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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Aug 2, 2020

How to plan for the first weeks of school when everything feels uncertain

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to plan for the first weeks of school when everything feels uncertain

By Angela Watson

This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, planning the first weeks of school has never been more difficult or confusing for teachers, especially for those that remote learning or teaching is not an option. And the lack of guidance for schools isn’t making things easier for anyone to return to school. 

So how can a teacher plan ahead of time when there’s so much uncertainty and still haven’t fully recovered from the stress of the school closures last spring? Classroom routines and classroom organization will surely change. You might be wondering what activities for students should you prepare when the kids have to maintain a physical distance of six feet apart from each other and cannot share classroom materials. And the most important question of all, how do you ensure a safe return to school for your students and yourself?

Hopefully, this first episode of the season will help shed a light on how you can plan for a better first week of school despite everything that has been going on.

I’ll admit I did not think when I wrapped up Season 11 back in May, that we’d be having this conversation that we’re about to have. At the time, we had flattened the curve in most of the US and I think all of us were much more optimistic that the coming school year would be smoother than this past spring.

Now, that’s not looking so likely.

I’m going to admit something you might not hear officially from your district, but I believe it’s the core truth that many folks are avoiding:

You will probably have to set aside a lot of best teaching and learning practices this school year, particularly if you work with younger students.

Full-time remote learning is not ideal for many (if not most) students and families.

In-person instruction in which kids may be confined to their seats more, interacting with each other less, not sharing manipulatives and books from the classroom library, or keeping six feet apart from one another and from you … also not ideal.

There are no options for fall right now that provide optimal learning conditions, period.

And intentionally going against what you know about pedagogy and the neuroscience of how humans learn best is going to create a lot of cognitive dissonance.

There will be things you have to do that you would NEVER choose for your students outside of a global pandemic where students cannot safely be in contact with one another.

It will be heartbreaking for many teachers to undertake the challenges ahead this fall. I know this has the potential to break teachers’ spirits and drive many of them from the profession.

And yet, the willingness to diverge from our known best practices is going to be necessary, because we have to move into a DIFFERENT set of best practices that are based on the current circumstances.

First week of school during the covid 19 pandemic

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I believe our mission must be to develop a flexible, resilient pedagogy that carries us through this school year and beyond.

The current limitations and obstacles (which are simply piled on top of the existing inequities) are going to be massive, and we have to mitigate the damage.

We can’t just take away the stuff that was great for kids and write off an entire school year.

We MUST find new ways to meet kids’ needs as best we can.

A reimagining of schools is required urgently, and that is a GOOD thing.

It’s not like the old ways of teaching and learning were so manageable for teachers and beneficial for students.

We needed a complete overhaul of systems, and though this isn’t the catalyst for change anyone wanted, it IS an opportunity to create massive change very quickly, which rarely happens in schools.

We must be prepared to actively participate in the changes that are coming because whatever is happening on Day 1 of school is not going to be maintained throughout the year.

Absolutely nothing is written in stone right now and nothing is permanent. Take advantage of that opportunity to create change that’s ultimately better for you and your students. 

There will be a lot of shifting policies and procedures, so be prepared to experiment and share your findings in a constructive, solution-oriented way.

And, speak up to ensure you have the resources and training you need to teach kids effectively and safely.

Ask questions to get clarity on exactly what is expected of you and your students this school year.

It’s likely that your admin and district leaders won’t have those answers yet. But I encourage you to posit those questions anyway and place the responsibility back on leadership for solving these problems.

It’s incredibly disheartening to me to see every individual teacher across the nation trying to figure out logistics right now when we’re facing so many similar challenges. Imagine if we had strong national leadership in the department of ed, where true educational experts — including teachers — were working with health and safety experts to develop constructive solutions that could be adopted nationwide.

Instead, we’re figuring out a few things state by state, and then a few more district by district, and then a few more school by school, and a few more teacher by teacher.

Right now is a time when we need unity and leadership. We need consistency in support and recommendations. If we leave it up to every individual teacher to figure out how to make things work, we’re going to end up with more inequities.

So I encourage you to keep asking questions that folks in leadership positions might not have the answers to yet. The questions you’re wondering about are the same things teachers all around the country are considering, and you deserve answers, particularly when it comes to health/safety protocols.

Right now, teachers are largely unsure how to reopen safely, or how they should be teaching during the first weeks of school. So, they’re just “figuring it out” and “making it work.” That’s what teachers do. You’re used to hacking together workarounds without proper guidance, support, or resources.

But it’s reasonable to find out what’s expected of you before you begin planning.

If there’s no health/safety protocol for class libraries, manipulatives, lab equipment, cooperative learning, etc., I think the best course of action is this:

Don’t plan that stuff for the first 2 weeks of school. Wait until you get official answers in writing.

Having kids stay seated and avoid working together is obviously NOT the best practice in normal situations. But this is a liability issue. If you don’t have written guidelines for how to do those things safely, it’s not worth the risk, in my opinion.

Every individual teacher cannot make up their own health/safety precautions, particularly since some teachers will take none at all.

This is not a time for teacher ingenuity and crowdsourcing and just making it work somehow. The wrong decisions can have devastating consequences.

Any questions teachers have about reopening safely should be directed to school leaders for official guidance.

If you can’t get answers about a particular practice, then don’t plan to teach that way until you get those answers. Protect yourself and your students.

I know it’s frustrating not to have answers about how school buildings can reopen safely. However, you are not responsible for developing health/safety protocols for your classroom — this is not your burden to carry as a teacher.

If you have ideas or suggestions, tell your school leaders so they can approve those (in writing). But if you’re not given an explicit protocol, then keep your lesson plans SIMPLE for the first week or two of school.

This will mean you have to do things differently than normal, and it probably won’t be as fun or engaging. But we have a bigger goal than engagement this year, which is keeping kids, families, and teachers alive + healthy. That is more important.

So if you’re stressed because you’re expected to do in-person teaching soon and have no idea what it will look like … KEEP IT SIMPLE. You can slowly incorporate more types of activities as you get a feel for how things are going to work, and as more directives come down from leadership.

Don’t spend your summer break planning how to have kids use math manipulatives or your class library, only to find out the day before school starts you can’t do it that way, then work out a whole new system, then find out two days later the guidelines have changed again.

Just write your lesson plans in a way that doesn’t require kids to share materials for the first week or two of school. 

Only plan those kinds of activities when you have a written safety protocol, and then … follow that protocol to the letter.

In the grand scheme of a lifetime, it’s not going to harm kids if they have to wait a bit longer for those kinds of learning experiences, particularly if it means they’ll be able to do it safely and not have the routine changed on them 100 times.

Here’s where I want to loop in those of you who are teaching remotely at the start of the school year, because the remainder of what I’ll say applies to you right now, as well.

Don’t invest a ton of time into planning until you know what you can and can’t do. I just heard from a teacher the other day who spent her whole summer uploading videos and assignments into Google Classroom, under the assumption she could use those resources no matter what this year. Then, her district sent out an email saying they were switching to a dedicated learning management system and Google Classroom was no longer permitted.

We know this kind of stuff happens all the time with schools, so mitigate the effects as much as you can by waiting to plan until you have directives. This does not necessarily mean you’re going to be scrambling 2 days before school starts. That would only be true if you were going to attempt to do everything you’ve done in years past.

I think it’s smart to scale down your plans for the first two weeks of school this year.

Whether you’re with kids face to face five days a week or a few days a week or totally online, I think it’s fair to say that your lessons for back-to-school are not going to be what you wish they could be this year.

You’re not going to be able to do what you did in previous school years. The sooner you can accept that, the easier it will be to plan because you won’t be spending so much energy shoehorning in activities that just aren’t going to work. The sooner you accept that the start of this school year is not going to be optimal for you or your students, the easier it will be to see things in a really clear-headed way and find the best possible solutions.

Keep your lesson plans for the first week very simple. Don’t take on more than you can handle, knowing that what you can handle this year is likely lower than normal due to the stress, uncertainty, and changes.

The only person who knows what your first day plans were going to be like is YOU. Your students won’t know what you were planning to do and what they’re missing out on. Those were just ideas in YOUR head.

And not being able to do them right now doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do them. They might work later in the year. And, you will probably be able to use them in future school years.

So, scale down your plans for the first two weeks of school. Simplify as much as possible. Plan only for the kinds of activities and platforms that you know with a pretty solid degree of certainty you’ll be permitted to do. When it comes to health/safety protocols for in-person learning, plan only for the stuff you have written protocols for.

Then see how things go. See what your students need. See what new guidelines develop and emerging best practices unfold.

You don’t have to have it all figured out before the first day of school. That’s true every year, and it’s especially important to remember this year. We’re all building the plane while we’re flying it. And, we’re adapting to kids’ and families’ changing needs. You won’t know how to meet those needs until you meet your kids and get to know them.

Planning for the school reopenings during the covid 19 pandemic

If there’s something you need to plan for and can’t wrap your head around, ask your school leaders. If they can’t figure it out, just don’t plan to do it yet. Do something else with kids that’s simpler and safer and takes less work. Then when you have more answers, you can invest time into finding better solutions.

This is hard. This is frustrating. This is not what any of us want.

It’s also all temporary. Things won’t be this uncertain forever.

You can do this. Remember: It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.


  • Our mission must be to develop a flexible, resilient pedagogy that carries us through the beginning of the school year and beyond.
  • A reimagining of schools is required urgently, and that is a GOOD thing. Classroom management as you know it will change — the classroom rules and classroom routines you have in place when school starts may not stick for the entire year.
  • Speak up to ensure you have the resources and training you need for a safe return to school
  • Ask questions to get clarity on exactly what is expected of you and your students this school year.
  • Don’t start planning the use of class libraries, manipulatives, lab equipment, cooperative learning (for the first two weeks of school at least) until there are health and safety protocols in place.
  • Every individual teacher cannot make up their own health/safety precautions. This is not a time for teacher ingenuity and just making it work somehow. The wrong decisions can have devastating consequences.
  • Any questions teachers have about the safety of school reopenings should be directed to leaders for official guidance. 
  • If you’re stressed because you’re expected to do in-person instruction soon and have no idea what it will look like … KEEP IT SIMPLE. You can slowly incorporate more types of activities for students as you get a feel for how things are going to work, and as more directives come down from leadership.
  • Just write your lesson plans in a way that doesn’t require kids to share materials for the first week or two of school. 
  • You don’t have to have it all figured out before the first day of school.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Dear Angela,
    We will begin going back tomorrow (remotely) and the students will be back this Thursday, August 6th. One of my daily routines in the morning is to read one of your blogs. It mentally gets me where I need to be. Thank you for this post! I was looking at my first day plans and wanted to cry. My thoughts are going a million miles a second. This article reminded me to take a breath and a step back.

  2. You have a way of finding the perfect words to express how many of us are feeling! Thank you for your realistic and positive ways to think about the year ahead. It is just what I needed to hear!

    Your support and encouragement continues to be greatly appreciated! I will contInue to rely on your words of wisdom.

  3. I’m nervous about f2f instruction at the start of the school year. I like your comment about not trying to do it all…I put so much pressure on myself to make everything super hands on and engaging for the first couple of weeks, and having permission to take baby steps is a real gift. Thank you. Year 34 of teaching will be interesting!

  4. Thanks for this Angela! It was a very helpful listen 🙂 My school has actually put in crazy strict protocols (I teach internationally) and I am really concerned for my students mental health. I teach Grade 1 and we have been told “no singing, dancing or circle time— kids must stay in their designated seats all day.” This seams so unreasonable, if not impossible… I’m not feeling very motivated to return to this space and implement such “changes.” Hoping things will relax soon, but trying to plan without the “fun” and keep things strictly academic goes against everything I stand for as an educator. I’m wondering if anyone else is in the same boat?

  5. We, as educators, understand this, but will parents? With so many of us broadcasting what we do through live streaming, Zoom/Teams/Meets, etc., are parents really going to understand that this isn’t how we want things to be? I am so afraid of getting parent complaints because I am not able to perform the way they think I should. I am afraid that everyone else wants us to make this normal.

    1. I totally understand this–these are real and legitimate concerns. I don’t know if it helps, but remember that only you know what you would have had planned in a “normal” school year. So while you may be comparing and thinking this year isn’t good enough, remember that parents don’t really know what happens in school and all the things you’d normally do. If they see you showing up with warmth and friendliness and confidence, that’s going to help put parents’ minds at rest. Projecting professionalism and care for kids so parents can see you as the competent, experienced educator that you are will be far more impactful than having elaborate first day activities.

  6. Thank you for this podcast. Definitely what I needed as I await my district’s plans. You helped calm some of my fear of what to plan for the first two weeks. Thank you for being a voice of reason in all the chaos. Thank you.

  7. Dear Angela,
    I felt that I needed a long car ride to clear my head the other day. I had to find a way to organize and clarify my thoughts about the upcoming school year. I decided I wanted to find something to listen to in hopes that I could find some inspiration. I quickly searched for “teacher” and “education” topics, and with very little examination on my part, I chose your “Manifesto” podcast. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I have been thinking the exact things that you spoke to! This year will not and cannot be perfect, and we will not be doing our best teaching, although by just getting through this year I think we all actually will be doing the best teaching of our careers! It is time for a earth shaking change in education in this country, and this is our opportunity! I look forward with hope that by January, we will have a leader and an Education Secretary that will help lead us to the systemic and logistic changes that we have so desperately needed in our education system!

    Thank you for speaking the truth Angela! I am fully onboard with you!!

    Kevin Duggan (Vermont)

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