The urgency of now: Five things school districts must do this year

The urgency of now: Five things school districts must do this year

Stories of new COVID-19 clusters are popping up everywhere, such as the overnight camp in Georgia that reported 260 infections among the 344 campers and staff tested, or the 260 teachers in Gwinnett County, Ga., who either contracted or were exposed to COVID-19 after attending pre-planning conferences across the district. A few of the school districts that have started the 2020-21 school year already have had to quarantine faculty and students because of new coronavirus cases — such as in Indiana and Mississippi — within the first week of welcoming students back for in-person instruction.

Although guidance has shifted many times as health experts learn more about this novel coronavirus, there is strong agreement that communities with at least 5 percent coronavirus positivity rates should not reopen schools until they can lower community spread of the disease. This assessment has serious implications for school operations and instruction in the fall and, based on current conditions, would preclude many schools from reopening. In fact, as of Aug. 7, 35 states and the District of Columbia have been designated as “hot spots” on Kaiser Family Foundation’s heat map because cases in those states have increased by more than 5 percent over the past 14 days, the seven-day positivity rate is greater than 10 percent, or the positivity rate has increased by more than 1 percent in the past 14 days, and the number of new daily cases is 100 or more persons per capita.

These statistics make it pretty clear that regardless of the instructional model a school district has adopted — in-person, remote, hybrid — if the virus isn’t under control in a community, assume that teachers and students will convene online at some point this fall when new cases begin to show up in schools. While this is not ideal, the upside is that there is a lot that states, districts and schools can do to deliver a strong remote learning program to students.

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In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) that included $13.5 billion dollars for states to spend on K-12 education needs related to the pandemic. The five equity guidelines outlined below represent allowable uses of CARES Act funding through December 2020:

  1. Make access to broadband internet and 1-1 devices available to all students, leveraging public-private partnerships where possible. A national survey by Education Week found that among high-poverty districts, only 31 percent reported that all families needing home internet access actually had it, less than half of the 62 percent who have it in low-poverty districts. Districts should consider expanding access to WiFi and secure hotspots outside of school buildings to include public spaces such as parking lots, football stadiums and other locations.

  2. Provide professional development to teachers on using the district’s learning management system. Offering engaging, quality instruction in a remote setting — including for English language learners and students with disabilities — requires that teachers master the technology schools are asking students to use. We just survived three months of digital learning on the fly, so principals must know by now which teachers are proficient and which need scaffolding support, a technique used with students all the time. Identifying teachers who can serve as a go-to for others can help bring everyone along.

  3. Offer tech support and training to parents and students on using the district’s learning management system. Parent and student engagement will suffer if they are unsure of how the systems work or how to use them effectively. It may be wise to outsource the help desk support for sign-on and connectivity issues, since this approach could be more cost-effective than hiring and training district staff and also may be more likely to include multilingual support options for families.

  4. Quickly reconnect with disengaged students from the spring semester. Chronic absenteeism was a problem for high-poverty districts before COVID-19, and lack of access to reliable internet during recent school closures made the problem worse. This spring, teachers in high-poverty districts reported that about one-third of students were not engaged in remote learning, compared to 12 percent in low-poverty districts.

  5. Administer diagnostic assessments to quickly discover gaps in prerequisite skills and make plans to address individual learning needs. Grade-level diagnostic assessments should be aligned to state curriculum standards and produce easy-to-read student reports that can be used to adjust instruction.

Education leaders have a responsibility to meet this moment with solutions that bridge the widening equity gaps that COVID-19 has brought to the fore. To make up for the learning loss students experienced at the start of the pandemic, it is imperative that districts provide necessary support and communicate early and often with parents, students and the larger school community the expectations for teaching and learning this fall.

Terris Ross, Ph.D., is vice president of policy and advocacy at Leadership for Educational Equity. She is a former research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics and evaluation team lead in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the Department of Education. Follow her on Twitter @terrisross.