Schools Responding to COVID-19: September 2020 Update

Since May, we have spoken with almost 70 districts and schools all over the country, serving over 690,000 students. When we started this work, we did not anticipate going full circle back to remote learning. Yet, here we are. Approximately 80% of the largest districts are going full remote, which serve millions of students, mainly due to high caseloads in those areas. Districts that serve more students of color are more likely to be doing remote learning. According to a panel of doctors interviewed in the Washington Post...

COVID Things That Make You Go “Hmmm……”

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

As schools reopen, there are a number of things that I find quite puzzling:

  1. Lack of following best practices. We still see large numbers of school districts attempting to replicate traditional, in-person, face-to-face learning schedules and strategies online with “live instruction.” This is odd because...

Harrowing Times at COVID High

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

Now six months into the pandemic and with the new school year underway, many if not most students are resuming the nation’s forced experiment with remote learning. The news coverage has understandably honed in on the unique challenges this presents to elementary children, but another angle worth examining is the students on the other end of the conveyer belt: High schoolers...

Schools Responding to COVID-19: September 2020 Update

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

Since May, we have spoken with almost 70 districts and schools all over the country, serving over 690,000 students. When we started this work, we did not anticipate going full circle back to remote learning. Yet, here we are. Approximately 80% of the largest districts are going full remote, which serve millions of students, mainly due to high caseloads in those areas. Districts that serve more students of color are more likely to be doing remote learning. According to a panel of doctors interviewed in the Washington Post, “A number of public schools and districts are better able to meet our intermediate thresholds for returning some children earlier — like youth with learning differences or elementary-age children — but many of those have nonetheless opted solely for remote learning, given teachers and other staff members’ concerns about the limitations of well-intended safety protocols in actual school environments.” Some of the largest school districts in the country, including New York City, and most schools in Massachusetts, have delayed the school year by 1-2 weeks to provide planning and professional development time, resulting in additional days of lost learning. Support for in person models by parents has risen again, while support for in person learning by teachers has fallen. To make matters more complicated, roughly two thirds of principals and administrators support full time in person learning.

As such, we are seeing that many schools are requesting extra help with remote learning. On a promising note, we are seeing that many schools are asking for help with family engagement, social-emotional learning, and anti-racism or equity issues.

We are also anticipating that many more new issues, that haven’t even occurred to us, will arise as we go into the new school year. Some predict an even worse teacher shortage with mass resignations. We are not quite sure what might happen in October, when some schools begin to phase in hybrid models, or in the winter when there might be a vaccine or a second wave of the virus as people move indoors in the northern states.

Harrowing Times at COVID High

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

Now six months into the pandemic and with the new school year underway, many if not most students are resuming the nation’s forced experiment with remote learning. The news coverage has understandably honed in on the unique challenges this presents to elementary children, but another angle worth examining is the students on the other end of the conveyer belt: High schoolers who are in the throes of a special sort of COVID-induced misery as they prepare for post-secondary life.

I was reminded of all of this during a recent call with a district leader who was expressing her concerns about how to do the college application process well in a virtual environment. They were able to graduate most of their seniors last spring, but many did not matriculate into college due to insufficient school and family supports, stretched thinner by the pandemic. From FAFSA to college applications, it had become harder for students to track deadlines and for the school to track the progress of their students.

Making matters worse have been the disruptions to the SAT college admissions exam. Higher education author Jeff Selingo tweeted a picture of students in New Jersey lining up for one of only one hundred available spots at a local testing center. Imagine the studying, cramming, and anxiety involved in preparing and signing up for the exam only to be denied entry at the front door on testing day. The College Board canceled test dates for more than one million students last spring after the coronavirus forced schools to shutter.

If I were a high school senior, I’d be tempted to take a gap year to avoid the higher education debacle. Indeed, forty percent of incoming freshmen may not attend college this fall, with minorities more worried about going to campus. But delaying college for a year carries real consequences: the potential loss of $90,000 in lifetime earnings. Moreover, the pandemic has narrowed options for gap year students, with more hurdles to international travel, fewer alternatives to college available (e.g., internships), and higher unemployment rates for high school grads.

The good news, to the extent there is any, is that high school students are generally better suited for remote learning because of their capacity for handling independent work—certainly when compared to their much younger peers. In addition, the college advising process, which requires a lot of one-on-one time with students, is actually well suited to do virtually as many tasks can be handled via Zoom, Google docs, shared screens, etc. But this doesn’t make things any easier for them. This goes doubly so for high schools serving low-income, minority populations. Based on what I’ve heard on my calls, college readiness is low on the radar of most schools and systems right now. All of which makes for a clouded and troubling picture of what’s in store for those now approaching the tail end of their K-12 career.

COVID Things That Make You Go “Hmmm……”

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

As schools reopen, there are a number of things that I find quite puzzling.

  1. Lack of following best practices. We still see large numbers of school districts attempting to replicate traditional, in-person, face-to-face learning schedules and strategies online with “live instruction.” This is odd because there are many best practices and more and those that are codified that we know of. There are school districts all over the world who have figured out how to do remote and hybrid learning fairly well and "humanely," including in the US. Also, the archdiocese of NYC, which serves over 60,000 has figured out how to bring back all their students to school in person, safely. These practices are not a secret, they are well-publicized. We know that remote learning is an opportunity to teach student agency, use flipped classroom models and personalized learning, and to engage in deeper learning and project based learning. We know that zoom sessions are best used for discussion, asking/answering questions, presenting work, and collaboration. Replicating the in-person schedule online basically looks like having kids on zoom for 4-7 hours per day with teachers talking at them. This has myriad academic and social-emotional issues, including the fact that many students still lack access to the internet. More importantly, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of teachers who experimented with remote learning last spring who have figured out new and creative and engaging ways to teach students. There are a few theories for why this is happening. This may be a result of antiquated seat time requirements and/or the idea that more live instruction is part of a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to provide better childcare than in the spring. I can also point to both the fragmented nature of our educational system in the US and the fact that many schools and districts are siloed, and not sharing best practices. That, and most school administrators are flat out just trying to get kids back to school (however that looks) and are still in emergency mode. There is also the sense that all teachers feel like brand new teachers, and professional development and collaboration is definitely needed.
  2. Lack of creativity. We just saw the Democratic Convention “pivot” from an in-person format that had existed for decades, to an entirely online format, which frankly, many people preferred. My personal favorite was the roll call. Granted, the DNC has a ton of money, talent, and resources available to them. However, they seemed to try a bunch of new ideas and it worked. Why are we not applying these same mindsets to schools? Why are we not thinking creatively? Why are we not giving voice to so many schools and teachers that are trying new things out and making this work? Our tendency as a society towards lawsuits for liability as well as demands from teachers unions may also be playing a role in this.
  3. Teachers required to teach remotely from their classrooms (sometimes with masks on). I have asked several people, and I cannot get a good answer on this. I also saw someone else post this on Twitter, and they also did not get a good answer. I do understand that if teachers are in buildings with other people with poor ventilation/HVAC systems masks are necessary. Also, if science teachers or others need to use specific equipment in their classrooms. However, the only answer seems to be that requiring teachers to teach remotely from their classrooms is an accountability issue for teachers and a way to make things consistent. I have also had a couple of people tell me that the school board decided that out of fairness, as teachers were asking parents to find supervision for their children during the school day, teachers should not be able to both work from home and supervise their own children (they should also be required to find child care). However, this seems to be only putting teachers at risk and adding to their stress levels, and making the problem of childcare worse. Not to mention that this does not seem to be the best course of action for students or families.
  4. Teaching students remotely while simultaneously teaching students in the classroom in a hybrid model. The explanation for this seems to be that there is a lack of staffing. However, why is it that children can’t learn asynchronously while they are working remotely? Why are they not given assignments, working on adaptive online learning platforms, reading, preparing for classroom work, etc.? Why must they be supervised every second of the school day while they are at home, especially older students? Is this an instructional minutes or hours issue? See the “replicating the physical classroom virtually” above.
  5. Rules for remote learning. I understand that schools are trying to create norms and some semblance of order, consistency, and discipline. However, some of these norms are unrealistic, others insensitive, and others show a flat out lack of cultural responsiveness. Why are you asking children to wear shoes in the house? Some cultures do not wear shoes in the home. Why are you requiring students to be at kitchen tables or other quiet workspaces? This may not actually exist in some houses. And what about students that are homeless? Instead of forcing students to turn on their video, and show their homes which they may be embarrassed by, can the district provide a standard background for students? Also, see asynchronous learning above, and a reminder that not all houses have computers or internet access, still. Why must everything be on zoom?
  6. How pandemic centers for remote learning are safe when schools are not. In some places, students who are doing remote learning are going to local YMCAs, gyms, or Boys and Girls Clubs for supervision while their parents work. In terms of safety, how is this OK? I posted this question to Twitter and also got no good answers. In some cases, parents are forced to pay for this supervision, even if it is in their local school. How is this OK? I actually do think this may be best for kids and families in some circumstances, however, why isn’t the school itself providing this? More importantly, as stated in this article from the New York Times, “it’s a crazy world when we’re saying it’s not safe for teachers but people who make $15 to $20 an hour can come back.” Also, how is it that we were able to provide regional enrichment centers or childcare for essential workers with no issues, but we cannot send students back to the buildings?
  7. Will we be in remote for the rest of the school year? We know this is a “rapidly evolving situation” dependent on caseloads in each area. I also have heard many districts say that they are going to do a phased in approach and start bringing back the most vulnerable students first. However, I have yet to hear plans beyond October or November. I also hear that schools often do not trust the “color coding” that the state gives each town or district to clear them for sending students back in person. Many are saying we cannot open schools until there are ZERO new cases in an area, which could be a very, very long time from now. The most pessimistic of us fear that there will be years of lost learning and social-emotional damage, especially for at-risk students.

Some bright spots!

I most often hear that schools will be bringing back the most vulnerable students first into the physical building. This includes the youngest students, special education students, and English Language Learners. This is smart, and makes sense.

I also continue to hear about the use of a “primary person” which is similar to the idea of an advisory model, where families and students have one “point person” at the school to go to for questions or to address any needs. They are the primary point of contact for the family at the school. We know this works, and this should be a best practice that spreads.

Schools are also scheduling in check-ins as part of their day and to add social-emotional learning. They are playing virtual games with students. This is a great use of online time and a great way to build community. And many teachers are getting creative with virtual lockers, bitmojis, virtual backgrounds, and zoom waiting screens.

I hope there are more bright spots to come.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.