Over the past year, it’s clear that the pandemic has been uniquely challenging for Hoosier workers and employers as many had to shift their operations to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to a study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy and Research, 42% of the U.S. workforce worked from home during the beginning months of this public health crisis. And a recent survey found that 55% of employers plan to offer blended in-person and remote work options moving forward, even after the pandemic.

As we continue to push through this last leg of the pandemic, going completely “back to normal” feels unrealistic. Whether it’s working fully remote or in a hybrid, Hoosiers must face the fact that COVID-19 has propelled all of us to look at how we do work differently. From meeting colleagues online to completing continuing education certifications, students in our K-12 system must learn how to adapt to an evolving environment, and a blended learning format can help lay the groundwork for them to develop critical skills.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in schools that had to quickly pivot to online learning, educators and students were left with multiple barriers that many had never faced before: sudden schedule changes, spotty internet connections on Zoom and more.

For students in Indiana, it’s important we keep them in mind as we envision what’s possible for the future of education and how it can impact their careers down the road. Our nation has an opportunity to work together to envision an even better build-out in education from this point forward. It’s critical we confront confusion, learn together and bring forward the impactful works of so many throughout the state.

Blend Remote and In-Person Learning

Because of the pandemic, teachers were forced to deliver new modes of education quickly and without much notice. The emotional toll everyone was experiencing was extreme, and teachers and students were confronted with the reality of difficult and necessary transitions. A fall 2020 survey found 72% of Indiana school districts faced more staffing problems due to the pandemic and subsequently, faced burnout as a result. Online learning was not the norm, leaving those involved feeling flustered and underprepared. There’s a stark difference between emergency remote learning and highly engaging, high-quality digital learning that is possible for both K-12 and higher ed learning environments.

A year later, many Indiana superintendents and teachers are facing the fact that it’s incredibly difficult for one person to instruct in-person and virtual students at the same time. Because of this, many people want to focus solely on “getting back to normal.” Because of the benefits to both online and virtual learning, there’s fortunately a more sustainable mindset that can be adapted: thoughtfully and effectively blending the best of learning modes and models in the months and years to come.

Get Hoosiers Connected

We’re urging Indiana leaders and decision makers to focus on what we know works and what doesn’t when it comes to in-person, online and blended learning. There are higher education institutions that focus on personalizing and supporting Hoosiers and their path to a degree in a way that works for them. A key aspect to this is building lasting partnerships with school districts and communities so that school leaders, parents, teachers and students can learn what opportunities exist in terms of learning environments and strategies. One area that remains a key concern for rural areas in Indiana is the digital divide —  666,000 people in Indiana live without access to high-speed internet — which exacerbates the struggle for students who have needed, or want to, enroll in online learning. While COVID-19 has been a time in our history filled with turmoil and uncertainty, it has also shed light on educational findings from teachers and leaders that have responded to the crisis.

Build a Sustainable Future

With a focus on learning, we can start reimagining the road ahead for students throughout Indiana. We have an opportunity to build a sustainable and scalable future for our state’s education system for the benefit of our students. And for those who are deeply invested in committing to current and future students, we must take the time to listen, learn and act.

Traditional education and remote learning models mirror the reality of what workers and employers now face day-to-day. As Indiana works hard to skill-up its workforce, we must stand ready to prepare our students to thrive in a technologically evolving world that includes a blend of in-person and remote options. There’s no doubt that we can create a “new possible” in education, one that can further support and serve a more diverse student population and put them on the path to success in their careers down the road.

Alison Bell has more than 20 years of higher education leadership experience and is the chancellor of WGU Indiana, a nonprofit, online university offering 60+ degrees in the four colleges of business, teaching, I.T. and health/nursing. Dr. Mark David Milliron, (Twitter: @markmilliron) an award-winning education leader, author, and speaker, serves as Senior Vice President and Executive Dean of Western Governors University’s Teachers College, the nation’s largest college of education with more than 31,000 students enrolled.

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