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To prioritize both student learning and student health, schools must work differently this fall

To prioritize both student learning and student health, schools must work differently this fall
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As states and communities across the nation address the significant public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and begin the intentional reopening of our communities, it is important to also look ahead to an important benchmark: the return to school for the nation’s 51 million Pre-K — 12 students. 

COVID-19 has created not only a devastating public health crisis but a real crisis in learning, requiring its own intensive recovery planning.

Research by the respected NWEA, a global not-for-profit educational services organization, suggests that students will return in fall 2020 with only 70 percent of the learning gains in reading compared to a typical school year. In math, students are likely to return with less than 50 percent of the typical learning gains. 

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In some grades and locations, students may return nearly a full year behind what we would normally see. In high poverty schools, students are already susceptible to higher levels of summer learning loss; this pandemic will likely exacerbate existing equity gaps.

As we look ahead to school buildings reopening, state and local leaders should be focused on three major areas:

  • Planning and preparing for a very different kind of school year.

  • Investing in the innovations and technologies needed for rapid learning recovery.

  • Holding the line on proven policies and investments that advance student achievement.

The good news is that parents and the public recognize the need for innovative approaches. In our recent poll of Tennessee voters (two-thirds of them parents with school- or college-age kids), more than two out of three support a fall assessment to measure student learning loss, starting the school year early, and ensuring all public schools can offer online learning.

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To prioritize both student learning and student health, schools must look and work differently this fall.

Plan and prepare for something different

Schools and districts need immediate support as they plan for multiple learning scenarios, depending on the status of the pandemic. Public health officials speculate that there may be another surge in infections in the fall. If so, how resiliently can the school district shift to remote learning? If one or more students in a school become infected, how should the school respond? Is testing for the virus accessible on an ongoing basis? How should we think differently about delivering instruction, scheduling the school day, and placing students and teachers to meet social distancing guidelines? 

To help schools and districts answer these challenging questions, state leaders should use the valuable time this spring and summer to support the development of clear crisis response plans for schools and students. Solutions must be customized to each state, district, and community. 

Invest in change and innovation

If education looks the same in 2021 as it did when we started in 2020, we will have lost a tremendous opportunity. COVID-19 should spark major innovations that make our education system stronger, more student-centered, and more resilient.

Expanded investments must be made immediately — at the federal, state, and local levels, and by government, business, and philanthropy — to provide internet access to the more than 36 million Americans — and 9.4 million children — without access to broadband of any kind.

State and philanthropic leaders should learn from the innovative district and school leaders who already are thinking differently about what school will look like, how to diagnose and quickly address student learning loss, how to build successful virtual learning platforms, and what changes we could make to the schedule including year-round school or an expanded school day to make up for lost learning time. 

At the threshold of high school and postsecondary education, this crisis could speed needed changes like expanding access to high-quality credentials so that students are graduating high school with a diploma and a professional certificate, as well as better use of data to ensure every graduate in the class of 2020 moves to a high-quality postsecondary experience like college, obtaining an industry-recognized credential, or the military.

Educators leading this work should be given the support, flexibility, and funding required to explore, innovate, and become a model for more schools and districts. Portions of federal funds to states must be devoted to ensuring that state education departments provide the technical assistance that allows the best ideas to be quickly shared and replicated.

Hold the line on what works for students

This crisis will exacerbate the many ongoing education policies and funding debates among adults. The economic recession will likely demand deep cuts in state and local budgets. Policymakers may be tempted to underfund or alter education policies that have helped advance student achievement. That would be a mistake. In our polling we found voters want policymakers to prioritize and protect education investments, especially teacher pay. 

Policymakers and local leaders also should resist rolling back structural reforms, like annual assessments, school accountability, and curricular reform that have helped improve student outcomes. To provide students with the best support and know what they have learned, we need to protect assessments to quickly measure learning loss and create personalized learning plans for students. Transparency about school quality and student readiness remain critical.

The bedrock promise of public education is that all students have access to an excellent education. Our work and investments need to support that mission, regardless of whether they adhere to the contours of a pre-COVID world. 

Dr. William H. Frist is the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and a heart transplant surgeon. David Mansouri is the President & CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).