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Jan Hillard: Reopening schools and lessons learned from spring shutdown; schools face a dilemma

As Fall approaches, school districts, parents, students, and elected officials are struggling with the question of reopening schools amidst the continuing threat of COVID-19. Re-opening is a complex decision that brings into question the capacity of schools to make safe adjustments to face-to-face classrooms, improve access and ease of use to remote learning, and respond to ever-changing medical and political mandates. Below is an overview of this past Spring’s closing of schools and what we now know about the difficulties that most communities faced.

This past Spring, schools found themselves faced with one of the most perplexing and threatening crises of our time. All crises are defined by high threat, short response time, and incomplete information. Closing schools amidst COVID-19 was no exception. Responding to the firestorm of COVID-19, we attempted to educate over 50 million students, close schools, implement remote learning, and equip parents to provide effective learning. It was a tall order and we fell down in some predictable ways. Although there were some successes, overall, we were not able to provide learning effectiveness that was comparable to face-to-face education. Research showed that by June, yearly student gains in reading were off by 70% and gains in math were off by 50-55% (MWEA, 2020). In addition, student attendance (measured by logins) was down as much as 30% in some parts of the country, particularly in high schools.

(KyForward file photo)

Distance learning presented a number of hurdles. First and foremost was access to computers and the internet. This was most pronounced in rural and inner-city areas, negatively impacting poor and minority students. Several states, particularly Kentucky, had little or no internet access in some 20-25% of their communities. The success of remote learning depends upon parental or caregiver involvement. Yet the findings suggest that large numbers of parents were unable to fulfill this requirement given the demands of work and life as well as unfamiliarity with distance learning. Parents often complained about educational jargon and underestimated the difficulties of teaching in general, saying they didn’t know teaching was so hard. In addition, parents struggled with assessing their child’s academic progress. To accommodate, some school districts implemented pass/fail grades or suspended grading altogether, holding students “harmless.”

Aware of the mixed experience with remote learning, schools are now faced with the decision to open or not re-open this Fall. The decision will be influenced by the capacity of schools to implement COVID 19 guidelines, parental support, and unfortunately, political pressures. A recent study found that parents are almost equally divided on the question of opening or not re-opening. However, more than half of teachers, 65%, are not in favor of opening, particularly for grades P-6. In addition, the study found that a large number of teachers reside with someone who is vulnerable to COVID, and 40% report that they themselves are vulnerable. A significant number of master teachers report considering early retirement if schools re-open (EdWeek).

Notwithstanding these concerns from teachers and parents, a number of government officials favor re-opening. Two congressmen, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI), plan to introduce a bill that will deny federal funding to any school district that refuses to open this Fall. Several states are also considering similar legislation. In arguing for their bill, Banks and Tiffany point to the research on remote learning as well as the negative economic impact of parents staying home and becoming their child’s substitute teacher.

In addition, pronouncements by President Trump demand re-opening and the use of sanctions developed by the Dept. of Education. These potential sanctions take on added importance as it is estimated that nationally, school districts will need $115B to implement safety mandates and teacher safety training.

(KyForward file photo)

An organization that strongly supports schools reopening is the American Academy of Pediatricians. The AAP asserts that “traditional schooling is fundamental to children’s development, [and] that remote learning can result in severe learning loss and social isolation” (NPR, June 29,2020), with negative impacts most felt by minority, poor, and disabled children.

Schools that re-open will need to comply with guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The scope of the guidelines is determined by the level of risk associated with the school’s course delivery strategy. “Low risk” comes with virtual activities; “moderate risk” is associated with small, in-person classes where students and teachers maintain distances of 6 feet between them, and “high risk” resemble pre-pandemic classrooms. Here is a summary of the CDC guidelines:

Visit www.cdc.gov for more information.

• Schools should plan for intermittent closures if COVID cases surge
• Schools must learn to recognize COVID symptoms and use daily screening
• Students, teachers, and staff should stay home if they are symptomatic
• Isolation rooms need to be set up for those who show symptoms at school
• All facilities, including classrooms must be sanitized every 24 hours
• Same staff should remain with same students for the entire school day
• Playground equipment should be closed
• Students should bring their own lunches or have box lunches and eat in the classroom.
• School bus arrival and departure times should be staggered to limit cross-grade student contact
• School desks should be spaced six feet apart and should face the same direction
• Classroom activities should limit students moving about
• Masks should be worn by students over two years old, teachers, staff, and parents who visit the school. Visits should be limited
• Hand sanitizing must be universal
• Staggered school start and stop times should be used if smaller classrooms are not available or feasible

Recently, a number of elected officals, especially President Trump, have heavily criticized the CDC guidelines as overly strict. In response, the CDC is reviewing these guidelines together with the COVID 19 Task Force. What emerges from these discussions remains to be seen. However, there is considerable angst among parents who are looking for assurance that comes with full protection.

Educators, along with the think tank New America, have identified 4 scenarios for what re-opening might look like. Each scenario incorporates some degree of distance learning to accommodate the rise and fall of COVID cases in a region. None of the scenarios are ideal; all present drawbacks and challenges, and each comes with a price tag. The scenarios are outlined below:

Brick-to-Click Learning

School districts begin the academic year with in-person classes but are ready for swift transitions to distance learning within 48 hours of a COVID outbreak. Students, teachers, and parents will need to be prepared and nimble given the ebb and flow of cases.

Click-to-Brick Learning

School districts use distance learning in the Fall semester carefully monitoring the health status of their community for indications that it is safe to return to brick and mortar classrooms. Should conditions warrant re-opening classrooms, schools will institute ½ day sessions or every-other-day sessions to minimize continuing contact and maximize early, symptomatic diagnosis.

Blended Learning

School districts offer hybrid learning that includes both face-to-face and online instruction. One option may be to offer face-to-face learning on some days of the school week and online for the remaining days. This option provides flexibility in response to the number of local cases, and helps isolate students who contract the virus to their homes. Blended learning options can be fashioned for students who face computer and internet accessibility problems, students who need more time on learning, and students who are disabled. This approach offers flexibility and the face-to-face ingredient that will elevate learning outcomes.

Online Learning

School districts offer all instruction, programming, and support services remotely. This maximizes protecting students, and with better preparation and training, may minimize losses in yearly educational gains associated with this past Spring’s distance learning. Teachers will receive training in the effective practices associated with online learning, and will be supported by distance education support teams that can immediately respond to problems with best-practice solutions. In the high schools, some or all of the online curriculum can be self-paced and self-administered.

It makes sense to give school districts flexibility in terms of the approaches to re-opening. A one-size-fits-all approach ignores local fluctuations in the severity of COVID 19, demographics, availability of training, political pressures, funding, and parents’ concerns. Most importantly, we must step back from crisis-based thinking and draw on what we have learned this past Spring. Our experiences both positive and negative will inform the critical success factors we must adopt for the sake of our children and families.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune and retired Faculty Emerti of Northern Kentucky University.

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