By Kate Merrill

FAIRHAVEN (CBS) – Like the classrooms at Fairhaven High School that look like something out of the 1920’s, the basic model of public education hasn’t changed much in decades.

That is until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

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School systems were forced to create digital classrooms and students had to figure out how to learn remotely.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” said physics teacher Nelson Bernardo.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs,’ said junior Layla Almeida.

But the leaders in this community are determined to focus on the ‘ups’ and look at this time as a chance to innovate.

“I think you’re not going to see every child in every classroom in every desk the way they were in 2019,” explained Superintendent Robert Baldwin.

For example, high school students of the future may take classes at a local community college, they could explore internships with companies in the community, or hone vocational skills with local businesses that focus on trades like building, electrical, and plumbing.

Layla Almeida is already benefitting from the flexibility created by hybrid learning, taking an online class at home that is not offered at Fairhaven High School.

“I was able to take an online AP environmental science class,” she said, which could pave the way for college credits she might not otherwise had.

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According to Baldwin, who is also the president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, some districts might consider small remote learning pods of kids who are more successful learning from home.

“We have some children in the past that we have found are school phobic, and some of them are excelling amazingly well at this time,” he said.

Bernardo, who also teaches robotics, believes that as much as everyone loves to hate Zoom, it will be a game-changer in the future for struggling students who can’t come for help after school because they have sports, jobs or other responsibilities.

“It does work. Google Meets works great. That ability to reach the students is extremely valuable and something we haven’t had in the past,” he said.

Baldwin says he’s also looking at the traditional system of grade levels.

“We’re so used to saying you are in grade six, and this is what we do. What if some are ahead of grade six, what if some are below,” he said.

Fairhaven is already experimenting with this by mixing new readers in grades one and two by skill level rather than grade level.

Educators say in the short term, the biggest challenge moving forward will be assessing the amount of learning loss and understanding the social-emotional impact on the nearly one million public school students in Massachusetts.

It has been a challenging time for students and teachers, but Baldwin has no intention of looking back.

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“If we go back to what was, shame on us, we haven’t learned. Let’s take something out of this and make it even better.”

Kate Merrill