Educators should tap the CARES Act for help now — and later

Educators should tap the CARES Act for help now — and later
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Because of the coronavirus, most U.S. elementary and secondary schools are closed and an increasing number of states and districts are signaling that they will not resume in-person classes this school year. Policymakers and educators are scrambling, and some are struggling, to provide online instruction.

How governors and state and local school leaders decide to direct the $30.75 billion in education funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and how they utilize new flexibilities provided under the emergency aid bill, will have a significant impact on student learning. 

Unlike most federal education programs, the emergency nature of the CARES Act means that states and local governments do not need to seek input on their plans from educators, parents or advocates and that the U.S. Department of Education must rule on state and local plans within 30 days of receiving them. 

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The responsibility falls on all of us to ensure the policies enacted serve the best interests of students. There are several key areas where state and local leaders will need to step up, and where stakeholders will need to be vigilant that officials do the right thing:

Assessing student achievement. The federal government has given states permission not to administer their annual student assessments this spring. This makes eminent sense since most children won’t be at school to take them. Still, data from tests are crucial to pinpoint which students are falling behind and to target resources and instruction to where they are needed most. 

If possible, states should repurpose funds that would have been spent on testing this spring and redirect a portion to assessing students when they return to classes in the fall. Instead of using this data for purposes of accountability or teacher evaluation, states should focus on informing school leaders, educators and parents about student achievement and channeling resources to remediation efforts. States may want to explore remote testing to adjust to current and future disruptions of at-school participation.

Homeschooling. States and districts are providing instructional materials to students so they can learn at home. Our analyses show wide variability in the speed at which states are supporting district efforts to assist parents. At one end, North Carolina consistently updates its website devoted to distance learning, giving guidelines for districts developing comprehensive plans, strategies for schools deploying technology, training for teachers, and instructional resources for building remote lesson plans. By contrast, some states have published little, if any, guidance to districts on their Department of Education websites, though many districts are moving ahead on their own. 

This is a period of great innovation, with trial and error, for thousands of educators and school leaders. States should avail themselves of the opportunities and increased capacity the CARES Act offers to ensure that as many students as possible can continue instruction at home while schools are closed. We need to make equity our guiding principle in providing at-home instruction and apply what we learn from these efforts to overcoming obstacles to homeschooling for students from historically disadvantaged groups, as well as to identify promising instructional approaches worthy of extending beyond the coronavirus crisis. 

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Fast-tracking compensatory in-school instruction. As former Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has noted, at-home instruction is likely to fall short of the learning students would have gained with in-school instruction, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable students. States should begin planning now for the resumption of school as soon as conditions allow educators and students to congregate. 

Some policy experts  have proposed summer school to provide make-up instruction. We think this is a sound and important idea; however, it has received pushback regarding feasibility — one big barrier is collective bargaining agreements that dictate when educators are, and are not, obligated to teach. We should explore expanding the options, including enlisting nonprofit programs that are available to students over the summer such as Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and summer camps that have or could incorporate an academic component.

These are difficult times that will have a longstanding impact on our communities, but if we invest aid wisely and pursue innovative approaches, we can lessen the impact felt by our students.

Charles Barone is the chief policy officer at Education Reform Now. He was an education adviser to the late Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), former chair of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesBarone.