COMING OUT OF THE TUNNEL: What will the next school year look like?

Across all 50 states schools have closed – many for the remainder of the school year. Pupils will have missed the entire spring term. Students experience academic regression when schools close for the summer – imagine the loss when schools have closed for an entire term. Many schools and school districts weren’t prepared or were underprepared for dealing with the impact of the coronavirus. Lack of preparedness exposed the enormous gaps between rich and poor districts, minority and majority populations, urban, rural and suburban institutions. Closing of schools exposed a tech-gap between affluent and lower-income families or those living in rural areas where high-speed internet isn’t available.

The White House, governors, mayors, school boards, parents and children wish to reopen schools and get 33 million unemployed back to work and the economy back on track. But states, school boards, school superintendents, and the U.S. Department of Education need to address several questions.

Those responsible for running schools have an opportunity to prepare for the challenges that will appear when schools reopen. Now is the time for them to look ahead and start planning for when schools reopen and the need to pay special attention to providing essential support for those in greatest need. What will schools do to help their students? their teachers? their staff. their parents?

Let’s look at some of the unanswered questions that schools will need to address:

  • Where will states get funds to pay for the services they supply? Spending on phase one of the virus has financially strapped most states. Unlike the Federal Government, states cannot print money and must balance their budgets. State governments supply essential services like education, police, fire, sanitation, public health, and repair highways, roads and mass transit. States have been dipping into “rainy day” funds in order to pay for essential services. Many states have been hemorrhaging cash. States receive the bulk of their income from sales and income taxes. With 33+ million people unemployed, many people are out of work, not shopping, or going out to eat or going to movies and not putting money into their state’s treasury.
  • How are schools expected to pay for Chromebooks and iPads which were purchased as a product of remote learning?
  • How can states narrow the gap between highly motivated learners and those less motivated? Remote learning is not as effective as face-to-face instruction and has exposed a large gap between those with working parents and those with stay-at-home parents. Parents who work have to balance jobs and home schooling their children.
  • The immediate question is who will watch children if schools are opened? Who will provide childcare for those children too young to attend school? Schools cannot reopen unless provision is made for parents who need to work.
  • Many children will return to schools with unanswered questions. They will be frightened and fearful. “Will schools be closed again? “Will I  be promoted? Will I  graduate? What has happened to all the work I’ve done prior to the break?” Will my father/mother be rehired? Will I have enough food to eat?” Will I die?” In addition to providing learning, teachers will need to provide answers to these and other questions.
  • How will schools provide meals to those children who are not getting enough to eat? The Brookings Institution in a survey in late April(reported in U.S. News, May 6, 2020) indicating that nearly 1 in 5 children are not getting enough to eat. That figure is more than three times higher than in 2008, during the height of the Great Recession and roughly 4 1/2 times higher than in 2018, according to government data. Students will need to eat lunch at their desks which will cause difficulty in getting food to them as well as cleanup problems.
  • How can districts narrow the technology gaps that the coronavirus has exposedin schools? The virus has exposed a technological gap between affluent and underserved and lower-income families and those living in rural areas where high-speed internet isn’t available. Many poor families are not tech-savvy and cannot aid their children in the use of technology. Approximately 17 percent of U.S. students don’t have a computer at home. Many others share a single computer with their siblings or parents. There are no definitive numbers of those homes without broadband. Common Sense (April 9, 2020)  indicates that 12 million children nationwide live in homes without a broadband connection The greatest technology gap is in rural communities, among African American, Latinos and Native Americans on tribal lands. In rural western Alabama, less than 1 percent of Perry County’s roughly 9,100 residents have high-quality Internet at home. A New York City family shelter does not have wi-fi and 175 school-age children only 15 of whom have laptops. A quarter of teens have remotely connecting with their teachers less than once a week. And four in 10 haven’t attended a distance learning class since-in-person school was cancelled.
  • How will schools fund technology? Many schools failed to embrace technology and as a result they didn’t adequately train their staff in how to do online classes. Caralee Adams writing in USA Today (April 17, 2020) wrote that “Experts say teachers ideally should receive several days, weeks or even better of in-depth preparation before launching an online learning program
  • Will states add counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses and psychiatrists to deal with the increase in childhood stress and trauma caused by the Covid-19? CBS News reported (April 6, 2020) that some states are reporting an increase in child abuse. The ChildhelpNational Child Abuse Hotline is reporting a 20% increase in calls and more than four times the number of texts compared to the same time last year.
  • What can schools do to narrow the achievement gap? The widening of the economic gap will ultimately widen the achievement gap. Some students lacked computer access; others lacked high speed internet. And many students need individual teacher assistance in order to master classroom material, and understand homework.
  • How can schools provide handwashing, on a regular basis, in classrooms? Handwashing will require time to be done just as it was done during quarantine.
  • How do schools narrow the learning and homework gap? Students’ educational needs will have/have not been addressed over the break. While some students have had learning over the break, attendance has been wildly divergent. Some districts have required that work be graded; others have told teachers to pass everyone.
  • Some students lack adequate shelter, food or familiarity with the English language. What can districts do to deal with these problems?
  • How will states achieve “social distancing” of students in classrooms, in lunchrooms, in hallways, in physical education classes? Some states have proposed “platooning” of students into a “A” group and a ”B” group with half of the students attending on Mondays and Wednesday and the other half attending on Tuesday’s and Thursday. Friday’s would be used as a remediation session for those students who need additional instruction. How will schools get the food to students during the time when they are not in attendance? said 1 in 5 (about 30 million) young people receive free or reduced cost lunch. The New York Times reported (1/16/2015) before the onset of the virus, and the massive unemployment stated that 51 percent of children received free and reduced lunch.
  • How will the needs of students with physical disabilities or with limited English abilities be addressed?
  • Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore Public Schools said that she was making plans to cut as much as 15-20 percent of her teaching staff. How will systems make up that experience and expertise? Forty-four percent of teachers leave within five years. Will the onset of the virus increase teacher retirements?
  • What will states do to certify those individuals who were unable to complete their student teaching? A number of students taking student teaching have failed to complete their programs narrowing the pipeline to teacher certification. One of the key components to student teaching is teaching actual students and being observed while doing so, being given immediate feedback. The educational pipeline into classrooms was narrowing prior to the arrival of the virus.
  • Schools have always served as “safe havens” for children. Nina Agrwal, A Child Abuse Pediatrician writing in the NY Times, April 7, The Corona Virus Can Cause a Child Abuse Epidemic, “Children aren’t seeing the teachers, counselors and other adults who would normally raise concerns about their well-being. The Covid-19 pandemic has created the conditions for a rise in child about that could go unchecked. Already there are reports of a surge in child abuse cases in Texas. (In the span of one week, doctors at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth said they saw at least six cases of apparent physical abuse against children, with one of those cases resulting in death.) “When there is household dysfunction -domestic violence, parental substance abuse or a mental disorder – the risk of child abuse goes up, and there’s a reason to believe all of these things will increase during this pandemic. New York is seeing an uptick in domestic violence. Typically, the watchful eyes of teachers, guidance counselors and day care providers serve as lifeline for vulnerable children. CBS News reported (April 6,2020) reported that the Cook Children’s Pediatric Medical Center in Fort Worth treated five other children the same week in suspected abuse injuries serious enough to be admitted to the hospital. If abuse took place outside the view of teachers and other educators who are mandated by law to report it, how will schools deal with it?
  • Will schools provide additional counselors, social workers and psychologists/psychiatrists to address trauma? Children will return to school with more trauma than when they left.
  • How are schools going to recoup the learning loss that occurred when they were closed? How will the lost time be made up? Will schools have a longer school day? A longer school year? Year-round school with no summer break?
  • How will schools plan to deal with another virus outbreak which many expect will take place in the fall or the winter? How will schools get ahead of the curve and prepare if the next outbreak reoccurs in the Fall?
  • Where will schools find the additional funds necessary to prepare for the next virus outbreak or for tornados, floods or other natural hazards?
  • Will students return to higher education? Many students will not be able to afford tuition for colleges and universities because parents have been furloughed, had working hours cut or been thrown out of work. Will they be able to afford the tuition? Will colleges cut their tuition? Will learning be delivered remotely? How will colleges make up for the loss of students and their tuition?
  • What learning supports are to be put into place to deal with homeless children?

How schools re-open is much more important than how they closed. We must ensure each student has every opportunity to learn, and that the current crisis doesn’t hinder states’ improvement in education and strengthening of our workforce, Now is the time for districts to develop leadership teams to develop contingency plans. There is an opportunity to develop detailed, long term plans. In the past, schools have depended on addressing problems on ad hoc, piecemeal policies and practices. The results have been fragmented, redundant programs and counterproductive leaving too many students in too many schools without the tools or ability to resume learning. Districts need to conduct professional development sessions for staff and to establish a reopening task force to prepare for the reopening of schools.

Education is in a new era of discovery without a playbook or a roadmap. We need to go in a new direction, learn, adopt, adapt to our individual cultures. We are creating a new future and need to do it together. No one has all of the answers.

While we are in the tunnel, we’re cocooned seeing nothing but darkness. But all that changes when we come out of the tunnel. The darkness will be exposed to light and the light will prevail.” That’s what will happen when we come out of the tunnel.

Adapted from an idea by Marilyn R. Gardner