It’s been over a month since schools have shut down across the country, affecting an estimated 55+ million students. To understand what’s happening on the ground, we spoke with leaders from Charter School Growth Fund, NewSchools Venture Fund, Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, Silicon Schools Fund, and Transcend. These five organizations all operate in service of schools and educators, with the common goal of making it easier for schools and educators to excel. They were gracious enough to share their thoughts, observations, and predictions for the future with our team.

Through their birds-eye view of the crisis’s impact on education and the shift to remote learning and virtual teaching, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of the experiences of millions of students and thousands of teachers as they adjust to our new reality.

The synthesis of the interviews below illuminates some of the things school leaders are considering as they think about the future of education, especially the role technology can play in both virtual and physical settings going forward. Although there are no clear answers for what school looks like when students come back into classrooms, it is clear that the dedication, leadership, and innovation of nonprofits and educators during this difficult time will shape school as we know it for the foreseeable future.

Responding to immediate needs

Each organization we interviewed responded to the shift to distance learning in different ways depending on what their partner schools most needed. From our conversations, we saw patterns in schools struggling to meet students’ basic needs, from hardware and connectivity to meals, which our grantees have supported through monetary assistance. 

Our partners also prioritized helping school leaders choose and implement online tools if they were not yet in use. Silicon Schools Fund co-sponsored the creation of a distance learning playbook with the Silver Giving Foundation to provide small to medium-sized California districts simple, actionable steps for remote learning. Similarly, Transcend created a Coronavirus Resource Page that houses resource collections from across the field, as well as individual resources for school and system leaders, remote workers, and teachers and parents (including their own Pop-Up Homeschool Schedule Generator). And Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, Charter School Growth Fund, and NewSchools Venture Fund all curated lists of resources dedicated to helping school leaders and families get through this time.

Planning for the future

The sudden shift to remote learning immediately magnified the digital divide in the U.S. The gaps in access to reliable internet and devices such as laptops became more apparent than ever, especially as they related to students being able to continue their education. Our grantee partners all noted this fact, along with the challenges it posed to successful distance education.

Within a matter of days, schools had to mitigate the digital divide while facing procurement and distribution challenges, all while designing a distance learning strategy. Having to address immediate needs for their students also made it hard to plan for the long-term, although our grantees all noted how important that is, for both them and the schools with which they work.

Silicon Schools Fund: We are trying to be forward-thinking in determining what schools would need in the future—best way to use summer as a learning opportunity, how to best address amplified achievement gaps when school restarts, how to plan for reduced state revenue, and how to try to keep the best of what we’ve learned during the crisis to improve schooling when restrictions are lifted.

Even though nobody knows what the future holds, our grantee partners all saw this time as an inflection point in how we think about schools in the 21st century. As schools went from brick-and-mortar institutions to virtual, home-based settings, they also embarked on a journey that puts them on a very different path post-COVID-19.  

School closures across the country are shining a light on the deep inequities in our school system and the need to ensure all students have access to high-quality, rigorous learning in a supportive environment. Getting there will require a dramatically different landscape of schools.

  NewSchools Venture Fund

Reimagining schooling

The need for reimagined or redesigned schools came up several times, with many of the grantees noting the inequities that currently exist and the fact that they will likely be exacerbated by the shutdown. 

Silicon Schools Fund: Our challenge is to help the most marginalized students get some of the most innovative and best solutions. There will be a greater number of students who are behind at the beginning of the next school year. This should push educators and schools to rethink Tier 1 instruction, focusing on how to best remediate and accelerate to close gaps. 

Transcend described schools as having three overlapping “jobs” as they grapple with the pandemic: respond, recover, and reinvent. “The choices that are made while schools respond and recover will strongly impact what they do when they ‘reinvent’—in other words, whether we should expect a dramatically different school landscape and environment depends on what we do in the near future.” 

Schools are relying on families and communities more than ever to be involved in their children’s education, which will have a profound impact on how we think of the school-home connection going forward.

NewSchools Venture Fund: Schools and districts will need to consider how to better bridge the gap between school and home and ensure parents are supported as they continue to provide opportunities for their children at home. Parents, who are now responsible for powering their student’s learning, will likely demand innovation as well.

Schools are beginning to rethink how teachers, students, and families engage with one another and approach student learning once schools reopen. Many anticipate that much will look different, including their approaches to academic remediation, social-emotional support, and group events and gatherings.

  Charter School Growth Fund

The growing role of technology

Our grantee partners anticipate a post-COVID-19 academic world with a radically different role for technology. Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund believes that, after the crisis is over, it is likely that all teachers will use technology for some instruction in their classrooms versus the current 65%.

Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund: The question is if we will also be able to move the needle on how teachers are using technology so that all students are using it for higher-order thinking versus just for consumption.

Charter School Growth Fund expects many public charter schools to continue to expand and improve their use of technology in instruction, assignments, and projects. And Silicon Schools Fund believes that parents, who are relying on technology to power their children’s learning, will either complete this time demanding more technology than before or with a negative view of its use in classrooms.

If schools and families like elements of flexibility and personalization that distance learning enables, we could see more students and families seeking more technology in the future. If we do a bad job of making learning meaningful and interesting during social distancing, it is possible that families leave with a bad taste in their mouth towards the role of technology in education.

  Silicon Schools Fund

And while many organizations are struggling with how to adjust to remote learning, the technology providers that Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund supports have seen an unprecedented demand from schools and the NYC Department of Education that have pushed them to scale their work at a pace previously not thought possible. 

The importance of philanthropy to the future of education

All the organizations we interviewed noted the unique role philanthropy can play in helping organizations reinvent and reimagine school after the crisis, especially in a time of budget cuts and hard decisions. Specific ideas that came up as ripe for support were programs that help underserved students catch up to grade-level and those that focus on the socio-emotional (or non-academic) aspects of education. 

This crisis should not be an excuse to lower the bar for our children or accept that some will just be left out. We have to ensure that the solutions we build today are designed to accelerate learning tomorrow. That is the only way we will be able to look back at this moment and have something positive emerge from this tragedy.

  Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund

The efforts of the organizations we interviewed have made it possible for schools to continue to support students’ learning and innovate in ways that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago. As we think about the future of education, including the role technology will play in both virtual and physical settings, we invite other foundations and funders to join us in supporting the immediate and future work of these nonprofits and others out there who are helping millions of students across the country receive an education despite the circumstances.