Pivot to In-Person Instruction

PI #1: Planning for Students Transitioning Back to School - Three Important Components

TIES Center: Pivot to In-Person Instruction.

To support educators who are returning to in-person instruction this school year we are refreshing selected articles from the Distance Learning (DL) series. Refreshed articles will be identified as Pivot to In-Person Instruction (PI) articles. This article is a refresh of DL #9 Start Now to Plan for Students Transitioning Back to School.  It is intended to support the instruction of students as schools pivot from distance learning to in-person instruction, possibly more than one time. We learned many things during distance learning that should be considered as we move ahead. There are also new nuances that need to be considered as students return to school, particularly if schools switch between in-person and distance learning again. 

Returning to in-person instruction? Pause and think!

What has been working during distance learning? What do we need to remember and expand upon now that students are returning to the school building?

Students have returned to school, with continued variability across the nation. While schools and families did not have much notice, if any, to plan for distance learning, instructional teams have the opportunity and the responsibility to continue to plan for successfully transitioning students with significant cognitive disabilities back into school or remaining online, if that is the case, due to medical needs. We don’t know exactly what form learning will take ongoing throughout the year, but there are steps that we can take now to assure it goes as smoothly as possible for as many students as possible. 

Relationships, relationships, relationships

The relationships with students from before and during distance learning are the foundation for transitioning students back into school after a break, period of distance, or hybrid learning. Relationships between students and teachers, students and peers, and teachers and parents/families were foundational for effectively implementing distance learning. These relationships are equally important for having discussions about transitioning back into school. During distance learning, a team’s communication by sending emails, dropping off materials, creating short videos, and using online platforms with their students and families, let them know that teachers cared about them, they mattered, and that their voices were heard. Communication such as that needs to remain consistent and thoughtful now.

Staying connected and continuing the mutual trust that was developed will support relationships and problem solving so that students can successfully re-engage with classes, friends, teachers, schedules, and rituals and routines. 

Communication, communication, communication

The stronger the communication web was during distance learning, the stronger the available connections for planning a student’s transition back to school will be. The communication web includes communicating with:

  • students to help them understand the changes that are forthcoming;
  • families about their concerns, desires, and updates on student needs, as well as to understand what the students are communicating to their families about the change, and;
  • instructional team members to assure that everyone is connected and collaborating as planning moves forward.

Presuming competence is foundational for all planning. Move forward by presuming that students understand that things are changing...again...and that it will mean changes in how school looks for all students, not just them. This is particularly important for students who have receptive and expressive communication challenges and students who depend on routines for support. 

Include family and student input

Ask families what they learned about how to support their child’s learning during distance learning. In areas of the country that returned to in-person instruction last spring, some parents have shared that no one from their school team reached out to them to ask what worked best for their child even though the parent had the most direct knowledge about how the student learned during this period.  

Similar to the importance of parent/family voice in navigating and individualizing distance learning, including student voice will be critical for smoothly transitioning back to school.  Incorporate students in making meaningful choices about what their day will look like. Depending on the individual student’s needs, there will also be specific questions and concerns to problem-solve: 

  • How well does the school-wide transition plan work for individual students?
  • Where does the plan need to be further individualized?
  • What was learned during distance learning that helps to support the transition back to school?
  • What can be learned from transitioning back to school after previous summer and winter breaks that can help guide this transition? 

Also, consider that everything learned during this transition provides insights for possible future changes in how education is provided. 

Use multiple communication strategies

Provide information to students about the changes through multiple means of representation. For example, teachers can provide pre-teaching with visuals and text that can be read to, and viewed, by students. During this time of transition, re-engage with previously used visuals to talk about taking a bus again, school schedules, new teachers, a different locker, their peers, and activities. Add new visuals and teach about following safe procedures at school, such as washing hands, social distancing, changes to schedules, etc. 

Provide students with the opportunity and appropriate support to express their questions and concerns. Add new vocabulary for emotions that may need to be expressed right now (for example, excited, worried, happy, nervous) and for actions (for example, social distancing, washing hands, wearing a mask). These changes can be made in both low-tech or high-tech AAC devices to help students express themselves. Assist them to work through any excitement or anxiety that emerges. Remember, behavior is communication. Some students might express their feelings about change through new or expanded behaviors. Collaborate with the families to support the children to use socially acceptable ways to express themselves. 

Data, data, data

 A series of reflective questions “What? So What? Now What?” provides a way for framing the available data and using them to guide transition planning and decision making. 


What are the facts? What do we know about student learning? 

  • Data from before distance learning commenced: What are the data that you have about individual students' academics, behavior/social-emotional skills, communication skills, and essential skills from before distance learning started? Review each student’s progress notes, progress monitoring data, and, if available, work samples from the past two years. Use them to create a picture of student gains and the rate of change during that period. This provides some background information for forward planning.
  • Data during distance learning: We know that data collection was challenging for many teachers and families, that the data will have gaps, and that they will be less systemized than they were previously. However, use what you have to make your best-informed understanding of what each student learned during distance learning. Be sure to capture information from the families about the skills that each student learned and/or generalized across environments during this period. Possible sources of data during distance learning include:
    • student work samples;
    • online apps and platforms (such as IXL math completed, audiobooks or reading platforms, educational games, BrainPop or BitsBoard Pro activities);
    • family data logs and updates;
    • data teachers collect during contacts with a student, and;
    • students telling you what worked and did not work last school year.

So what?

What do the data tell us? 

  • What do all of the data convey about what, where, and how student learning occurred during the school year?
  • Are there data that convey where skills were gained during the period of distance learning? (In addition to academics, consider the generalization of skills, level of independence, and the use of technology.)
  • Are there any data that show a loss of skills during this period?
  • What do the data convey about gaps in learning that persist or maybe are now evident?
  • How did different ways of teaching impact student learning? What worked? What did not work?
  • What questions cannot be answered and need more data once school starts? 

Now What?

What are the next steps? 

  • From the array of data, what areas do you feel need to be prioritized:
    • before school starts to prepare the student for returning to school?
    • during the transition period as new/old routines are re-established?
    • moving on after the routines are re-established?
  • How will you continue to use information gained during distance learning about:
    • integrating technology to enhance student learning?
    • connecting with parents/families?
    • generalizing skills between school and home to improve student learning? 

The plans for reopening schools will look different across the states. Teachers will need to take their state and district plans and translate them to supporting individual students. Regardless of the specifics, the key components of relationships, communication, and data will be foundational for all planning. 

Pivot to In-Person Instruction Series

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Ghere, G. (2021). PI #1: Planning for Students Transitioning Back to School - Three Important Components. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

This overview was posted previously as a part of the Distance Learning Series, DL #9: Start Now to Plan for Students Transitioning Back to School. Content has been adapted by the author(s) for application to in-person instruction as well as distance learning.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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