Reopening school after COVID closure

5 May 2021

A growing number of schools have been able to resume in-person education. How do you step up your classroom management to help students focus and get used to the new routine? In this blog you’ll find everything to get things running smoothly: actionable checklists, strategies for student-centered hybrid learning, and a list of free key resources.

After a year where the only constant in education was change, more and more schools around the globe are reopening in part or in full. Resuming in-person classes will bring back some normalcy. But it doesn’t equal a return to things as they used to be. 

As a matter of fact, school reopenings present an opportunity to solidify lessons learned, capitalize on the use of educational technology in the classroom and develop sustainable hybrid learning strategies to meet current and future challenges. 

But how do you plan and prepare for another new teaching routine? What is to be expected? What are the lessons learned from remote education that can now help your school build a successful and future-proof hybrid learning environment? 

The purpose of this blog is to support school leaders and teachers in their educational response to the reopening of K-12 schools by answering these and other questions. It contains hands-on action checklists, in-depth advice on hybrid education and a list of key resources for all stakeholders involved:

Is your school or district ready to resume classes? 4 checklists.

Teaching in the midst of a pandemic calls for allround crisis management, ingenuity and resilience. It shows in the ways that schools have handled change and uncertainty with optimism and flexibility, and it has been one of the major tasks and learnings for educators and leadership. Now the next big change is here: schools are reopening.

How do you return to the classrooms and pick up, not where teachers left off, as this might vary wildly per student, but pick up together nonetheless? We’ve put together checklists for resumed in-person education with four key pillars in mind: (1) health and safety, (2) pedagogy, (3) well-being, and (4) communication and support.

You can download the checklists as a free PDF here:

Download checklists


1. Health and safety

Planning for in-person classes starts with mitigating health risks. Your school should have a comprehensive health and safety policy in place and staff, families, and students need to be instructed about the guidelines in clear, easy-to-understand ways. 

In addition to signage and public awareness campaigns, it’s important to also directly educate students about hand hygiene, wearing face masks, physical distance rules, and what to do if they feel sick.

Action points:

  • Have detailed hygiene measures and cleaning protocols in place
  • Teach and reinforce hygiene practices such as hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette and wearing masks
  • Ensure COVID-19 signage is in place throughout the school building (for ready-made infographics and printable posters, see the list of official resources below)
  • Redesign classrooms, hallways and community rooms to make them suitable for physical distancing
  • Ensure adequate air circulation
  • Establish isolation spaces where students or staff can self-isolate if necessary
  • Reduce class sizes
  • Consider switching to staggered and/or alternating schedules as well as splitting learning time at home and at school through a hybrid learning model (you can find scheduling concepts for hybrid learning here)
  • Agree with parents on staggered pick-up times for younger students
  • Divide students into small groups (sometimes referred to as cohorts, bubbles or pods) that stay together during in-person school days, while allowing for minimal or no interaction between such groups
  • Devise a model for contact tracing and community notifications when a positive case or exposure to someone with COVID-19 is identified and ensure student privacy is upheld
  • Stock up on spare face coverings, disinfectant cleaning products, hand sanitizer and soap


2. Pedagogy

Just as important as public-health considerations to keep students and staff safe is to meet students’ educational needs. These needs may vary more than ever. Whereas the past months have been marked by strategies to minimize learning loss, now is the moment to follow through and recover learning. 

Educators can use diagnostic assessments and one on one conversations with each student and their family to better understand where students stand academically, socially and emotionally and inform remediation strategies to help them catch up. 

Action points:

  • Decide if and what type of diagnostic assessment is necessary to determine students’ learning status
  • Plan (video) calls with each student and their family to catch up on students’ learning and needs, discuss what went well and what was challenging during remote learning
  • Based on the assessments and consultations, work out a strategy that supports learning and learning recovery on a group level as well as ways to support vulnerable and high-needs learners
  • Design an adaptive recovery curriculum that will bring students to learning competency level and help them catch up lost learning and pre-existing learning gaps
  • Work out alternative teacher allocation models, for example, distributing teacher capacity between in-person and remote learning methods and assigning students to teacher teams that provide hybrid instruction in an integrated way
  • Determine which subjects and learning activities should be prioritized for in-person learning and which can be studied or completed remotely
  • Combine the most useful online technology with the most effective in-classroom activities (for key insights into high-quality hybrid learning models, see below)
  • Capitalize on new skills and digital technologies by sticking to successful distance learning strategies and solutions teachers and students have already gotten used to
  • Maintain a student-centered pedagogy that includes familiar elements of modelling, retrieval through independent and guided practice, small group collaboration, whole-class or breakout group discussions, feedback and assessment
  • Focus on maintaining high student engagement by adding multimedia resources, games, experiments and learning apps to the educational mix as well as offering students choices about how they participate and engage with learning content
  • Build clear, consistent structures that help students understand expectations, what needs to get done, where to look for resources and support, and how to engage as they move back and forth between learning modes 
  • Ensure all content and resources are equitably accessible
  • Set office hours for questions, individual tutoring and gauging students’ needs on a rolling basis
  • Schedule 1-1 meetings with remote learners to offer them support where needed
  • Evaluate and adjust the chosen approach based upon changing circumstances, student engagement and learning outcomes, and feedback from students, parents and teachers.


3. Well-being

Student success comes from both academic skills and social and emotional skills – they are intimately related. Building supportive relationships, creating a welcoming and predictable learning environment, and fostering social-emotional skills are key strategies for addressing students’ social and emotional needs in the reopening process. 

This is especially important given the discomfort and anxiety families (and educators themselves) may experience regarding school resumption during the pandemic.

Action points to promote student well-being:

  • Foster relationships both between the teacher and class and among students using welcoming, safe and predictable daily rituals and routines
  • Facilitate connection and conversation through different forms of dialogue and digital exchange
  • Establish clear lines of communication across learning environments to maintain a sense of social presence, approachability and community on remote days
  • Develop a shared code of conduct that contains agreements and expectations, for example about how students will work together, communicate and interact
  • Embed daily guided small group time for social-emotional learning in instructional schedules where students can share their feelings and experiences
  • Provide opportunities for structured check-ins with individual students and start morning classes with a check-in question
  • Use a buddy system for peer support, linking students who are attending school with students staying home
  • Plan set moments for fun and positive exchange and have students share things they feel grateful for
  • Attend to students’ mental health needs: Make sure they know who to contact and make it as easy as possible for them
  • Offer remote student counselling services
  • Establish professional learning communities and opportunities that engage staff in learning about social emotional learning, offering psychosocial support, trauma-informed practices, creating equitable learning environments, and culturally responsive practices
  • Have a protocol in place for cases when staff express concerns about a student’s safety, well-being or mental health
  • Connect with families to assess what needs their child(ren) might have

Action points to promote staff well-being:

  • Establish dedicated space, time, and agreements for staff to come together to strengthen relationships, work processes, and solve problems together
  • Review how well work conditions and school structures support educator well-being: Check in on staff self-care objectives, needs, and overall well-being
  • Establish expectations that promote self-care such as avoiding emails or checking student work on evenings and weekends

Further resources and hands-on tips to support social and emotional health are listed below.


4. Communication and support

The school community, including all teachers, other staff, families and students should know what decisions are being made, how and by whom. Actively involving stakeholders in the reopening process will make them feel invested in the resulting decisions and builds trust. 

Action points:

  • Publish a page on your school or district website dedicated to your reopening strategy and important updates (A good example is this Online Reopening Guide from Chicago Public Schools, which covers extensive information in one centralized and easy-to-navigate location)
  • Have an FAQ in place, answering questions such as: What is a hybrid learning plan? What will the typical learn-at-home day look like? What happens if students forget their masks? What grading system is the school using during the 2020–21 academic year? Who can I contact if I have questions or concerns?
  • Create a survey for families and staff members to share their concerns and provide feedback on the reopening plans
  • Write regular email updates as well as reminders of health and safety protocols 
  • Check in with families to ask about their preferred way of communicating (According to a May 2020 survey conducted by Learning Heroes, 80 percent of parents said texting is the most effective form of communication for them)
  • Provide a dedicated tech support portal and help desk to support students who are learning remotely and experiencing issues with their device or accessing their online learning environment

With protocols, plans, infrastructure and communication channels ready for reopening, it’s time to evolve and improve your school’s hybrid learning strategy. Keep reading to learn more about the challenges, benefits and best practices of hybrid education.


Making the switch: From distance learning to hybrid learning

Schools and districts around the world currently face three possible scenarios:

  1. Schools fully reopen for in-person instruction
  2. Schools use a hybrid model of remote learning and in-person learning 
  3. Schools stay closed and offer remote learning only

Most schools will be working with a hybrid model as they gradually transition from full-time remote learning back into the classroom. Taking the checklists above as a point of reference will allow for entering well-prepared into this new phase. 

But on top of getting organized, a sustainable hybrid learning strategy asks for developing vision as well. To that end, let’s have a look at (1) the defining principles of hybrid learning, (2) the key challenges, (3) the benefits and (4) the fundamentals on which resilient hybrid learning models are built.


1. What is hybrid learning? 

Hybrid learning includes a mixture of:

  • in-person education
  • synchronous and asynchronous instruction at home
  • independent or collaborative learning activities

It’s different from blended learning, which simply focuses on the combination between offline and online learning. A hybrid learning strategy is about finding the right mix to best serve students’ diverse needs out of all the possibilities in learning. No matter if they’re offline or online.

What a good hybrid model looks like will be different for each subject and age group, and also depends on staffing flexibility and the facilities and classrooms available in each school. Yet what all effective hybrid learning models have in common is that they can enhance learning by:

  • taking a student-centered approach to education
  • actively ensuring well-being
  • drawing from the best of traditional approaches, innovative practices, and insights from remote learning
  • shaping innovative, flexible and future-oriented hybrid deep learning models
  • shifting the use of digital technologies from a means to deliver content to a means to collaborate, communicate and connect


2. Facing challenges of hybrid learning

The challenge of reopening schools is complex and there is no one-size-fits-all way to go about it. Developing a resilient hybrid learning model combines many of the challenges of distance education – such as student engagement and equity – with new challenges. 

School leaders are tasked with:

  1. managing increased operational complexity due to continued physical distancing requirements and other health safeguards;
  2. allocating teacher and infrastructure capacity equitably among students;
  3. designing a flexible system that is ready to switch between in-person and remote learning to improve student experience and ensure learning continuity. 

One example of allocating teacher capacity effectively among students is assigning teachers to collaboration groups per grade and subject. This way, some teachers become experts in remote instruction to large groups, while others accompany small groups in person.

Aligning the hybrid education system to accommodate changes is particularly important. A hybrid learning plan must be responsive to both public health directives and the diverse needs of school communities, and quickly translate them into practice. It’s this ability to adapt that creates the resiliency needed when faced with uncertainty and changing circumstances.


3. Opportunities that hybrid learning brings

While setting up an effective hybrid model is challenging and almost always a work in process, it also presents opportunities and can be the first step towards lastingly improving the quality of education in your school. Improving neither means starting from scratch, nor returning to traditional models of teaching. 

Instead, reflect, evaluate and consolidate key learnings from the past months. What has been revealed during remote learning? Identify both needs and strengths. Notice system gaps, address and try to understand them, so you can begin to transform such deficiencies instead of jumping to any band-aid solutions.

Pinpoint the best practices of your school’s distance learning model as well, and incorporate them into your hybrid learning plan. Were there any specific apps for the classroom that enabled your students to keep learning during the school closure? Then these should also play a crucial role in moving towards quality learning in a hybrid model.

A survey carried out by the UK’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) during the summer and autumn terms of 2020, shows that most school leaders wish to retain several aspects of their remote education strategies. For example:

  • Subject specific and pre-recorded video lessons
  • Improved student support and safeguarding
  • Potential to minimize learning loss (e.g. during extended periods of student absence)
  • Better homework delivery
  • Up-skilling of staff and students
  • Stronger parent involvement and community
  • Fostering student ownership and independence by giving students the means to manage aspects of their own learning

Ofsted’s research also highlights that digital technology is particularly beneficial when it complements, rather than replaces, in-person teaching. More so than in a distance learning context, a hybrid learning environment allows educational technology to be used strategically, in close alignment with desired learning outcomes. 

So be specific about when and how you integrate edtech. For example, enable teachers to follow  their students’ learning activity in real-time and offer direct guidance even on remote days. Or use adaptive learning apps that support individual learners’ pace, needs and interests.

Building on the human and technological resources your school already has will promote consistency as you enter this new phase of education. It will also allow your team to take advantage of their newly acquired expertise and digital skills and retain the most effective online classroom tools. 


4. Designing a hybrid learning strategy

Building and implementing an empowering, effective and sustainable hybrid-learning model requires creativity, flexibility, and active evaluation. Think outside of the box. Keep gauging students’ needs and the needs of other stakeholders within the school community. Consider a range of solutions rather than just one.

The most important task for educators is to learn how to engage students remotely and how to facilitate open-ended learning to foster curiosity, creativity and collaboration. The transition to hybrid learning then becomes an opportunity to center learning around learners instead of teachers – and transform education for good. 

Building a student-centered strategy involves focusing on relevant, personalized learning that provides voice, choice and agency to learners. Teachers become guides or activators of learning rather than transmitters, while students become the co-designers of their own deep learning. 

Ready to learn more? You can find hands-on tips, guidelines and resources to kickstart your hybrid education strategy in our free Hybrid education strategies for educators white paper. It offers concrete strategies for teachers and specifically talks about:

  • How to focus on what students need in a hybrid learning environment
  • How to help teachers set up their classrooms for hybrid learning success
  • How schools can organize their education in a sustainable way

Are you looking for digital solutions that support hybrid learning? Find out how an all-in-one learning platform such as COOL can support student-centered learning wherever learning happens. For a comprehensive list of key resources and official COVID-19 materials to safely and successfully reopen your school, keep reading.


Official resources and materials for safe and successful hybrid education

Resources for school leadership:

Resources for teachers:

Resources for students: 

Resources for families:

CDC posters and infographics for K-12 schools:


To sum up…

In all the activity and effort surrounding the reopening of schools, we must not forget what lies at the heart of all the policy making, box ticking and change making: it’s the opportunity to finally share a classroom full of laughter, good questions and shared insights again.

In planning to reopen, schools have the opportunity to revisit long-standing assumptions, structures and systems. There’s never been a better time to make reforms for the future and leverage digital technology to best serve a diverse community of learners.

Turning lessons learned into long-term action will ensure a robust framework not only for a new education system, but also for learning that fosters engagement, well-being, student ownership, citizenship and 21st century skills. 

The task ahead, then, is not about reopening schools as they once were. It’s building a hybrid education system that lasts.


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