Schools Responding to COVID-19: What Catalyst:Ed has been seeing and hearing

Since May, Catalyst:Ed has partnered with over 40 districts, CMOs, and schools to offer innovative solutions, provide expert support, and to help them work towards relief, recovery, and resilience in the wake of COVID-19. Through these conversations, we continue to capture deep information about the current state of schools, their experience responding to COVID-19, and plans to reopen for next school year. This series of blog posts will help us share what we have learned and how we might all work together to solve problems in schools created by COVID-19.

Rethinking, not just reopening

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

We are currently experiencing two crises: COVID-19 and a long overdue reckoning with the systemic racism that has existed in this country since its beginnings. Both are profoundly intertwined with our school systems.

Kicking down the schoolhouse door: Why reopening is so difficult

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

As outbreaks continue to emerge, the obstacles raised by the many school and district leaders I’ve spoken with have given me pause about the knotty features wired into our education system—starkly amplified in light of today’s extraordinary circumstances—and why school reopening is proving to be so incredibly difficult.

What We're Hearing From Schools

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

Since May, Catalyst:Ed has partnered with over 30 districts, CMOs, and schools to offer innovative solutions, provide expert support, and to help them work towards relief, recovery, and resilience in the wake of COVID-19. With support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Barr Foundation, Catalyst:Ed facilitated a rapid-response process to connect leaders with hands-on support aligned with our Roadmaps for Schools & Systems. To be eligible for this opportunity, schools and systems must serve a student population that is a majority high needs students and students of color. The districts we have partnered with represent a diverse array of school types and locations, including urban, suburban and rural; large and small; and charter and traditional districts. Through these conversations, we continue to capture deep information about the current state of schools, their experience responding to COVID-19, and plans to reopen for next school year. This series of blog posts will help us share what we have learned and how we might all work together to solve problems in schools created by COVID-19.

Initial Learnings:
  1. Reopening plans are a moving target. Challenges have not been linear, and have changed rapidly, sometimes in a matter of hours. In a very short period of time (2-3 weeks), we have seen school systems shift from talking about reopening as normal and trying to fill learning gaps and support students with social-emotional learning, to creating a hybrid/staggered schedule, to considering continuing with remote learning or now back to bringing back in as many students as possible to the physical building. We expect the challenges and decisions to continue to change into the new school year as schools respond to social distancing/CDC guidelines, evolving state guidance, budgetary constraints, and fears of continued or new virus surges. Schools are also attempting to meet the needs of their teachers and families, while also wanting to just do one type of teaching and learning right instead of two systems in a mediocre way.
  2. Challenges - and the nature of responses - are regional. As cases spike in some areas and recede in others (and then spike again), we are seeing significant differences in school planning and responses across the country. Plans are dependent on state guidance, as well as the needs and opinions of various stakeholders and interests. For example, California is leaning towards beginning the school year remotely (Los Angeles and San Diego just announced that schools would reopen remotely), yet Denver and Connecticut are planning on reopening in person. New York has yet to release guidance. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are expected to have three plans: remote, in-person and a hybrid model, plus a plan to “trigger” remote learning if infections flare-up, whether district wide, schoolwide, or in a classroom.
  3. The most common requests for help have been around creating academic plans for re-entry, remediation and closing the gaps, and supporting students with social-emotional needs. Often, schools have asked how they can integrate social-emotional learning within regular learning. Help with academic plans have also included several sub-categories such as: engagement, staffing, scheduling, instructional practices, and curriculum. Many schools are also requesting significant professional development in these areas. Plans for hybrid models are diverse. We have seen many iterations of these plans, which include:
    • ABAB or AABB plans” where students attend school in-person twice-a-week, either on consecutive or alternating days. The fifth day is remote for all students, though it may be leveraged to support a smaller group of high-needs kids in person (e.g., special education).
      • Some districts have placed a “deep cleaning” day on Wednesday instead of the all remote day on Fridays.
      • Some districts do this as morning/afternoon versus Monday/Tuesday with half the students doing remote learning in the morning with the rest at school, and then switching during the afternoons.
    • Two weeks on, two weeks off This also has multiple iterations.
      • One version is half the students are at school for two weeks and the other half are at home learning remotely.
      • Some versions have students taking one subject area for the two weeks.
    • Some grade levels at school, some remote. Realizing the need to send the youngest students back to school because they need the most supervision, as well as sending the most vulnerable populations back, some districts are opting for K-5 going back to the buildings, with high schools doing all remote. Middle schools are mixed--some are doing remote learning, some hybrid, some in person.
    • Other variations of the above we have seen are:
      • Students traveling in “pods,” or small groups of the same students, ALL the time, even at the high school and middle school level, so that if there is an infection then you just send the pod home (and not the whole school)
      • Students who are at home doing remote learning “watching” the live classes on zoom.
  4. COVID-19 has shined a bright light on systemic problems that predated the pandemic. During our calls, we realized that most problems that schools identified were not actually new problems, but rather old problems that have been significantly magnified by the  COVID-19 crisis. The nature of these problems are diverse, and include:
    • Lack of access to technology
    • Need for social and emotional support, particularly around trauma
    • Gaps in learning and the need for remediation
    • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, both among students and staff
    • Lack of deep connections between families and students and school staff
    • Supporting diverse learners, including  students with disabilities and English language learners
    • Operational inefficiencies
    • Budgetary cuts
  5. Schools are hungry for best practices. Given the ever-evolving nature of the  COVID-19 crisis, the general lack of capacity in schools, and the ways that schools are responding to amending their operations and instructions in real time, schools are looking for help in figuring out how to do almost everything. Schools and districts are laser focused on their own contexts, and, although they crave it, few have reported reaching out to neighboring schools and districts for help or to share best practices. At this time, guidance from the federal, state and local governments has been limited, and many schools and districts have been left to figure it out on their own. Not surprising then, a majority of projects listed include researching best practices as the very first deliverable.
  6. Schools cannot be expected to do it alone. Despite all of the challenges within their locus of control, there are larger and more systemic challenges that require attending to. These include the lack of internet infrastructure in certain communities, inequitable school funding, and the continuing fallout from today’s economic turmoil.

Bright Spots:

Despite these challenges, we’ve been heartened by the ingenuity and resilience of many schools and districts. These teachers and principals have been able to “get outside the box”, think about the next level, and have moved on from crisis mode to thinking deeply about how to best teach and support students and families during this crisis and into next school year. They also did not wait for any guidance from state or local governments to start making plans. These bright spots include:

  • Schools with robust advisory programs, who can provide a single point of contact for students and families for whatever students need: food, social-emotional support, academic support, etc.
  • Schools with 1:1 computer ratios, who already engaged in blended or personalized learning, as students have the agency and habits of work to work independently.
  • Schools with strong leadership, where the district puts the needs of working-class students and families at the top of their priorities list.
  • Schools who had strong school culture, who had strong family and community engagement plans, structures, and buy-in.

What’s Next?

We will continue to share best practices, trends, and problems learned in our calls, in topics aligned to the Roadmap. Stay tuned for more blogs on the trends we are seeing and more in-depth blogs on social-emotional learning and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Rethinking, not just reopening

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

We are currently experiencing two crises:  COVID-19 and a long overdue reckoning with the systemic racism that has existed in this country since its beginnings. Both are profoundly intertwined with our school systems.

As I have said many times since the start of the pandemic, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, how can we not let a “good crisis go to waste?” We are rethinking so many things right now: the office and working, gender roles in the home, dating, restaurants, police, transportation, the sharing economy, voting. Why are we not fundamentally rethinking schools? I am deeply worried that we will return to school and return to the status quo--to a system that is outdated, that does not work for most students, and that perpetuates inequalities for Black and Latinx children.

What if we used this time not just to scramble to start the year off properly, but to truly rethink how we do school?

In terms of instruction, how can we integrate best and innovative practices from remote learning? There are some schools and some students who have thrived during this time. We do know what works, as there are many schools who have been teaching this way for years. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. These practices are:

  • Advisory systems where students and families create deep relationships with one person at the school who serves as a point of contact, a resource, and often an advocate.
  • Project-based, real world, authentic assignments.
  • Personalized and blended learning techniques such as the flipped classroom, adaptive online instruction, small group instruction, choice boards, and differentiated paths and products.
  • Using whole class time for check-ins or community building, and not only as a time for teacher centered instruction.
  • Re-thinking the purpose of grades and student feedback on progress and using comments, portfolios and/or mastery (competency) based learning.

What can we learn from this? How can we make these practices more widespread? How can we “tap” innovative teachers, schools and organizations to share their knowledge?

In terms of creating anti-racist schools, how can we fundamentally change our systems, operations, curriculum and instructional practices so that they actually work and are positive, supportive, engaging and successful for students of color? Again, we do know what works here:

  • Including an explicit focus on equity as a part of all reentry plans for SY 20-21.
  • Ensuring that diversity, equity and inclusion work is ongoing, frequent, and considered part of “regular work.” This is a practice, it is an evolution, and is definitely not “one and done.
  • Reviewing and updating curriculum and instructional practices to ensure they are anti-racist and inclusive.
  • Reassessing school culture and climate and discipline policies and practices, to ensure it is inclusive, positive, and supportive for all students. Supporting students as they cope with trauma and toxic stress.
  • Understanding the experiences of special populations: Where, why and how are students being placed? What services are they receiving? Are BIPOC students disproportionately represented?
  • Reflecting upon and evolving family and community engagement practices.
  • Reassessing budgets and operational priorities: Where are resources being put? Is resource allocation in line with commitments to creating anti-racist, equitable schools?
  • Considering how information gets shared and decisions get made: Who are the decision makers, and who has a voice in the process of school reopening, and in running the schools in general?
  • Continually reflecting upon beliefs and expectations for ALL students, and how our practices and systems reflect these beliefs: As educators, if we are truly going to create anti-racist and inclusive schools, we must believe and show in our actions and policies that all students can learn at the highest levels when given the right supports.

As we return to school (in whatever format that may be), we will need to ensure that our students are not missing key standards, skills and knowledge from SY 2020. Additionally, we need to ensure that students continue to move forward and learn new grade level standards, knowledge, and skills. This will require us to be innovative. At the same time, we cannot ignore our responsibility to dismantle the racist systems that have oppressed our students of color for far too long. For leaders who are wondering what should be their priority, here's our call to action: What if chose to do both, combining innovative practices with anti-racist work? Examples of these are anti-racist project based learning, Liberatory Design Thinking projects, and Youth Participatory Action Research. What if we then went beyond our classrooms and invited families and staff on these projects. Let’s not “let a good crisis go to waste.”

Kicking down the schoolhouse door: Why reopening is so difficult

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

Since joining Catalyst:Ed as an Expert-in-Residence, I’ve been humbled to have a front row seat to the challenges facing schools and districts in the wake of Covid-19. My colleague Elana Feinberg just authored an extensive piece outlining the work we’ve been engaged in, the quandaries schools are facing as they prepare to restart, and some of our initial takeaways from these conversations. As outbreaks continue to emerge, the obstacles raised by the many school and district leaders I’ve spoken with have given me pause about the knotty features wired into our education system—starkly amplified in light of today’s extraordinary circumstances—and why school reopening is proving to be so incredibly difficult.

I’m thinking of three things in particular.

The first is the double-edged sword provided by our country’s unique system of schooling that devolves decision-making authority to the states and local municipalities. This freedom allows for grassroots ingenuity in the spirit described by Elana in her post, but it can just as easily stymie educators when they’re looking for guidance in moments of distress. For example, during a call with a district outside a major Southern metropolis, I heard a superintendent describe the strain between a majority African American student population and a predominantly nonminority teaching force. Suffice it to say, resolving the deep-seated tensions rooted in their community will require sustained support and resources beyond the scope of a single project.

The second is the importance of leadership, which invariably takes on added weight in times of crisis. In systems with a visionary executive and capable deputies, I saw districts default to action in providing clear direction on exactly what type of expert support they were looking for and who they thought might best provide it. On the other end of the spectrum, I was just as likely to encounter well-meaning folks confused or paralyzed by the cloud of uncertainty hovering overhead. To be honest, in these cases I often felt like the proverbial starfish thrower: I could make some difference, but it would only go so far without the steady hand provided by local leadership.

Third, the compartmentalized nature of bureaucratic systems reared its familiar head after I developed a sort of pattern recognition through my initial calls. In talking with district leaders about their ever-evolving reopening plans, I heard over and over again that they had not been in communication with neighboring districts about their designs. The most glaring example of this was adjacent districts offering different reopening plans (e.g., in-person versus hybrid). Sure, it’s understandable given the pressing needs and limited bandwidth of many districts, but I couldn’t help but think the exercise was akin to ten thousand people trying to reinvent the wheel in ten thousand separate caves. Greater efficiencies would be achieved if districts were better supported or empowered to take the blinders off. One hope I have is that by synthesizing what we’ve learned so far, this blog series can help bridge the gap.

These three issues are part of a long list of considerations keeping the schoolhouse doors shut in many districts across the country. Educators are struggling in response to a virus with significant and varied epidemiological, geographic, and temporal differences. With more calls ahead, I’m sure I’ll have additional thoughts on how districts are trying to make the best of these suboptimal conditions. In the meantime, I would encourage readers to check out our Roadmap for Schools and Systems. I’m biased, of course, but this resource is a lighthouse in a sea of reopening manuals. Let it be your guide in today’s turbulent waters.

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