Adult learners enter this fall amid overwhelming disruption – job loss or insecurity, changes to daily routines as simple as grocery shopping, and uncertain personal academic plans. For adult learners with children, they experience even greater uncertainty and challenge. Given the likelihood of a highly disrupted fall semester for K-12 schools, professional and adult education leaders should expect that adult learners with school-aged children will face fluctuating childcare and homeschooling responsibilities.
K-12 experiences challenging start to fall semester, complicating parents and caregivers’ planning
Most K-12 school districts are facing the reality of partially or fully virtual teaching and learning this fall. For example, of the 10 largest districts in the U.S., nine will start the fall semester in a fully virtual instructional model. (The exception is New York City schools, which will provide a hybrid model as New York City has a positivity rate under one percent.) Some districts have preemptively indicated dates for when students will hopefully shift to face-to-face instruction later in the semester. For example, Hillsborough County Public Schools (FL) will offer in-person learning starting August 31, 2020 and Houston Independent School District (TX) on October 19, 2020.
However, the transition from virtual instruction to in-person learning with hybrid options in-between will be challenging. Districts that have already resumed in-person learning offer a grim warning: many are scrambling to quarantine students and staff—and even temporarily close schools in some cases—in the wake of positive tests. At Cherokee County Schools(GA), 59 positive cases surfaced within the first nine days of school reopening. Almost 1,200 students and staff were quarantined and the district temporarily closed two high schools. A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that at least 97,000 children tested positive in the last two weeks of July.
The reality is that public health experts and scientists still do not fully understand how children transmit the virus. The pandemic will continue to evolve, with predicted spikes in the fall, and schools will need to navigate abrupt shifts in closing and reopening. Families, in turn, will be expected to pivot—on very short notice—between in-person learning and virtual learning as schools or even cohorts of exposed students move to online instruction.
Three ways to keep adult learners in the (virtual) classroom this fall
Ultimately, adult learners with children will need additional flexibility and support this fall and across the school year. Ensuring your programs meet their needs improves the likelihood they can continue on their educational journey.
1. Provide asynchronous education options to facilitate balancing coursework against childcare and homeschooling.
More than ever, parents and caregivers will be using late nights and early mornings to accomplish their educational goals. While asynchronous instruction complicates peer networking and student engagement, many adult learners will be unable to participate in courses otherwise. See our Remote Instruction Resource Center for more information on online course options, including asynchronous instruction.
2. Clearly communicate course expectations so parents and caregivers can consider time requirements.
Adult learners, especially adult degree completers, were already concerned about having enough time for school. Demonstrate on your webpage how your program will fit into their busy lives: provide accurate estimates of weekly time commitments and overall time to complete the program. Incorporate testimonials from adult students who successfully balanced school and their lives to achieve their goals.
3. Consider extending adjusted student evaluation and grading policies from this spring.
Many institutions updated their grading policies this spring to recognize the challenges facing students and instructors. Instructors may again need to revise student evaluation and assessment practices to accommodate students’ circumstances this fall.
Recognize adult applicants’ limited time and necessary pragmatism
Minimize pre-enrollment obstacles to facilitate new student enrollment this fall. Assess your application requirements against competitors to ensure prospective students are not discouraged by unnecessarily intensive processes (e.g., more letters of recommendation than you truly read, test score submissions you often waive). Similarly evaluate prerequisite coursework and eliminate unnecessary additional courses that delay enrollment.
How to support adult learners who need to stop out
Even with accommodating programs, not every adult learner will be able to continue this fall. Anticipate students’ course drop and refund needs; offering concrete information on these needs in advance may also lower adult learners’ perceived risk of enrolling. Explore your possibilities for course refunds, or discounted or free courses for students who must withdraw this fall but hope to return later.
Some students may be interested in accelerated courses to minimize lost time. Allowing students to withdraw to avoid falling behind during a crisis, but return in an accelerated format later in the same term, can reduce their overall drop-out risk. See how the University of Alabama has used accelerated, late-start courses to support student success.
For those students who stop out, secure permission to re-approach them for future enrollment. Asking when to contact them again allows you to better project returning enrollment as well as allocate your recruitment efforts to when students are most likely to return.