Catching Up During COVID-19

Not Your Average Back to School Year: Advice from Our Experts

Students, parents, teachers, and staff have experienced a new way of learning over the last 16 months, regardless of whether they were in front of a computer or in the classroom, or a little of both.

As schools prepare to welcome students and educators back for the 2021-2022 school year, there are a number of pandemic-related issues to address and consider. Our experts offer their insights into these crucial issues and we provide some links to helpful resources and information.


Image of Sarah Caverly

“Longstanding racial disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes have been exacerbated during the past year, while awareness of the impacts of institutionalized racism has also increased. Although these matters are uncomfortable and contentious, educators must address them if schools are to help all students engage, learn, and succeed.

One pathway is to consider the role of data. Data can provide a common source of information on disparities and opportunity gaps (e.g., disparities in discipline and in access to technology and deeper learning), as students and their families experience these differently.

David Osher

These data can help educators develop and implement culturally responsive practices that build upon student and family assets and improve student learning.

Dismantling systemic racism is not an easy, nor quick, endeavor; it involves eliminating disparity and producing processes and strengthening processes that support the engagement, learning, and thriving of all students.”

Sarah Caverly, principal researcher, and David Osher, vice president and AIR Institute Fellow


Students with Disabilities

Image of Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds

“Many students with disabilities will require support across academics, social behavior, organization, learning skills, and other domains as they return to in-person school. With this is mind, it will be critical for educators and parents to proactively teach routines and expectations across settings, give frequent opportunities for students to practice new skills, and provide feedback on that practice. It will also be necessary to regularly track and celebrate progress, and make timely adjustments to students’ programs when data suggest they are needed.”

Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds, managing researcher


English Learners

Image of Patricia Garcia-Arena

“Along with creating rich language environments, it is critical to assess English learners as the school year begins to better understand where they are in language development and content understanding.

With this information, teachers will be able to target instruction to meet the needs of these students.”

— Patricia Garcia-Arena, principal researcher, and Rebecca Bergey, senior researcher


Image of Rebecca Bergey


Supports for Teachers

Lisa Lachlan

“School districts can recognize the importance of teacher well-being by assessing and improving working conditions to create a more positive teaching and learning environment. They can also support teachers directly in recovering from COVID-19-related trauma by building trust and well-being through trauma-informed communities. Resources from AIR’s Center on Great Teachers and Leaders support school leaders, teachers, and other educators in building resilience and well-being throughout their school communities, particularly in light of the adverse effects of the pandemic.”

Lisa Lachlan, principal researcher


Mental Health and Trauma

Image of Mariah Rooney

“Returning to the classroom with so many unknowns is an incredible challenge for educators and students alike. Many students have experienced the trauma of the pandemic, among other traumas in their homes and communities. It’s helpful for educators to remember the importance of connection and trauma-informed relationship building. Start with normalizing and validating everything that may be coming up for students as they re-enter the school environment and remember that taking a stance of curiosity is a great place to start when building connections. Additionally, educators should consider creating routines to check in on how students are doing beyond academics. This provides an opportunity to build relationships so that students feel safer engaging with teachers and other school personnel.”

Image of Frank Rider

— Mariah Rooney, senior TA consultant

“Schools should prepare to address the social and emotional and mental health needs of students and employees by prioritizing teaching of core social and emotional learning skills through salient initiatives that incorporate family and community resources. Resist urges to plunge directly into accelerated learning approaches that try to ‘make up for lost time’ and to impose rigid structure before students and staff are able to acclimate to the demands of rigorous in-person learning. Invest first in reengagement strategies designed to reassure students and staff that they are in safe and welcoming settings. Teach students simple techniques to monitor their feelings and manage distress.

Image of Kelly Wells

The federal National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, which AIR supports, offers an extensive suite of information and tools designed to support educators in understanding and responding to unique mental health challenges in the months ahead.”

Frank Rider, senior finance specialist, and Kelly Wells, principal TA consultant


Social and Emotional Learning

Sara Wolforth

“We know that students develop and apply social and emotional competencies in context, and that parents and caregivers are vital partners in students’ social and emotional learning just as they are in academic learning. In some cases, the adaptations that were made to schooling throughout the 2020-2021 school year resulted in new connections and stronger collaboration between school and home and with the community. As students return to school this fall, educators can build upon those connections to create the positive developmental relationships that the science of learning and development demonstrates are critical to student thriving.

We have seen that equity has been a key driver and unifying principle for several of the districts and states we have been working with on social and emotional learning (SEL) and related whole child approaches. And increasingly, education systems are moving from compartmentalizing SEL in an isolated block of instructional time to ensure that students experience SEL in a variety of ways: throughout the classroom, built-in to school practices and policies, and at the foundation of programming with community partners. For example, we have been working with one Florida district to integrate SEL into academic instruction across content areas, and we are hearing more and more that education systems are looking for ways to integrate and align related whole child approaches, such as SEL, trauma-informed practices, and restorative practices, often within a multi-tiered systems of support framework. We are also seeing how school systems and community-based organizations are working together to expand social, emotional, and academic learning in the hours students are out of school. ”

Sara Wolforth, principal researcher


Learning Loss