Your Back-to-School 2020 Questions Answered

In my recent Demco webinar, I introduced nine key concepts that we as educators need to be thinking about for fall. Along with health and safety measures, it will be more important than ever that we focus on the following educational elements for back-to-school 2020:

  • Communicating effectively with parents and students

  • Rethinking grading practices

  • Learning through experiences

  • Designing engaging lessons

  • Building community remotely

  • Maximizing community partnerships

  • Deepening collaboration in blended environments

  • Right-sizing curriculum

  • Leveraging our librarians and specialists

Watch the full webinar, “Back-to-School: 9 Key Concepts to Rethink for Fall 2020,” to gain valuable insights, and keep reading for answers to some of the audience’s biggest questions. 

How do we ensure students are following new rules yet still learning?

Back-to-school 2020 will look very different than the back-to-schools we’re used to. New rules and regulations will have to be taught, modeled, and reinforced. 

For younger students especially, the beginning of the year will take longer to establish. Give yourself more time to get norms and expectations established. This might be harder in virtual and hybrid spaces. Start with health expectations and then move into learning expectations. 

If you’re teaching in person, get creative with new rules. Some solutions can be fun to see in action, such as imagining there is a dragon between you and your classmates or imagining there is hot lava around your classmates. If you can make it fun and gamify things, it can make the hard stuff just a little better. 

Some new rules, such as mask wearing, will take time to get used to and will need buy-in from everyone. Public health initiatives work best when individuals are informed and feel compelled to be part of a community solution. Make an intellectual and emotional appeal, and take time to talk about the “why” of mask wearing. Don’t assume that students know the facts and reasoning behind why masks are important. 

Your school leadership should preemptively put a plan in place to deal with emergencies, rule breaking, or students exhibiting high-risk behaviors such as spitting. It will be important to work closely with the school nurse and the student health team to craft solutions. In these types of situations, 6 feet of distance will be the required minimum, and it can make sense to extend this distance for those students who need it for their health and the health of others. 

What’s the best way to communicate with parents about both safety and learning?

Everyone has a different comfort level with sending their students back to school, and communicating openly with parents will play an important role in keeping kids learning and on track this next school year. Read “Reopening School: How to Reduce Your Community’s Fears” to learn what we should be communicating to parents and how we should be communicating it. 

Some schools are hosting virtual open houses where families can see the new classroom configurations and experience the new version of school. Some schools and districts are also recording videos of teachers and school nurses talking about how they feel comfortable with the safety plans. 

There are really three big areas in which we can help parents: establishing a home learning environment, supporting the technology platforms students are using for learning, and helping them keep students on track with their schoolwork. You can use screencasts, text tutorials, and one-page how-tos to help support families. 

What’s the best way to get reading materials in students’ hands?

The science on the safety of sharing books is unclear, so I’m not able to give definitive answers here. If I were a school leader, I would get some of my books into individual classrooms for a while. I would limit any browsing in libraries, and I would increase mobile library checkout procedures. 

Quarantining materials between checkouts should help as well. We do know that time is the best disinfectant. Read “How to Quarantine Books in Your School Library” to learn more about the best way to manage your collection during the pandemic. 

For schools that are offering remote instruction, you can consider offering a curbside pickup option for your families. See how public libraries have been managing this service for their communities in “Checklist for Library Curbside Pickup Services.”

Other ways to ensure you get books in students’ hands include offering access to e-books and other digital collections. Community little free libraries and public libraries can help with getting physical books to kids who may not have access to the internet. Think about building book bundles for individual students to use at home or school. Consider letting students take 10 books home for two weeks and then quarantining the books before rebundling them. 

If you can’t have students in the library, offer electronic texts, distribute books to classroom libraries, and create book-talk videos. If your situation does allow for students in the library, start with one class coming to the space to practice the new norms and safety requirements. 

How can librarians best support students and teachers?

There is a lot we can’t control, but focusing on the areas we can control and influence is important. Librarians are great curators, and they can help teachers curate resources for virtual learning, including library and community resources. Be this resource. 

Pick three or four areas that you can control and be excellent in those areas while other areas are limited. Share great books, grow students’ excitement around the beauty of reading, and connect library resources to areas of classroom learning. You can also focus on one department or one cohort of teachers to support in more detail. 

Digital literacy will become even more important as students and teachers navigate remote or hybrid learning. Use your expertise to promote best practices and teach students the ins and outs of the technology tools your district will be using. 

You can be a great resource to incoming students in middle schools and high schools. If you’re not holding in-person orientation days, help share the voices of current middle schoolers or high schoolers to support incoming freshmen. You can also do virtual home visits and create smaller advisory groups with teachers and mentors to support students new to the buildings. 

You may find that visits to your library space this year are minimal, as limiting student movement will help ensure the health and safety of students.

If your space is being repurposed, you may have to move library resources to storage and expand the space for students to work in the library. If this is the case, now is the time to be creative in building traveling and virtual spaces and to get the most from the digital resources you have available. Look at building a resource-rich Google Classroom or Google Site (learn how to create a bitmoji classroom).

Librarian Matthew Winner shares many more ideas for how school librarians can best serve students in the coming year in his blog post “Ways School Librarians Can Serve Students in Fall 2020,” including ways to offer support remotely, in your library, and by visiting classrooms.

Prepare Your School for Reopening

Explore products that will help you reopen your doors safely and help ensure staff and student well-being.

How do I create engaging online lessons?  

Shorter bursts of synchronous time are key. We can’t ask students to be on video calls for too much of the day. Some teachers are planning instruction like this: 

  • Open the video call
  • Have 10 minutes of listening
  • Have 20 minutes of doing something with individual or small-group meetings
  • Return to the larger group for 10 minutes 

Use as much synchronous time for connecting with your students and building trust as possible, and shift instruction to asynchronous time. Tell your story about why you teach and how you learn. Students are going to be eager for conversation, fun, laughter, and the energy of others. Use these desires to bring joy to learning, and look for ways for students to create, discover, and practice mindfulness activities. 

Students in middle school especially want to feel like they are doing something meaningful. Look for a mission or problem to solve, and get students contributing to something. This can be a cause or something they find on Some classrooms are looking to sites like to get students involved with something meaningful and relevant. 

How can we support social-emotional learning remotely?

Social-emotional learning will be at the forefront of everything we do this fall. Get ideas for how to support students here: 

It’s difficult to come to terms with, but we won’t be meeting all the needs of our students this fall. I think this realization is important as we start planning and instruction. We have to prioritize certain needs and do what we can make learning fun and joyful while we are in these extraordinary times.

Many schools are also making a point to identify students and families that struggle with virtual learning. They are flooding these families with resources and, in some cases, working to bring these students back to school more quickly. 

When you see students struggling, be sure to provide open office hours and have individual conversations. Academic struggles are often an indication of other issues. Work to dig into the situation, especially in this time of extreme stress, and let students know that this is a time of struggle for teachers as well. 

How do we build a sense of community?

In a classroom community of trust, students rise to the occasion. Friendly classrooms usually only have a short window to develop, so concentrate on setting the tone and getting to know each other right away. Focus especially on students who are new to the school. You will strengthen relationships as you get a better sense of the personalities of your students. 

For in-person learning, get kids moving near their desks and use music and videos that can set the tone. A classroom motto and mantras can help build community as well. 

Other ways to build community include making something together, even in a virtual space. You can also get mad about something together (find a common cause) or break bread together, even if it is a virtual breakfast. 

New staff will also need a deep level of support. The norms and routines of school that are formed in the first weeks of in-person learning won’t be available for them, so use professional learning communities to productively think as a collective and help them get acclimated. 

Can we still find ways to teach collaboration skills while social distancing? 

Technology can link groups virtually as well as in classroom environments. Use collaboration tools such as the following: 

  • Well-designed gallery walks that maintain distance
  • Virtual whiteboards
  • Shared Google Slides presentations
  • Shared video production (WeVideo, Soundtrap)

How do I best serve students with disabilities remotely?  

There are lots of accessibility tools available through Microsoft and Google. Use tools like closed captioning to support all students, and allow them to showcase their learning in technology-rich ways. Consider what curriculum is truly essential, and support students with these things. In other words, clear the clutter. 


Dr. Robert Dillon

Dr. Robert Dillon

Dr. Robert Dillon has served as a thought leader in education over the last 20 years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. He is passionate about changing the educational landscape by building engaging schools for all students. Dr. Dillon has shared his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications, and at local, state, and national conferences throughout the country. He is also the author of five books on intentional design in learning.
You can find Dr. Dillon on Twitter @drrobertdillon.