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Coronavirus School Closures: Capstone Projects & Positivity for Students & Educators

April 1, 2020 | 1 comment

Coronavirus School Closures: Capstone Projects & Positivity for Students & Educators

AFT President Randi Weingarten discusses the effects of extended coronavirus school closures and how we can end the year on a positive note for everyone.


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Coronavirus School Closures: Working Together Through the Challenge

Classrooms that would have been abuzz with activity now sit empty, as most states have experienced coronavirus school closures across the country. These have been agonizing choices because schools are not simply where students learn, they are where many children receive meals and healthcare, where they learn life lessons, forge relationships and build resiliency. We are all feeling the shockwaves of this unprecedented upheaval.

But as educators and school staff know, the majority of the instructional year has already taken place, and students have learned and experienced much already. The federal government will waive federally mandated assessments as a result of the widespread coronavirus school closures. There are still meaningful ways teachers can help students sum up their academic progress and bring closure to this school year. So, at this extraordinary time, I propose ending the school year by giving all teachers the latitude to work with their students on capstone or term projects instead of statewide standardized assessments — to choose age appropriate activities, assessments and projects that demonstrate their learning for the year. This flexibility will both allow districts to ensure that our school communities maintain the social distancing necessary to avoid further spread of the virus and give our students the chance to end their school year on a positive note.

Nearly 53 million of the country’s 57 million K-12 students have been affected by coronavirus school closures. That number is likely to grow, and the situation is likely to persist, as states like Kansas decide to close public schools for the rest of the school year. Educators are building the plane while flying it. Within the span of one week, districts across the country have rushed to open “grab-and-go” meal centers, launch distance learning programs, meet the needs of our most vulnerable children, and provide child care for the frontline healthcare and other essential workers who are protecting the health and safety of all Americans. And state and district leaders are trying to figure this out with little guidance from the federal government, and what guidance they’ve gotten has often been unclear or contradictory.

coronavirus school closures and student working form home

Coronavirus School Closures: How Capstones Serve the Needs of Educators & Students

As these logistical challenges continue to be addressed, our members across the country are simultaneously creating plans to ensure that their students’ learning does not end with the closure of their school buildings and trying to ascertain whether their efforts have succeeded. There are many ways outside of state accountability systems to show student learning, as teachers can attest. They just need the freedom to use their professional judgment. Teachers do this throughout the year — administering tests and guiding students on projects and portfolios. We know that students love to show what they know to people who matter to them. We need to trust teachers, in consultation with their principals and colleagues, to design meaningful, educationally appropriate tasks. For example: Elementary students could complete a composition on a favorite book they read this year, which could be turned in by sending it back on the same bus that is delivering grab-and-go meals (while observing scientists’ recommendations regarding safe paper handling). Middle school students could hold a virtual debate on the internet, or they could interview a relative for a family history, which is the quintessential American story. High school students could research a topic they now won’t be covering in class and present their research via video on their phone. Because of the digital divide, many students do not have access to computers, smart phones or internet hot spots, so the tried-and-true writing — or drawing or composing music — with pen and paper, should be envisioned as well.

Teachers will need time and support to develop plans for project-based assessments that are appropriate given their students’ ages, special education requirements, proficiency in English, physical needs and access to technology. This is especially important since many will be used in the context of remote learning. Local latitude and autonomy is important. Let’s give educators, working with their colleagues and administrators, the freedom to figure this out, including the freedom to determine how high school seniors can finish the year and graduate.

Teachers are working hard to maintain essential connections with their students. Let’s trust them to develop the kinds of end-of-year activities, assessments and capstone projects I am proposing. Let’s trust them to use their expertise and knowledge of their students, because no idea will work for every student and teacher. My hope is to capture and celebrate student learning and, in the process, show that we trust teachers.

Coronavirus School Closures: Finding Success with Distance Learning

Across the country, many teachers already are making the extraordinarily challenging shift to distance learning. Online learning is a massive technological and pedagogical leap. During coronavirus school closures, it also raises considerable educational equity issues, such as access to technology and other learning materials, support for English language learners and students with special needs, and appropriate spaces for learning. Teachers need time and support to plan and provide online learning to mitigate these challenges and to ensure that no student feels isolated. The priority should be to keep all students, including our ELLs and students with special needs, speaking, listening, reading and writing — not taking tests. Share My Lesson, the AFT’s digital platform for educators, has a vast array of resources for teachers, including for transitioning to distance learning — as do other platforms. And many educators, like so many other parents, are trying to work remotely while their kids also are at home.

What should happen to those federally mandated standardized tests? During normal times, standardized assessments can be constructive tools, but these times are anything but normal. It was good, but inevitable, news that President Trump announced this week that all federally mandated standardized tests will be canceled, but states still need to follow the process the U.S. Department of Education has provided to temporarily waive the testing and accountability requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Download the K-12 culminating capstone projects here

capstone projects link

To parents who are trying to home school their kids and seeing how tough it is to teach, please know: The school year is far from lost. Indeed, students will learn unprecedented life lessons from this challenging time, including the lengths to which caring adults and peers are going to support one another.

The experience of confronting the coronavirus will have an indelible impact on most of our lives. The COVID-19 crisis will affect public health, economies and societies across the globe. But it will also reveal the bravery of frontline healthcare workers and the resilience of people who have been pushed to the brink. It will inspire extraordinary efforts by educators to help students continue to learn from afar while their lives are turned upside down; educators whose compassion provides structure and reassurance when students need it most, and whose ingenuity will allow students to demonstrate what they have learned. As we focus right now on the safety and health of Americans and fight to buffer them from short- and long-term economic hardship, I cannot help hoping that, although Americans now are physically distant from each other, this experience will ultimately bring us closer together.

The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are... See More

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DJohnson45_3551678 August 6, 2020, 1:38 pm

No however I will encourage my students to share with family