How to Run Virtual Flex Periods in Middle & High Schools
This spring semester of 2020 has been a challenging one. Schools quickly closed their physical spaces to students with little warning, shifting their focus to an online model. Districts scrambled to find ways to get technology, like Chromebooks, in the hands of their students. Teachers hurried to prepare virtual lessons and assignments, trying to balance rigor, equity, and students’ personal well-being. In this shift, the school schedule as we knew it was upended, which also put a pause on Flex Periods for most middle and high schools that had one.
As time went on, schools could create more intentional, scheduled time between teachers and students, but for many, it still felt reactive. While most schools aren’t yet sure what the fall will look like entirely, we have the chance to plan ahead for it over the summer in ways we weren’t able to this spring, even if that means planning for multiple options that range from fully virtual to fully in-person and different options in between. In this post, we’ll look at why Flex Periods are more important than ever this fall and how to shift to a virtual Flex Period setup in the event schools are unable to return to their pre-March 2020 schedules in the fall (which seems likely for most).
If you don’t already know what a Flex Period is, they can go by many names, like Intervention Block, Enrichment Period, Activity Period, WIN Time, or Advisory, among others. If you’re not sure of any of those terms in a more “usual” school context, feel free to check out our What is a Flex Period post for more.
Why Flex Periods Are More Important Now Than Ever
Flex Periods have been increasing in popularity in middle and high schools across the country over the past years because of the many benefits they bring to students and schools. Despite most schools pausing their Flex Periods this spring (among many other structures and priorities), they are arguably more important than before as we approach the 2020-2021 school year. Last semester, students lost a lot of instructional time and, subsequently, learning, despite the best effort of teachers, administrators, and families. It was common to hear that much of the learning was focused on concepts already taught, that many students struggled more than usual on the new concepts introduced, that teachers lacked the time and resources needed to effectively reach all kids, and that parents didn’t have the ability to make up for it all.
Additionally, the student experience became more variable depending on their home context, so we know students will be even more varied in what they’ve retained and learned since they were last in physical schools. For all these reasons, strategically grouping students in settings like Flex Periods will become even more important to differentiate instruction and meet individual student needs. We can’t let the virtual setting stop us from doing what we know is a best, and necessary, practice after diagnosing where students are when they reenter the classroom this fall (whatever it may look like).
When schools moved to distance learning on the fly this past spring, many schools didn’t have the time to shift their Flex Periods to the virtual context given all that was going on. Now that we have some time to prepare for the fall, it’s important to consider the role they can play in our new normal, even when that includes some form of virtual learning.
How to Run Flex Periods in Virtual Settings
Below we outline the steps needed to move your Flex Period(s) to a virtual setting in the likely event that you’ll need to do so, at least for part of the coming school year. We’ll also share some ways we’re trying to make it easier along the way in case we can help you, as we know you have a lot of things to worry about in preparing for all the possibilities this fall. If you’re interested in starting a Flex Period but haven’t had one before, you might find it helpful to download our free Flex Period Planning Tool that walks you through the 5 steps to starting a Flex Period for the first time.
Step 1: Choose Time(s)
Whatever schedule you’re considering, whether fully virtual or with students alternating between in-person and virtual, you’ll need to designate some specific time(s) for your Flex Period(s). Part of the beauty of the virtual setting is you have more flexibility than you did before. You don’t need to coordinate as much time for passing periods or worry about lunchroom capacity to dictate when things start and end. Because of this, you could have more Flex Periods than you would’ve otherwise when confined to a schedule reliant on physical space. While most schools would likely want to have all students have a Flex Period at the same time to give all students and all teachers access to each other, you can also strategically group students that have Flex Period time while others have a traditional class. This might be easier in middle school contexts where students are more likely to be on the same schedule with the same classes as those in their grade but could be worked out in any school. In Edficiency, schools can have multiple sessions for your school, named as you wish, and ensure the right students are eligible only for the specific periods they should participate in.
Step 2: Setup Virtual Locations
Next, because you no longer are using the physical rooms in your building, you do need to create the “location” for each teacher to hold their session. Hopefully, this is something that is easy, as most teachers likely know how to create one or even have a link they used for virtual meetings with students this past spring. In most cases, this requires each teacher to have a specific video call link on your district’s preferred platform, whether Zoom, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, Blackboard Collaborate, WebEx, BlueJeans, or any of the other options available. The hardest part here is making sure that each teacher knows their own link and doesn’t get them mixed up if they change for each session. When using Edficiency, we’ve created a new feature that allows for virtual locations to be added so a teacher’s specific link can be easily carried through all steps of the process.
Step 3: Create Sessions
Once locations and times are determined, teachers can start creating their sessions (or have administrators do it for them, depending on your school’s choice). This should be largely similar to how it’s done in a non-virtual context, where teachers run sessions based on the needs of their students. This coming fall, it’s arguably even more important that teachers have given some form of diagnostic to know where their students are and which students have similar needs to others so grouping can be more strategic. Given the virtual environment and uniqueness of the situation in the fall, we’d also recommend creating a “session” for independent study that would include students without a specific need aligned to the sessions on that particular day. This could be a virtual space where they’re expected to be monitored by a staff member, but in most cases would be an independent study hall where they have time on their own. The benefit of this is that the virtual sessions being run by teachers based on specific student needs will be smaller and more targeted, without having extra students there just because they needed a place to go. In Edficiency, we give teachers multiple options for their sessions so they can easily request groups when creating sessions, limit sessions to specific groups (e.g. only allow their algebra students to request one session and only their geometry students to request a different one), and set the maximum size most appropriate for each session.
Step 4: Make Requests
Once sessions are created, teachers can start requesting the students they need for a particular session on a particular day. Again, this should be based on diagnosed needs by teachers and/or a student proclaiming an aligned need. Depending on your specific system, this step might coincide with the step before. This is true in Edficiency, as the group feature will allow you to automatically request a group of students when you create a session, even if you need to edit that group to add or remove students at a later time before the session starts. Schools can also allow students to make requests for teachers at this stage if they choose to. In Edficiency, we accommodate teacher and student requests, where both groups have the ability to express different levels of priority to each request, which the system will use when creating assignments.
Step 5: Assign Students
Once sessions are created and requests have been made, it’s time to assign students. Again, in most cases, this should be largely similar to the way it’s done under normal circumstances, with the exception of possibly having some different types of sessions or norms in place given the virtual environment. If you have been using a system that relies on paper or communication between staff and students during class time (like teachers writing session topics on the board or using student planners to write requests/passes), then you will need to also create a virtual system. This could look like a request form and/or spreadsheet (like Google Forms/Sheets) or a tool, like Edficiency, that organizes (and automates) the process for you from start to finish. If you’re assigning students in Edficiency, your work is largely done at the prior step because Edficiency will automatically assign students for you based on all the requests received by midnight the night before. It’ll automatically assign students to the most important places first by the priority levels of the requests. All you need to do is have an administrator make sure you have enough seats for your student body and the work will happen while you sleep (yes, really).
Step 6: Notify Staff + Students
Lastly, once assignments have been made, it’s important that students know where they are supposed to (virtually) show up (e.g. which link to click) and teachers should know who they expect to see. This step likely would be done similarly to however you’ve done it before, with the exception of relying on any in-person communication or physical tools that were leveraged. Most schools will either leverage spreadsheets and emails sent by a member of their team or a system like Edficiency to accomplish this. With Edficiency, emails are automatically sent to students each morning with their assignment, including the teacher name, session title, virtual room link, and any notes from the teacher that was given. Teachers log in and see a list of their students assigned to them that day, including any notes from students that requested them. This is also where they take attendance, assuming it is needed for your virtual Flex Periods.
While we know schools have a lot on their plate as they prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, we hope that the virtual environment that many will face in some capacity will not be a barrier for leveraging the best practices we already know work. As you consider what the future of Flex Periods look like in your building this coming year, or beyond, we know there is a lot to consider. We’d be happy to help you think through and solve any challenges you’re facing. Click here to book a free Flex Period Strategy Call with us today.