As schools across the country take their first tentative steps to a new school year during the pandemic, education experts argue that state and district support could mean the difference between continuing in crisis mode or innovating for long-term improvement and equity.
In a new 120-page framework for school reopening, the Learning Policy Institute echoes recommendations of other recent expert panels, from the National Academies of Science to the School Superintendents Association:
While those recommendations are hardly new, they aren't ubiquitous either. That's because many are expensive to implement, like intensive tutoring, or require significant training and buy-in from teachers to implement effectively, like culturally responsive teaching and discipline practices. But Linda Darling-Hammond, LPI's president and CEO and an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, argued the widespread pandemic disruption and school closures could create something of an education renaissance.
"We're in a moment in our country right now where the most important modus operandi is inventing and sharing," said Darling-Hammond. "You know, people have to invent ways to do things they haven't done before, and then they need to share those things with others and they need to be able to access what others are sharing about their inventions."
Darling-Hammond said urban and rural districts alike have been able to make rapid overhauls for this year or plan for coming years. The commonality has been states willing to provide clear guidance and additional funding for districts as they work to change quickly; and district leaders who keep an eye on the educational and equity changes they want to keep after the pandemic threat is gone.
"It's a moment where yes, if you have capacity, it's easier to expand and extend and think differently. But it's also a moment where if policy makers are so moved, and they're really aware of what needs to be done, you can get changes very quickly that have been talked about for a long time ... because people were just stuck in the way they'd always done things," Darling-Hammond said. "I think we're going to see a lot of places getting going on some new ideas, even though they can't bring them to full implementation overnight."
In a forthcoming editorial in the Journal of Pediatrics, dozens of doctors and child health researchers agree, arguing for "collaboration [and] constructive disruption" of the expectations for schooling before the pandemic. The doctors argue that because 40 percent of U.S. families have school-age children and 90 percent of those have working parents, the economic recovery will depend on more equitable education supports for all families.
In the wake of sharp racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths and ongoing protests over racial justice this spring and summer, most states have set equity as a goal in their reopening plans, but their details for following through vary widely.
A new related study in the Journal of Pediatrics analyzed the reopening guidance for 50 states and Washington, in areas of equity as a general goal, as well as specific guidance for schools addressing food insecurity; homelessness or housing instability; mental health needs; insufficient Internet or technology access; and supports for students with disabilities, English-language learners, or students involved in child services or juvenile justice programs. The researchers also looked at whether the states advised schools on how to support students who became infected with the coronavirus, were at high risk of becoming infected, or who had family members who were ill or at risk.
Ninety percent of states included guidance for least some equity issues. But 1 in 4 states had no guidance for districts on how to support some of their most vulnerable students: those who are homeless, in the foster or juvenile justice systems—or those directly coping with COVID-19.
"The demographics [of students directly affected by COVID-19] are demographics that these students overrepresent: homeless students, students of color, students in poverty, students in the foster care system," said Bree Dusseault, a University of Washington researcher tracking homeless and vulnerable students' education under the pandemic. "So, you know, there's definitely a concern about just them becoming lost or forgotten or just missing in the educational experience for this school year."
It's been clear that individual schools and districts that had technology, teacher collaboration, or student support infrastructure in place before the pandemic have adapted to life with social distancing more quickly.
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