Back to school 2021: How digital technologies can ease the return to in-person education

Teacher using tablet with children in preschool during coronavirus outbreak.

The U.S. education system has had to make major adaptations over the past 12 months — much of it driven by digital technologies. As student-teacher interactions went remote, educators across the country came to rely on email, video conferencing, digital worksheets and forms, learning management systems and e-signatures. When thousands of schools return to in-person teaching and learning this fall, those same technologies will be equally crucial for helping classrooms handle the transition back to in-person education.

While the shift back to physical classrooms might feel like a long-awaited return to normal, the truth is that many aspects of education will be different this year. Students, teachers and administrators will face unprecedented challenges around health and safety — demanding creative solutions for classroom organization, assignment formats, record-keeping and staff management. Fortunately, many admins have already laid the groundwork for those solutions.

In the following three sections, we will take a closer look at how educators and administrators are preparing for America’s full-scale return to school, using a range of digital tools that any institution can easily adopt. Specifically, we will explore how they can help organize healthier classrooms, empower teachers, and ease administrative burdens.

Digital records can help staff organize healthier classrooms

Although 130 million Americans are now vaccinated against COVID-19, half of U.S. states have still vaccinated less than 50 percent of their population. And while some private schools are requiring all students to be vaccinated, state-run public schools cannot mandate vaccines that have only been authorized for emergency use. That means when most schools reopen this fall, they will be opening classrooms to vaccinated and unvaccinated students alike.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued revised guidelines for social distancing in educational environments. Since these guidelines are changing daily, the current standard of three feet could be outdated by the time this article is posted. Plus, many teachers say these guidelines are impossible to follow in overpacked classrooms — and that challenge will only intensify when 56.4 million K-12 students in the US return to school this fall.

What’s more, physical health is just one side of the equation. A full 38 percent of K-12 students, and 80 percent of college students, reported struggling with stress, anxiety and depression during quarantine. While a return to school’s social environment will help alleviate some of these issues, mental health counselors anticipate that the transition itself may prove stressful for many — and as a result, they are rolling out more proactive, data-driven programs to support students across all grade levels.

One key way to ease a student’s return to school is simply to streamline the paperwork for students and parents alike. For example, many schools now send out contactless COVID liability waivers, which parents can e-sign from home. On a broader scale, paperless health records are helping schools centralize students’ medical information in secure databases — enabling administrators to plan healthier classroom setups, track the progress of vaccinations, and coordinate programs of care and counseling across their student populations.

Digital resources can empower teachers in evolving school environments

A productive educational environment depends just as much on healthy teachers as on safe students. A full 90 percent of teachers have reported COVID-related stress and anxiety — and while many are eager to return to their classrooms, they also face a new set of challenges. A year of remote teaching has pushed digital media to the center of the educational experience, and adapting this paradigm to in-person settings will require some readjustments.

The good news is that digital documents can help ease the transition from remote to in-person environments. For example, Adobe Scan makes it easy for teachers to create multi-page worksheets from physical printouts, and lets students scan and submit their handwritten work with an ordinary smartphone camera. Students and parents can also read PDF worksheets on mobile devices, which is critical when working on assignments at home.

While these capabilities will be familiar to teachers who continued working remotely during lockdown, clear communication and technical support will go a long way toward rolling out digital document solutions in face-to-face settings — particularly for teachers who did not work remotely, and may need a bit of encouragement to bring digital interactions into the classroom. Administrators can further streamline the transition by making paperless document technologies readily available to teachers, and guiding them through the process of replacing paper-based assignments with safer digital ones.

Paperless forms can ease administrative burdens and enhance collaboration

As millions of students and teachers prepare to return to school, administrative staff are preparing to deal with a deluge of paperwork. In addition to the usual admission and human resources (HR) forms, they will also be dealing with entirely new categories of documentation, such as vaccination cards and liability waivers — which many parents will be reluctant to appear in person to submit and sign.

In addition, school admins will be facing the unprecedented challenge of realigning student populations who have learned at widely varying rates during lockdown. Research shows that a large number of American students have fallen behind national averages in reading and math — which means many will be following individualized education programs (IEPs) when they return to school. By taking IEP forms paperless, schools can make it easier for parents and teachers to collaborate in giving each student the academic support they deserve.

From enrollment and admissions paperwork, to homework and classroom assignments, to health records and IEP forms, documents are more effective when they are digital. The moment a paper form becomes a PDF, it becomes quicker to share, safer to sign, easier to share, and harder to lose. In fact, more than 50 percent of higher education administrators say adopting digital documents will increase staff and student satisfaction, improve collaboration, and accelerate processing across all areas where they replace paper.

And while a school-wide transition to digital documents might sound challenging, the reality is that many students and teachers have already made this transition during the months they have been working remotely. The only remaining step is to bring that paper-free technology into the classroom — which administrators can facilitate by providing access to digital document tools, and supporting teachers as they transition this tech into physical classrooms.

To make the process even easier, the U.S. government has recently rolled out the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which provides nearly $123 billion in funding to help K-12 schools address pandemic-related costs. Contactless paper-free documents clearly fit into that category — which means these funds can be used to purchase hardware, software and training to keep classrooms safer, enhance collaboration among students, teachers, parents and staff, and minimize the administrative burden of reopening America’s schools.

To find out more about how Adobe’s technology powers schools’ digital transformation journeys, check out our Education Resource Hub, and see the impact for yourself.