What comes next for public schooling

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The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered elementary and secondary schools across the country, with many closed for the remainder of this academic year.  

Students are learning at home from educators who worked heroically to transition to remote learning, sometimes with barely a day’s notice, and who are finding meaningful ways to engage kids of all ages and abilities. We’ve seen firsthand that the health crisis caused by COVID-19 is exacerbating existing inequities in student access and learning — persistent issues in American education, and ones we must trust and support teachers to help solve. 

It remains to be seen what our new normal will look like for school come fall, and our first priority is always keeping our students, families, educators and school personnel safe and healthy. But while we await adequate testing and, ultimately, a vaccine, we must start building a bridge to that future now: We must help students catch up from lost learning time, which particularly affects our most vulnerable students. We must plan for the future of education in a way that makes good on our promise to provide every child in America with the tools needed to succeed, regardless of geography or demography, but that does so within the reality of a very different world.

We have always known that remote learning is not a substitute for in-school education; the challenges posed by the distance model were only exacerbated by the lack of preparation, as the decision to close schools and make the switch happened seemingly overnight. Now, mitigating the educational inequities that so often present themselves with this format will require two key efforts: 

First, we must invest in voluntary, multi-week summer school this year (online or in-person, based on the best public health guidance) as well as next year, in addition to other forms of extended learning time to help students make up for lost learning. Not every kid was able to log on to their Zoom classroom or FaceTime with his or her teacher over the last few weeks, so together with educators, parents and administrators, we must devise programs for summer and expanded learning to keep students from falling behind.

Second, we must make sure programs are adaptable — by engaging the best resource we have, our educators. By giving them the freedom to leverage their creativity, we might reimagine some of our standard school-day structures, not necessarily by doubling down on traditional math or English, but by offering, for example, virtual exploration of the outdoors and distant geographies; courses in coding, robotics, animation or graphic design; and opportunities to pursue visual art, music, dance, theater and creative writing. This can help ensure the students who were most harmed by school closures have what they need so that their minds are stimulated and they can catch up and thrive, even if it doesn’t look like a normal school day. 

Indeed, some version of summer school would provide students with an excellent opportunity for enriched learning — not only to sum up their academic progress in this academic year, but also to get more prepared for the academic year to come, whatever form it may take. 

The research on summer school shows its benefits — particularly for students from low-income backgrounds who experience the greatest effects of the “summer slide,” which is the learning loss that happens in the months when children have a long break from school and lack enrichment experiences. In fact, some studies have found that as much as 70 percent of the achievement gap between affluent students and their less advantaged peers can be attributed to the summer slide. The good news is that we also know that students who participate in high-quality, voluntary multi-week summer learning programs experience significant academic gains in reading and math that can lessen the effects of learning loss.

The summer school connection also would provide a bridge for educators to help students process what is undoubtedly a confusing and scary period in their lives. As former teachers, we appreciate that the true core of education is the educator-student relationship and the work they do together each day. Summer school would offer additional opportunities for teachers to ensure students’ basic needs are being met — including access to meals — to identify educational challenges they are experiencing and to come up with appropriate interventions. Also, by giving schools the adequate number of nurses and counselors required to meet students’ social, emotional, physical and mental health needs — a practice that should, of course, continue whenever regular school is back in session — schools could continue to serve as hubs of their communities.

As we cross the summer school bridge, we must continue to be thoughtful about the needs children will have when they do physically return to school, including increased social-emotional supports, a positive and welcoming school climate, increased instructional time and attention, and effective dropout prevention and re-engagement programs — especially for the most vulnerable. We should also make sure that, even once school begins, schools and teachers have the resources necessary to think creatively about how they can strategically extend the school day or year, or provide high-intensity tutoring that can help students catch up.

All of this requires bold investments at the federal, state and local levels for Title I (to specifically address needs of low-income students), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (to specifically address needs of students with disabilities) and Title III (to specifically address needs of English learners), and additional funding for high-quality summer school and extended learning time.  

It also requires bold action by administrators to further empower teachers to lead through this crisis. This includes providing extra support for districts and schools to give students meaningful summer learning experiences this year and next, as well as providing substantial time for planning and professional learning opportunities for educators so they can appropriately prepare for a radically different return to school whenever the time comes.

Once students and educators are back in classrooms, we must be prepared to fund their futures. Decimated state budgets will need a great deal of federal assistance to resource public education at the level it needs and school districts will need support to think creatively about strategically extending the school day or year, or providing high-intensity tutoring.

These are, undoubtedly, uncertain times. But we can rely on what we know works in education — including the benefits of summer school and extended learning opportunities, and the dedication and creativity of our nation’s teachers — to ensure our children are learning and supported through this crisis and beyond.

John King is the CEO of The Education Trust. He served in the Obama administration as secretary of education. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. 

Tags Academics Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Education Education inequity Inequality Pandemic school year

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