Tag Archives: #COVIDandschools

The rules of schooling have been rewritten. Let’s not go back to normal.

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed school doors in March, the rules of grammar that underpin our collective beliefs about what “real schools” look like were erased. In a matter of months, school system leaders and teachers were required to break down complex and notoriously unalterable systems into their component parts and rearrange them so kids could keep learning.

An invisible virus accomplished in months what throngs of reformers with billions of dollars in philanthropic support couldn’t. 

Suddenly, waivers from rigid regulations and renegotiated labor contracts freed schools to try new ways of using their time, space, staffing, student groupings, and resources. Devices, broadband internet access, and online learning platforms, which have long been accessory to in-person instruction, became critical means for teaching and learning. Parents who are typically treated as customers were enlisted as co-educators.

Millions of students are now learning in ways that look nothing like school at all.

Yet, nearly a year on, districts are still in crisis response mode. And after months of physical isolation, prolonged stress and anxiety, upended routines, financial uncertainty, and, for some, sickness, death, and grieving, people just want to go back to normal.

For kids who thrive in a traditional setting, getting them back into school buildings may be the best thing. However, for many low-income students returning to “normal” means returning to dilapidated school buildings in segregated neighborhoods staffed with the least experienced teachers and operating on a fraction of the funds other schools enjoy. Lakisha Young, founder of Oakland Reach summed it up this way, “Our Black children have long been failed by in-person learning, so we don’t want a return to the status quo.”  The status quo might also not be the best solution for students who are targets of bullies, suffer from anxiety, or simply prefer remote or hybrid learning environments. For students that were undereducated by their schools during “normal” times it would be a mistake to return to schooling the way it was and ignore the lessons that the pandemic has taught us. 

Instead of going from the status quo to crisis education and back to the status quo again, what if we went from the status quo to crisis education to a more equitable and effective public school system?

Some district leaders envision post-pandemic learning to be fundamentally different from what schools were doing in March. For instance, Karen Quanbeck, superintendent of Clear Creek School District RE-1 in Idaho Springs, Colorado, said at a recent event: “We are navigating this seismic shift in education and my gut is, we’re not going back to pre-pandemic learning, and there’s pros and cons to that.” Quanbeck isn’t alone in her thinking. A recent Rand survey of over 300 district and charter leaders found that “…remote learning, in at least some form, will outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. One in five districts were considering, planning to adopt, or had already adopted a virtual school or fully online option, while about one in ten have adopted or are planning to adopt a blended or hybrid form of instruction.”  Innovation researchers are beginning to wonder whether the lessons that we’ve learned will change schools forever. Teachers are thinking about what pandemic-era classroom practices they want to carry with them into the future. Even parents expect schools to look different in the future. After taking time away from work to support his two kids’ distance learning pod, a colleague returned certain that school would never look the same saying, “parents can’t unsee all of the things they’ve experienced during the pandemic.” 

Of course, not everyone sees this moment as a quantum leap in education innovation. Education historian Larry Cuban, for instance, points to the limited effect of past efforts to create “the classroom of the future” and sees students heading back to school as soon as we hit herd immunity. Others rightly point out to the millions of students who are struggling with online learning or not showing up at all as proof that online learning is a failing experiment. Surely, much of what’s been tried hasn’t worked. There’s value there too. We have as much to learn from the negative effects of the pandemic on schooling as the ingenuity that’s been marshaled to respond to them.

For those of us stubborn optimists who work at the intersection of education and innovation, this moment is an important one. The nation’s 13,000 school districts, 130,000 schools, and 3.7 million teachers have participated in what Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend Education called the “largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind” as they shifted to distance and hybrid learning. More accurately, the pandemic hasn’t prompted one experiment, it’s spun up millions of small and large experiments in a wide range of settings, some of which are succeeding while others are failing. Regardless, the experiments have generated countless lessons that can strengthen, diversify, and augment traditional schooling if — and only if — innovators, system leaders, and policymakers prepare for the rapidly approaching future when students can go back to schools safely. 

Over the next few days, I’ll make the case in a series of blog posts here on Ahead of the Heard that we should be actively looking for pandemic-era education innovations that increase equity and effectiveness. Even though there will be challenging headwinds, there are ways we can tack against them to create conditions where promising new ideas can be tested and shared. 

All students, but most urgently low-income and BIPOC students, and students with special needs, should benefit from the countless lessons generated by the nation’s 130,000 schools over the last 11 months.

You can read more from this series here.

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

An Underused Path for Rescuing Early Care Providers

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

Even in the best of times, the community-based organizations, nonprofits, and schools that run early childhood programs in this country operate on extremely thin margins.

Because of COVID-19, they’re in crisis. Many are waiting desperately for families willing to sign up for in-person care or for the federal government to pass another stimulus bill. In a July survey, 40 percent of current early childhood providers said that without additional public assistance, they would close permanently. In that scenario, thousands of early educators would lose their primary source of income. The resulting loss would also have dire implications for parents and caregivers trying to go back to work — and for the economy. 

Outside of direct financial assistance, there’s another — and largely unexplored — route to help shore up the finances of existing early childhood providers and support the creation of new providers: state legislators should create flexibility from regulations that govern the facilities where early childhood operators can work.

Right now, for example, early childhood providers spend valuable money and limited staff time thinking about things like building individual “cubbies” within classrooms with individual hooks and ensuring an “adequate supply of blocks in varied sizes” that is “organized and labeled.” Facilities regulations can also prevent potential providers from ever opening. For example, in order to serve preschoolers, charter schools often must retrofit their existing classrooms to meet early childhood regulations, which can be a prohibitively expensive endeavor. 

There is no argument that children need safety, and that operators need to be compelled — through a combination of oversight, law, and agency guidance — to make the safest spaces for kids to play and learn. But states across the country have taken things a step too far, adding burdensome hoops that don’t actually do anything to ensure quality, safety, or rigor.

Loosening these regulations would ease the financial pressure on existing providers, allowing them to spend funds elsewhere, like on public health measures, staff salaries, or rent. Depending on the regulation, providers may even be able to reconfigure their existing space to enroll more students while still meeting COVID health and safety standards. And in the best case scenario, providers that have not previously offered child care due to facilities restrictions could begin to do so. 

Continue reading

Considerations For Private Schools and Their Allies Amid Budget Cuts

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

In August, I wrote for Education Next about how the pandemic was affecting private schools — especially those dedicated to serving high-need students — and the factors that can influence whether a school is able to pivot during uncertain and disruptive times. 

But as state budgets tighten, private schools that rely on vouchers or tax-credit scholarship programs to serve high-need students are not wholly in control of their own destiny. Rather, just as school responses have varied widely, policymaker responses will vary as well. 

After the 2008 recession, for instance, state school choice policies sometimes lost — and sometimes gained — significant funding. For example, funding for Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program dropped 20% after 2008 before rebounding a couple of years later. Meanwhile, funding for Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increased by 12%, and policymakers in the Sunshine State increased the ceiling on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program nearly 50%. 

There are limitations on what school choice proponents can predict in uncertain times. Here are three questions they should continue to revisit as the pandemic evolves this fall and new state legislatures prepare to convene in January:

What are the projections for your state’s economy?

The more constrained the resources, the harder it will be for policymakers to preserve and expand private school choice programs. First, it will be important to understand the state tax revenues that fund state voucher programs. State revenues often come from a combination of income and sales taxes, and, as Jennifer Schiess explained, these can be hard to predict. They could be less vulnerable to downturns, since the pandemic hit low-wage workers hardest and low-wage workers make up a smaller share of income tax revenue. Internet shopping could also offset declines in sales tax revenue from brick-and-mortar retail.  Continue reading

Preventing a “Lost Generation” of Community College Learners

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

Monroe Community College Cafeteria, all seats at round tables empty, yellow overhead lighting

Photo by David Maiolo via Wikimedia

Community colleges have long served as an accessible and affordable post-secondary pathway to better jobs for high school graduates and adults looking to upskill. For example, the median weekly earnings for someone with an associate’s degree are 17% higher than for those with only a high school diploma or a GED. Community colleges are particularly important for traditionally underserved students: compared to students at four-year colleges, community college students are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, to be from a low-income family, and to be members of racial or ethnic minority groups. 

This is one reason why the steep declines in community college enrollment this fall are especially troubling. According to newly released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), undergraduate enrollments across the country are down 4.0 percent compared to the same time last year, with the biggest losses being at community colleges, where enrollments declined by 9.4 percent, on fall enrollments. 

Before the pandemic, there were approximately 5.5 million students enrolled in community college nationally. A 9.4 percent enrollment decrease equals about 520,000 students that have “stopped out” of community college, at least temporarily. This group of students is at risk of being a “lost generation” of learners. Dr. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping community colleges become leaders in their communities, told The Well News: “The pandemic, if we are unable to find students we lost and keep students we serve, and open up new access points for new students, will result in a lost generation of learners that will hurt the economic and civic fabrics of the communities our colleges serve.” 

Why are more community college students “stopping out” of college relative to four-year students? We know from our work that, in aggregate, community college students often face more barriers on their road to completion. This excerpt from an April NEA Today article sheds some light:

Students who are first-generation, who are on financial aid, who face challenges around hunger, housing, transportation, and who are balancing work, childcare, and more, “they are all being adversely affected in ways that make those inequities more stark and more exacerbated,” says [Kurt Meyer, an English professor at Irvine Valley College in California and president of the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association], who notes a five-fold increase in South Orange County college students recently applying for emergency funds to pay rent, fix cars, and more.

One major challenge is that many community colleges were struggling financially even before the pandemic and are likely to see further financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. Not only are many schools facing losses of income from reduced enrollment and unexpected refunds, but many are facing additional financial challenges caused by cuts in state funding. Lakeland Community College in Ohio, for example, will lose over $780,000 in state funding by the end of June 2020 and expects to lose over $4 million for the fiscal year ending in 2021. Similar cases can be found around the country, and many community colleges have been forced to furlough and lay off faculty and staff.

So, what can leaders do to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of students to COVID disruptions and increasingly tight financial constraints?  Continue reading