Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. As this is a “rapidly evolving situation,” schools are in emergency mode, just trying to figure out how to open school, in whatever format. There are also several issues that keep popping up in our calls with superintendents and school leaders that bring me pause.
All the things schools have not yet focused on:
Schools are focused on the fine details of actually reopening school. This includes schedules, staffing, instructional strategies, safety measures, and what a hybrid model actually looks like. Many are engaged in negotiations with unions and other stakeholders. Many are also trying to figure out if they now open as remote, so they are also thinking about improving and “shoring up” remote learning plans based on feedback from teachers, parents and students. This is all of course, A LOT and absolutely necessary, and we must prioritize and triage. There are also very limited funds for reopening and for school budgets next year due to the recession, which restricts capacity. However, I fear that there are a few issues that may “come back to bite us” as schools prepare for the new school year, as school leaders are not prioritizing these issues as much as they should. These are:
Social emotional support and trauma. Many students have had family members or people they know get sick, or worse, die. We are also hearing that in some areas, especially those with high poverty rates and with high numbers of essential workers, high school students have been sick themselves. In addition, many are suffering from the economic consequences of the recession--unemployment and/or food and housing insecurity. For some students, the school building is a safe haven from a home filled with violence, abuse and neglect. The social isolation in and of itself has also negatively affected students’ mental health. This is not to mention teachers and school staff who have experienced trauma and mental health issues due to the virus. Most educators are aware that it is extremely difficult for students to learn when they have experienced significant trauma. However, when pressed, only some schools have created plans for addressing this. Many have passed this on to support teams, saying “we have a pretty strong support team that can deal with this.” Almost no schools are taking a whole school, whole child, whole community approach to this. Schools need a comprehensive plan for dealing with this on Day #1.
Equity and the national reckoning with racism. Many students have protested, witnessed protests, or experienced police violence first hand. Many students have also experienced racism and discrimination at their own school and communities, whether overtly or as systemic oppression. As I said in my earlier blog, anti-racism work should be embedded in all reopening plans, from professional development, to curriculum and instruction, to school culture and behavior, to systems and structures. This again, with the exception of a few schools, seems to take a second seat to reopening the school building.
Missing students, learning gaps, and the most vulnerable students. Although we have talked to many schools about remediation and acceleration, it is not on the minds of all school leaders. As with trauma, some schools seem to think they “have this covered.” Some are identifying power standards and prioritizing skills, which is a great first step. However, the lack of prioritization brings me pause just due to the amount of time students have been out of the physical building, and the sheer novelty and complexity of schooling during the pandemic, not to mention now we have extended remote learning in some locations for an indefinite period of time. We have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. Learning gaps are huge in some cases, and the old ways of accelerating students may not work. Furthermore, there are thousands of students who are completely unengaged in remote learning, and in some cases, completely unaccounted for and missing. I worry the most about students who are the most vulnerable, such as special education students or English Language Learners, who are often underserved during normal times, and for whom remote learning has been especially problematic and ineffective. I have not heard many discussions of personalizing learning. I hope that once we get past creating plans for reopening, we address these issues.
Create a WPA style program for schools. This is an idea that has been floated several times, but has yet to gain traction. (Even England is doing it)! We have a lot of people out of work right now. Restaurant workers, travel and hospitality people, small business owners, others that have been laid off due to no fault of their own. We also may have a ton of recent high school graduates or recent college graduates who are unemployed. Finally, we have a lot of college students who have decided to take a year off, finding that online college is not worth the time and money. At the same time, we have schools who are dire need of extra staffing both for space and supervision reasons (CDC guidelines limiting the number of students in a classroom, therefore creating the need for extra staff) AND because students are in need of remediation and acceleration due to missing school or subpar remote/emergency learning plans. How can we put all these people to work in the schools? Can we have them tutoring kids for reading and math? Can we have them supervising recess, breaks, lunch, and other activities? Can we have them supervise students while they are on online, adaptive programs? What about acting as mentors and advisors? We can leverage existing Americorps programs to do this. City Year and Match Education have successfully run programs like this for decades. The high school I attended (a private school) is actually hiring recent alums to form pandemic pods for their current students. If we can do this at a large scale, it seems like a win-win for all.
Increasing inequities. Pandemic Pods. Recent news (and here) has described families in affluent areas creating pandemic pods for small groups of children instead of, or in addition, to remote learning. They are hiring private teachers or tutors to oversee or teach their kids. There are several reasons behind this--remote learning plans being subpar, families lacking supervision for their children during the work day and/or families lacking the capacity to homeschool their children, families not wanting their children to get even more behind in their learning. From a parent’s perspective, I get it. However, from a societal and an educators perspective, this is rife with problems. This can only perpetuate inequities and the gap between the haves and the have nots. It also perpetuates segregation--as one recent New York Times piece said: ”[parents] must understand that every choice they make in their child’s education, even the seemingly benign, has the potential to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy.” What are low income families supposed to do? What are people supposed to do who are or who live with essential workers who cannot participate in the “pod” due to safety reasons? Instead of using the time and energy to create these pods, why not put all that effort into helping to improve remote learning plans or schools in general? Better yet, how you can help your own school create learning pods?