Schools Responding to COVID-19: August 2020 Update

Back in May, when we started working with schools and systems on their reopening plans, there was an assumption that the pandemic would be more under control by the time the first day of school rolled around. That’s why a lot of the initial conversations focused on having contingency plans, with a heavy emphasis on hybrid models and staggered schedules. Few anticipated that coronavirus cases would still be on the rise in August, but here we are.
To be sure, what we have learned so far largely continues to ring true: Reopening plans have geographic and temporal variation, and schools remain concerned about both the academic and social-emotional needs of their students. But a big change we’ve noticed in our latest calls, consistent with findings from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, is that a growing number of districts have made a rapid shift to fully remote learning and do not plan to hold any in-person classes at the start of the new school year—in most cases, staying entirely virtual through the first semester if not longer...

Barreling toward a chaotic return to school

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

Here in my home base of Denver, the district recently announced that schools will be fully-remote through at least the first quarter (October 16), after which time they plan on re-evaluating based on whether coronavirus cases are rising or falling. As is the case in many large districts, their reopening plan continues to rapidly evolve...

The next set of challenges

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. As this is a “rapidly evolving situation,” schools are in emergency mode, just trying to figure out how to open school, in whatever format. There are also several issues that keep popping up in our calls with superintendents and school leaders that bring me pause...

Schools Responding to COVID-19: August 2020 Update

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

Back in May, when we started working with schools and systems on their reopening plans, there was an assumption that the pandemic would be more under control by the time the first day of school rolled around. That’s why a lot of the initial conversations focused on having contingency plans, with a heavy emphasis on hybrid models and staggered schedules. Few anticipated that coronavirus cases would still be on the rise in August, but here we are.

To be sure, what we have learned so far largely continues to ring true: Reopening plans have geographic and temporal variation, and schools remain concerned about both the academic and social-emotional needs of their students. But a big change we’ve noticed in our latest calls, consistent with findings from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, is that a growing number of districts have made a rapid shift to fully remote learning and do not plan to hold any in-person classes at the start of the new school year—in most cases, staying entirely virtual through the first semester if not longer. However, the remote plans themselves have not changed significantly. Another wrinkle has been survey data suggesting that more parents and teachers are feeling uncomfortable about a return to in-person schooling.

While these trends are understandable, they create added urgency and complexity for our work here at Catalyst:Ed. For starters, hitting cruise control on what districts have become familiar with since last March is one thing; quickly and demonstrably improving upon content and pedagogy in a virtual environment is quite another. New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy may have put it best when he said, “We must acknowledge that every education expert we’re talking to in the last few months has confirmed that in-person education is critical, and that remote learning is only an acceptable substitute if absolutely necessary.”

Barreling toward a chaotic return to school

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

Here in my home base of Denver, the district recently announced that schools will be fully-remote through at least the first quarter (October 16), after which time they plan on re-evaluating based on whether coronavirus cases are rising or falling. As is the case in many large districts, their reopening plan continues to rapidly evolve; Denver came out of the gate with a hybrid plan, but switched to full-time, in-person learning in response to parent pushback—although the views of parents are anything but monolithic. Words like “fluid,” “unprecedented,” and “challenging” have been bandied about to describe this state of affairs, though Richmond, Virginia’s superintendent may have put the most vivid spin on things: “Planning for reopening school this fall is like playing a game of 3-D chess while standing on one leg in the middle of a hurricane.”

Semantics and metaphors notwithstanding, schools have been working frantically to figure all of this out. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke with a first-year principal in the Bay Area who reminded me that on top of all the uncertainty, they are facing severe budget shortfalls that have thrown a chaotic situation into further turmoil. To wit, a school leader north of Sacramento told me her school was intent on having younger students return in-person even if the older ones might not. Many schools had planned for this type of partial return to school before California issued guidance banning in-person instruction in counties with high rates of infection. As it stands, more than ninety percent of the Golden State’s population is living in a hot spot.

All of this zigzagging from reopening plan to reopening plan doesn’t bode well for the social or academic welfare of our students, to say nothing of inspiring any level of confidence among our educators, but another angle that has gotten short shrift in the preparations to restart are the trauma-related ones. During a conversation I had with a district leader in the New York metro area, I heard the story of a community that had recently buried one of its students. The district has two counselors, but it all felt grossly insufficient in light of the overwhelming sense of loss. With schools spending most of their energies on safety and logistics, they risk missing the forest for the trees. A lot of time and effort may have been directed in the wrong direction if schools are caught flatfooted vis-a-vis the emotional needs of our children.

The upshot is that schools may be in for a rude awakening if all of their bandwidth has been consumed by epidemiological concerns and related hurdles. Not to minimize the burden schools have been saddled with, but the multifaceted issues students have faced since schools were shuttered last March may now quickly snowball through the fall—especially for those living in our most marginalized communities. Don’t be surprised if the plan for one semester of remote learning gradually bleeds into two, three, or perhaps the entire school year. Even in the best of times, our nation has the least margin of error when it comes to the education of low-income minority students. Suffice it to say, these aren’t the best of times.

The next set of challenges

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. As this is a “rapidly evolving situation,” schools are in emergency mode, just trying to figure out how to open school, in whatever format. There are also several issues that keep popping up in our calls with superintendents and school leaders that bring me pause.

All the things schools have not yet focused on:

Schools are focused on the fine details of actually reopening school. This includes schedules, staffing, instructional strategies, safety measures, and what a hybrid model actually looks like. Many are engaged in negotiations with unions and other stakeholders. Many are also trying to figure out if they now open as remote, so they are also thinking about improving and “shoring up” remote learning plans based on feedback from teachers, parents and students. This is all of course, A LOT and absolutely necessary, and we must prioritize and triage. There are also very limited funds for reopening and for school budgets next year due to the recession, which restricts capacity. However, I fear that there are a few issues that may “come back to bite us” as schools prepare for the new school year, as school leaders are not prioritizing these issues as much as they should. These are:

  1. Social emotional support and trauma. Many students have had family members or people they know get sick, or worse, die. We are also hearing that in some areas, especially those with high poverty rates and with high numbers of essential workers, high school students have been sick themselves. In addition, many are suffering from the economic consequences of the recession--unemployment and/or food and housing insecurity. For some students, the school building is a safe haven from a home filled with violence, abuse and neglect. The social isolation in and of itself has also negatively affected students’ mental health. This is not to mention teachers and school staff who have experienced trauma and mental health issues due to the virus. Most educators are aware that it is extremely difficult for students to learn when they have experienced significant trauma. However, when pressed, only some schools have created plans for addressing this. Many have passed this on to support teams, saying “we have a pretty strong support team that can deal with this.” Almost no schools are taking a whole school, whole child, whole community approach to this. Schools need a comprehensive plan for dealing with this on Day #1.
  2. Equity and the national reckoning with racism. Many students have protested, witnessed protests, or experienced police violence first hand. Many students have also experienced racism and discrimination at their own school and communities, whether overtly or as systemtic oppression. As I said in my earlier blog, anti-racism work should be embedded in all reopening plans, from professional development, to curriculum and instruction, to school culture and behavior, to systems and structures. This again, with the exception of a few schools, seems to take a second seat to reopening the school building.
  3. Missing students, learning gaps, and the most vulnerable students. Although we have talked to many schools about remediation and acceleration, it is not on the minds of all school leaders. As with trauma, some schools seem to think they “have this covered.” Some are identifying power standards and prioritizing skills, which is a great first step. However, the lack of prioritization brings me pause just due to the amount of time students have been out of the physical building, and the sheer novelty and complexity of schooling during the pandemic, not to mention now we have extended remote learning in some locations for an indefinite period of time. We have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. Learning gaps are huge in some cases, and the old ways of accelerating students may not work. Furthermore, there are thousands of students who are completely unengaged in remote learning, and in some cases, completely unaccounted for and missing. I worry the most about students who are the most vulnerable, such as special education students or English Language Learners, who are often underserved during normal times, and for whom remote learning has been especially problematic and ineffective. I have not heard many discussions of personalizing learning. I hope that once we get past creating plans for reopening, we address these issues.

Create a WPA style program for schools.
This is an idea that has been floated several times, but has yet to gain traction. (Even England is doing it)! We have a lot of people out of work right now. Restaurant workers, travel and hospitality people, small business owners, others that have been laid off due to no fault of their own. We also may have a ton of recent high school graduates or recent college graduates who are unemployed. Finally, we have a lot of college students who have decided to take a year off, finding that online college is not worth the time and money. At the same time, we have schools who are dire need of extra staffing both for space and supervision reasons (CDC guidelines limiting the number of students in a classroom, therefore creating the need for extra staff) AND because students are in need of remediation and acceleration due to missing school or subpar remote/emergency learning plans. How can we put all these people to work in the schools? Can we have them tutoring kids for reading and math? Can we have them supervising recess, breaks, lunch, and other activities? Can we have them supervise students while they are on online, adaptive programs? What about acting as mentors and advisors? We can leverage existing Americorps programs to do this. City Year and Match Education have successfully run programs like this for decades. The high school I attended (a private school) is actually hiring recent alums to form pandemic pods for their current students. If we can do this at a large scale, it seems like a win-win for all.

Increasing inequities. Pandemic Pods.
Recent news (and here) has described families in affluent areas creating pandemic pods for small groups of children instead of, or in addition, to remote learning. They are hiring private teachers or tutors to oversee or teach their kids. There are several reasons behind this--remote learning plans being subpar, families lacking supervision for their children during the work day and/or families lacking the capacity to homeschool their children, families not wanting their children to get even more behind in their learning. From a parent’s perspective, I get it. However, from a societal and an educators perspective, this is rife with problems. This can only perpetuate inequities and the gap between the haves and the have nots. It also perpetuates segregation--as one recent New York Times piece said: ”[parents] must understand that every choice they make in their child’s education, even the seemingly benign, has the potential to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy.” What are low income families supposed to do? What are people supposed to do who are or who live with essential workers who cannot participate in the “pod” due to safety reasons? Instead of using the time and energy to create these pods, why not put all that effort into helping to improve remote learning plans or schools in general? Better yet, how you can help your own school create learning pods?

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