George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

School Leaders Debate Solutions For an Uncertain 2020-21

Education leaders are laying out plans to reopen schools in the fall, but without the safety net of a vaccine, the school year looks unpredictable at best.

April 22, 2020
Young girl learning at home with computer and bunny
Maria Symchycht / TWENTY20

It’s suddenly clear to everyone—although teachers have been aware the whole time—that schools are a crucial piece in an ecosystem that keeps America afloat. They aren’t just where kids are educated—though that remains their indispensable objective and cultural contribution—they’re also where millions of parents start their own days, dropping off their kids before heading out to jobs that pay the bills.

With the emergence of Covid-19, that critical dependency has been thrown into sharp relief. Parents are getting a firsthand glimpse of the work involved in overseeing a child’s education, all while simultaneously juggling their professional responsibilities—or worse, the very real prospect of unemployment. Understandably, there’s enormous demand for schools to reopen so that teachers, parents, and school-aged kids can return to some semblance of productive normalcy.

“We need to get our kids back to school. I need to get my kids back to school,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom in the Los Angeles Times, sounding a little desperate. “We need to get our kids educated.”

That’s not going to be easy. Early reports suggest that behind closed doors school leaders are debating whether it’s safe to reopen schools at all this fall. And even if schools do open on time, the schedules they may be forced to adopt could keep both parents and students home, at least for part of the day. If there’s any relief on the horizon, it’s hard to see it clearly.

Across the country, meanwhile, states are starting to prepare contingency plans for a highly unpredictable school year. According to multiple news reports, there will be nothing routine about it. These are some of the big insights and ideas driving the conversation:

Extending Online Learning

Online learning is likely to be a big part of the mix—either full-time or as a complement to in-person schooling—well into the school year, say school leaders. For districts seeing strong results from their approach to blended learning, there will be demand to make it a more integrated part of the curriculum year-round.

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon is focusing on strengthening the state’s remote learning capabilities. “We’re not sure that [school building closures] is not something that we’re going to revisit in the fall or the winter,” Salmon told state lawmakers, according to The Baltimore Sun. “I’m really focusing much of our resources on the expansion and accountability wrapped around online learning and distance learning.”

Chris Reykdal, superintendent of public instruction for the state of Washington, is also ramping up online learning capabilities. “Short of a vaccine, which people continue to tell us is 12 to 18 months away, we have to figure out if it’s safe to come back even in the fall,” says Reykdal, according to MyNorthwest. “We have a lot of science working hard to figure it out, but I already have to start thinking about how to continue to strengthen our online model, which has gotten exponentially better over the last two weeks, but there’s a lot of work to go.”

Staggered Start Times and Continued Social Distancing

Physical distancing, staggered schedules, and other precautions aimed at preventing the transmission of the virus might be the new normal once stay-at-home restrictions are removed and kids and educators return to school.

“Can you stagger the times that our students come in so you can appropriate yourself differently within the existing physical environment—by reducing physical contact if possible, reducing the congregate meal, addressing issues related to PE and recess?” asked California’s Newsom, who has been an early leader in the state-level response to the pandemic. “Those are the kinds of conversations we’re all going to be having over the course of the next number of weeks and the next number of months.”

Because schools aren’t generally designed for social distancing, writes Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Forbes, safely reopening schools “may well require reducing the number of students in a school on a given day, either by having students attend on alternate days or by adopting a half-day model in which half the students attend in the morning and half in the afternoon. It would likely require closing gyms and having students eat lunch at their desks.” Crowded hallways wouldn’t do, so students in middle and high school might be required to follow the elementary school model and stay in one classroom for the entire school day.

Medical Interventions and Surveillance

As schools around the world—many of which closed earlier than U.S. schools—slowly begin to reopen, students must comply with new rules, as per a report by The Wall Street Journal, including the possibility of wearing masks, being screened by thermal cameras, and receiving temperature scans before being allowed to enter the school building.

In stark terms, The Washington Post reports that timing and conditions for schools reopening depends on “where you live, who is in charge, and how much the decision-makers respect the opinion of infectious-disease specialist Anthony S. Fauci and the other scientists leading the fight to stem the spread of coronavirus.”  The bottom line, according to Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics and associate dean for research mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine, is that U.S. schools cannot safely reopen until public health officials find ways to identify and treat people infected with Covid-19.

Notes AEI’s Hess, “if schools could procure digital thermometers and implement ubiquitous testing—especially if the tests are cheap and quick—they might be able to proceed with something like normal operations.” But with widespread testing still limited in the U.S., that scenario looks unlikely in the near future.

Prepare for Learning Loss

With 9 out of 10 students out of school worldwide—a global school shutdown on an unprecedented scale—it’s clear there will be deep and lasting impacts on kids, writes Anya Kamenetz for NPR. These will show up both in long-term academic metrics as well as other places, such as mental health. Once schools do reopen, educators will be confronted not just with this slide in learning, but also the “enormous range of experiences and readiness students will bring,” says Julia Rafal-Baer, COO of Chiefs for Change, in a Q&A with Education Next.

One way teachers may begin addressing some of these challenges, says Rafal-Baer: creating individual learning plans to assess each student and lay out how to meet students' learning needs and social and emotional supports. “Many students will be entering schools in the fall five to six months after they were last in the buildings…. Leaders will have to grapple with what is ambitious versus feasible.”

In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest district in the country, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is preparing his city for “historic academic regression, the likes of which this country’s never seen,” he told Edutopia. This summer and through next school year, the district will roll out a massive effort that includes virtual tutors and mentors, an earlier school-year start date for its most fragile students, and the continuation of its blended learning program. “It’s not going to be perfect, but we’re going to leave no stone unturned in terms of providing additional, targeted high-end support for students who, if nothing is done for them, will regress to a level that, quite frankly, will be an embarrassment to this country and debilitating to the individual students.”

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