a major role in determining what school will look like and how schooling will be accomplished.

The following are suggestions and considerations:

  • Maintain constant vigilance over the safety of students, teachers and other support personnel.
  • Based on course requests/recommended placements, build your master schedule for a live start with all students in the building. Typically, this will be a traditional 7- or 8-period day or Day 1/Day 2 schedule based on eight periods plus lunch. This schedule must be determined by available FTEs and a curriculum responsive to the needs of young adolescents.
  • The school year might begin with a schedule like the one used at the outset of the previous school year with a modification for social distancing, or it may be a virtual or home-learning model.
  • Teachers, students, and parents must be prepared for a possible change of organizational platforms at any time during the coming school year.
  • Develop plans for the possibility of alternating days with half of the students in attendance on an every other day basis. Specific plans for social distancing in the classroom, hallways, and cafeteria are needed prior to the start of school.
  • Confer with bus companies to look at possible scenarios. Is it possible to run morning and afternoon shifts?
  • Talk with food service providers and cafeteria personnel to determine what is possible for breakfast options and staggered lunch times.
  • Develop a distance or home-learning plan in which all instruction takes place at home via virtual learning.
  • For days that students are not in the building, specific assignments should be provided that could include independent study or research, individual or small-group projects, videos, and online classes. Students should be given procedures for communicating with each other on specific assignments.
  • The core portion of the schedule should provide for maximum flexibility. For example, four teachers could be responsible for the same four classes (English, social studies, math, and science) during the same periods of the day. In grades 5 and 6, two-teacher teams could be formed. One teacher teaches English/language arts and social studies; the other is responsible for mathematics and science. These teachers should be empowered to manage time in any platform.
  • Principals should consider the benefit of a schedule where students have double English/language arts and double math periods each day. In the event of social distancing and to compensate for limited face-to-face instruction since March 2020, a student should have English and math daily, social studies and science on alternate days in the building and some opportunity for electives/exploratory classes plus advisory.
  • Considering the pandemic and economy, the advisory function is probably more critical than at any time in the history of middle level education. An advisory curriculum program must be built into the master schedule.
  • Work with teachers to develop essential agreements about the use of software platforms, assessment possibilities, grading practices, and attendance reporting in all three possible scenarios.
  • If possible, urge teachers to practice different instructional delivery models (not unlike a fire drill) so students, teachers, and parents are clear about procedures and expectations in each scenario.
  • Make sure the school building’s technology infrastructure will support the bandwidth needed for increased use of devices.
  • Identify the professional development needs of teachers and provide workshops and training sessions during the summer with appropriate follow-up during the school year.

David Straffon, Ph.D. is middle school principal/deputy director of The American International School, Vienna, Austria.

Elliot Y. Merenbloom is a former middle school principal and director of middle school instruction in Baltimore County, Maryland. He is now a consultant in master scheduling.