Most children are back at school, but it’s not anything like school as we knew it. Students no longer huddle with friends before class, sit close to each other at lunch trading food, or walk down hallways together to their lockers. Teachers no longer lecture to rooms filled with high-schoolers or give hugs to hesitant kindergarteners. Sports and pep rallies have been canceled. Schools feel empty and sterile, and the mood is somber.
Yes, the pandemic has left school looking and feeling much different this fall. And because it was left to school districts to decide how to reopen, schools also look very different from each other.
In some communities, if school buildings are open at all, it’s only to teachers and administrators who guide instruction remotely. Other districts have welcomed all students back, but with strict social-distancing and mask-wearing rules. Still others are combining some face-to-face teaching with distance learning.
Often, what school looks like depends on the grade level. Elementary students may attend in person since they are more likely to benefit from it, and middle and high school students may learn online or in a hybrid model since they tend to adapt more easily to using the technology and usually are more self-directed.
The Center for Reinventing Public Education and the news journal Education Week are tracking the details of district reopening plans. Because of rapidly changing levels of infection, district officials were changing plans up to the very minute the new school year started, and some are still tweaking details. Regardless of the learning approach, many school district officials report that deciding what school would look like this fall was one of the most difficult decisions of their career.
Difficult Decisions for All
“We’re very concerned about safety,” says Kristi Wilson, president of the American Association of School Administrators and superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary School District just west of Phoenix. “We can make up for all kinds of disruptions. But what we can’t make up for is the critical mistake because we took an unnecessary risk with a child’s life or a teacher’s life.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided guidance for schools before they opened. State education agencies and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which advises them, provided some guidance as well. But most of the final decisions about whether and how to reopen—and the logistics of doing so—were left to the locals. School leaders were encouraged to work closely with their local health agencies to gather data on infection rates and outbreaks to determine the best approach for their communities.
Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, says her organization was listening closely to what state chiefs were saying. “Our goal was to put forward best practices and ideas. This has been the moment of contingency planning—Plan A, Plan B, C, all the way out to Z.”
Parents also faced difficult decisions with information changing often about what would be happening and when. In a recent poll, 81% of parents said they were concerned about their children being exposed to COVID-19 at school. Yet, at the same time, 81% were very or somewhat concerned about their children missing instructional time. They believed their children’s academic and emotional well-being depended on them being back in school full time.
Some parents took the plunge into homeschooling, opting out of their school district’s plans altogether. Others who could afford it hired private tutors or teachers. In some cases, families joined together to create “learning pods,” where parents homeschooled together in small groups.
“We’ve seen an explosion in inquiry into homeschooling in my state,” says Indiana Representative Robert Behning (R). “We’ve heard that as many as 25% of students chose homeschooling or virtual options.” An incentive to do so is that Indiana allows the funding that would have gone to the school district to follow a student who leaves the district.
Legitimate concerns drove parents to make last-minute, unpredictable decisions, leaving public, private and charter schools without a clear understanding of what fall enrollment would be. Maine Representative Richard Farnsworth (D) described the situation before school started as “a crapshoot. We don’t really know how this will turn out. It’s all very hard to predict.”
Sometimes these education decisions come down to family economics. While students are at home, many parents either cannot return to work or need to hire help. If parents are working from home, they must juggle virtual meetings, emails, writing and phone calls with their children’s needs. For some families, this is just too much; they need their children to return to school.
Teachers faced tough decisions as well. They had to determine whether it was best for them and their families to return to school, and risk exposure to the virus, or to teach online, if that was an option. Some, however, felt unprepared to effectively deliver online instruction. In a survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center, most teachers reported that they did not think there should be in-person learning this fall because they were very or somewhat concerned about getting COVID-19. A Gallup poll found similar results.
In early September, news outlets across the country reported the deaths of a few teachers from the virus, though it was not known if they had caught it at their schools.
Some teachers faced layoffs or chose to leave due to the economic downturn. The Education Week poll found that 20% more teachers than before the pandemic said they would consider opting for a leave of absence or early retirement. Liza McArdle, a 50-year-old high school teacher in New Boston, Mich., for example, decided to retire because of the stress of possibly catching the disease from students and the frustration of trying to teach Spanish and French while wearing a mask. She thinks we ask too much of teachers. “We’re always expected to give, give, give. ‘You’re a teacher. You have to be there for the kids,’” McArdle told Local 10 News in Florida. “And now it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, now you have to put your life on the line for the kids because they need to be in school.’”
Members of the American Federation of Teachers agree with her concerns. In a recent poll, teachers overwhelmingly responded that, even though they want to get back into the classroom and believe the students need to be there for their academic and emotional well-being, they don’t want to return until “we can ensure the safety of our teachers using guidance issued by health officials,” AFT President Randi Weingarten stated.
This battle over teachers’ return is heating up. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) required schools to reopen to in-person learning and teachers to return to their positions. Given the significant number of coronavirus cases, however, and what teachers argued were unsafe working conditions, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit. A county circuit judge ruled in late August in favor of the teachers, granting a temporary injunction.
The federal government is weighing in as well. In mid-August, the Department of Homeland Security issued updated guidance deeming teachers essential workers, similar to the designation of doctors and police officers. School districts in Florida and Tennessee have announced they will abide by this federal guidance.
Pandemic May Deepen Divides
“This pandemic could further divide our kids into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ if we aren’t careful,” says West Virginia Senator Robert Plymale (D).
The education community and policymakers alike are concerned that inequities that existed prior to the pandemic will only deepen. And they worry the impact could last a lifetime. “I am very concerned that we will have an even bigger achievement gap when this is all over,” says Wisconsin Senator Luther Olson (R). “We’ll be going in the wrong direction.”
There were concerns early last spring about the growing divide between students who could easily make the transition to online learning, because their districts had the technology and trained teachers to do it, and students who were not as fortunate. In districts without current technology, teachers must hand-deliver packets of study materials to students.
And last spring, once some schools decided not to grade and count coursework done remotely, many middle- and high-school students lost any motivation to participate in online instruction. Truancy rates, or chronic absences, soared to new highs, significant learning was lost over the spring and summer, and many schools lost track of students.
Many of those inequalities still exist this fall. Some students have access to instruction for all their classes, while others have less than an hour of online contact with their teachers each week. And not all students have adults at home who can assist them.
Those most harmed academically are likely to be the students who are already struggling—students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities and English learners. While we only have estimates on the amount of learning lost as a result of the pandemic—the so-called COVID slide—we know that these struggling students already are in need of resources and services they probably did not receive last spring. School districts are better positioned to address such gaps this fall, but there will be much ground to make up.
Some students also have suffered socially and emotionally. The cancelation of important educational milestones and traditions, the limits on movement outside the home, and the requirements to wear masks and stay apart from others have been overwhelming for many children. Calls to hotlines have risen, and pediatricians and youth mental health professionals are concerned about rising reports of anxiety and depression.
All this comes at a time when resources and staff are being reduced amid budget troubles.
Education at a Crossroads
While our education system is experiencing unprecedented challenges, experts argue this is the time to rethink how we educate our children. Many feel significant change is long overdue. Those who study the connection between the health of our economy and the success of our education system have preached for over a decade the somber consequences of our mediocre student achievement compared with students in other countries.
For Anthony Mackay, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, the pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of many young people in our education system. But it also has generated renewed respect for educators. “It has underscored the value of schools as community centers and the importance of social and emotional learning,” he says. “We are confronted with the imperative to redesign our education system—informed by the future of learning and the future of work—to ensure that all young people become successful lifelong learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens.”
Legislators serving on NCSL’s International Education Study Group argued in the 2016 report “No Time to Lose” that we must waste no time in closing achievement gaps, improving equity and ensuring all students leave high school ready for college or a career. Change cannot come soon enough, they wrote.
Given that education already is being significantly disrupted, education thinkers and policy experts such as Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and founding president of the Learning Policy Institute, argue that now is exactly the right time to launch a renewed effort to apply lessons learned from research, international studies and even a pandemic.
She recommends we:
- Prepare culturally competent and responsive educators to serve all students.
- Prepare leaders to make systemwide, student-centered improvements.
- Develop tools to better assess individual student needs and progress.
- Close the digital divide and improve distance learning for everyone.
- Support social and emotional learning.
- Redesign schools with “wraparound supports” that meet the needs of the whole child.
- Lengthen learning time.
- Leverage more adequate and equitable school funding.
- Prepare all students for either college or a career.
We could start by assembling parents, students, educators, legislators and local policymakers to create a new vision and new goals for state education systems; comparing and benchmarking policies against those of the highest-performing systems; and creating a blueprint for success. This hard work began in Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Mexico before the pandemic, and likely will continue.
Calls for serious change to the way we educate our kids may gather even more support as the pandemic exposes the current system’s inequities, lack of resources and lagging performance. Even during a pandemic, supporters say, states can transform education challenges into opportunities for our nation’s students.
Michelle Exstrom is the director of NCSL’s Education Program.
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