Politics, Not Science, is Driving School Reopening Decisions to a ‘Really Dangerous’ Degree, Research Suggests
Over seven months after much of society shut down in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no uniform policy guiding school districts through the return of tens of millions of students to in-person education. In most jurisdictions, officials have spent the last few months balancing risks and responsibilities, resulting in millions of American students returning to the classroom even as millions of their peers still spend their days in front of a screen.
According to a growing number of education commentators, one major factor determining school reopenings is politics. In comparing how districts chose to either continue with virtual learning or welcome students back to their buildings, several academic and independent researchers have found that policymakers are guided more by the voting preferences of their neighbors than coronavirus case numbers.
The latest evidence, released this month as a working paper through Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, indicates that partisanship — as exhibited by the share of voters in a given county who supported Donald Trump in 2016, as well as the strength of local teachers’ unions — drove reopening plans “far more” than public health conditions.
That conclusion echoes the work of Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, who shared his own findings in a much-discussed blog post this summer. Tracking the reopening plans of over 250 districts, Valant detected “no relationship” between each locality’s decision and its per-capita COVID cases. He said that education policy is just one consideration among many that have been “distorted” by the encroachment of national politics.
“There’s a long list of issues associated with COVID that should not be politicized, but have been politicized, and it feels as though school reopenings are on that list,” Valant said in an interview. “None of these analyses is totally bulletproof, but they’re strongly suggestive, if nothing else, that politics is a big part of the story.”
Michael Hartney, a political scientist at Boston College and one of the authors of the newer study, said it was difficult to identify a causal connection between districts’ COVID responses and a single political actor or event. Still, he added, it was somewhat natural for democratic entities like school boards to react to electoral pressures.
“There are a lot of MAGA-hat-wearing counties out there — super-strong pro-Trump counties — that have really high COVID case rates and probably should be closed, but they’re open,” Hartney said. “And on the other hand, you’ve got a lot of anti-Trump, pro-Clinton counties that have very, very low case rates, and their indicators suggest that they would be in the discussion for getting back to school. But a lot of them are closed.”
Influence of Trump, teachers unions
Hartney’s paper, co-authored with Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas, is the widest-ranging look so far at the factors influencing districts’ COVID responses. Using a colossal dataset of over 10,000 school district reopening plans (roughly 75 percent of all such plans from around the country) the study attempts to pinpoint the effects of politics and the pandemic in determining whether students were allowed to return to classrooms.
Disturbingly, the authors found that the link between a district’s relative intensity of coronavirus spread and its decision whether to reopen was “substantively trivial.” Tabulating the average daily case rate in each county during the two weeks prior to August 31 (by which time most districts would have had to advise the public of their strategy for the new school year), they found that a district with 20 new cases per 10,000 residents was just 1 percentage point more likely to open schools virtually than one with zero new cases.
By contrast, local partisanship held much more sway, and specifically the 2016 vote share received in each area by Donald Trump. In a district in which Trump won 40 percent of the vote, there was a 27 percent likelihood that schools would keep their doors closed to begin the 2020-21 school year. But in a district where the president secured 60 percent of the vote, that chance was reduced to just 10 percent.
Hartney said that even under alternative measures of COVID exposure, such as cumulative deaths and cases, politics was still “the most powerful predictor by far” of reopening decisions.
“When you’re a quantitative researcher, you’re sometimes saying, ‘Eh, I don’t know how strong this result is,’ I will tell you, I have never been more confident in a correlation before than between the partisanship of a district and what they elect to do here.”
Hartney and Finger also highlighted a connection between reopening decisions and organized labor, according to two metrics: the size of a district (prior research has shown that higher student enrollments are correlated with greater union strength) and whether it permitted collective bargaining. Schools planned for a remote opening in 40 percent of districts where teachers could bargain collectively, the authors found, compared with just 15 percent of districts in which they could not.
The findings seem to dovetail with the posture of local and national teachers’ unions, which have insistently called for caution in the return to in-person instruction. But the use of district size as a stand-in for union strength proved somewhat controversial in public discussion of the research, with some online commentators arguing that larger districts often face logistical and infrastructure challenges (such as aging facilities with poor ventilation, common in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and New York) that could complicate a move back to in-person learning.
Other research supports the idea that union concentration is associated with a greater likelihood of online instruction. One recent study conducted by Corey DeAngelis, a prominent union critic and director of school choice at the libertarian Reason Foundation, found evidence that school reopening decisions were correlated with four different measures of union strength — but not with COVID risk. In states with right-to-work laws, the paper found, schools were 14 percentage points more likely to reopen in person relative to states without such laws.
Sarah Reckhow, a professor at Michigan State University and occasional coauthor of Finger’s, is working on her own state-level analysis of district decisions across Michigan. Writing in August with fellow political scientist Matt Grossman, she pointed to a strong tendency for Democratic-leaning school districts to plan for online reopenings in the fall. In an interview with The 74, she said that Hartney and Finger’s use of district size as a proxy for union power “made sense,” and that her own study looked at the respective strength of local collective bargaining agreements to get at the same correlation.
“We do find a relationship,” she told The 74. “Districts with more restrictive labor agreements are significantly more likely to go remote.”
A ‘highly politicized, polarized time’
Each of these assessments, several of which are still effectively blog posts, offer only preliminary evidence in a debate that will continue long after the current school year is over. But they underscore a phenomenon that academics have been pointing to for much of the last decade: the growing nationalization of local politics, once seen as a refuge from Washington, D.C.’s Olympian power struggles.
Increasingly, scholars say, governance at the state and municipal levels are riven with the same tribalism that has long characterized presidential and congressional races. A steady erosion of local media, combined with the tightening grip of partisan identity over everyday life, has come to shape the parameters of even low-turnout races for elected bodies like city councils and school boards.
According to Valant, partisanship is now “so wired into who we are” that Americans almost can’t resist “carrying that identity with us”; this is even true when considering questions such as plague mitigation, which ought to have no meaningful partisan weight. A wise reopening strategy, he argued, would account for the risks to children from isolating them at home as well as the dangers of allowing schools to develop into hotspots for disease.
“When an issue like this gets charged, it distorts the decision making in ways that are really dangerous,” he said. “People at the local level who are making those judgments still have political views, and they bring those attitudes and biases to the table when making decisions about what to do in their local communities.”
Democrats have generally been more wary of the dangers of the coronavirus and more likely than Republicans to favor strict mitigation measures like mask mandates. But there is also reason to think that the emergence of school reopenings as a campaign issue has magnified partisan differences. One poll found that in the six weeks between June 1 and July 15 — a period during which both the president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demanded that states abstain from online instruction in the fall — Democratic opposition to in-person reopenings rose from 46 percent to 70 percent.
One line of argument has cast an accusing finger at blue-state liberals, as well as teachers’ unions, for keeping at-risk kids locked out of school even when the dangers of sending them back are minimal. In particular, a ProPublica story pondered the question of whether educators and leaders of major urban districts had soured on the prospect of in-person reopenings as soon as Trump embraced them. While we won’t know for some time how schools acted as vectors for COVID, preliminary evidence suggests that cases have not ballooned in areas that have brought students back to classrooms.
Reckhow, who has observed Michigan’s halting progress in the direction of brick-and-mortar schooling as both an academic and the mother of school-age children, said that the question of politicized reasoning was “tricky to tease out. Some of the media coverage has really presented it as a causal story, and without really good longitudinal polling data, it’s hard to tell.” Still, she added: “You had school districts talking about in-person reopening plans in June that changed course in July. That happened.”
Hartney said that he intended his research only to serve as a vantage onto the political economy of school reopenings, not a means of upbraiding part-time school board members for adopting a particular course of action. But he expressed disquiet at the possibility that science took a backseat to politics when the lives of children were at stake.
“We all know we’re living in a highly politicized, polarized time. But one would think that if there was one set of public authorities that would address a public health pandemic in a less political way, it would be our nonpartisan local governments that are tasked with watching out for kids. If that threshold isn’t being driven by public health indicators, then good luck finding a political institution that is.”
Parents and Educators Hope the Rise of Online Learning Lives On After the Pandemic, Report Finds. But Researchers Say Privacy Protections Shouldn’t Be Sacrificed
Although the pandemic forced students into an abrupt shift to haphazard online learning earlier this year, a majority of parents and educators support the boom in education technology and hope online learning goes on after the public health emergency subsides, according to a new report.
But researchers argued that the surge in digital education shouldn’t come at the expense of privacy protections that keep kids safe online — even if neither parents nor educators ranked that as an urgent concern.
“Candidly, this was not something we expected to see” because of the challenges that came with transitioning to online learning so quickly, Elizabeth Laird, the senior fellow for student privacy at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, said during an Oct. 21 webinar.
“In spite of those challenges, parents and teachers really do see value in online learning and the task ahead is to figure out how to do it responsibly, how to protect students’ privacy,” and make sure they’re not subjected to data breaches and other threats, she said.
Yet the emphasis on student security hasn’t kept up with the proliferation of new tech, the group found in its report, which the center released Oct. 22.
Nearly half of teachers reported receiving no substantive training on how to protect students’ personal data. For example, 65 percent of teachers reported using group video conferencing programs such as Zoom — but just one in five educators said they’ve been trained on the privacy implications of the platforms.
At a moment of heightened instability for both families and educators, neither group considered students’ digital privacy to be a top priority during the pandemic, according to surveys, and 70 percent of parents said they trust schools’ student data practices. However, just four in 10 parents said their school has explained how it protects student data. In focus groups, students also expressed little concern about data privacy and security, all the while highlighting incidents where video calls were hacked or teachers exposed students’ grades while sharing their screens with the class.
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Online surveys and focus groups in the report were conducted by the firm Edge Research between May and August and included a nationally representative sample of more than 1,200 parents and more than 1,000 K-12 teachers.
When the pandemic shuttered campuses, schools nationwide scrambled to provide computers and internet to children without home access to technology, a trend that played out in the center’s survey data. In the teacher survey, 43 percent of educators said their schools provided students with computers before the pandemic. After COVID-19 closed campuses, that number jumped to 86 percent. But as the use of technology grows, the report argues, it’s incumbent on policymakers and educators to ensure that it’s used responsibly without hampering students’ civil rights.
Several recent incidents bring the issue to the forefront. Through a partnership with the company GoGuardian, Chicago teachers are able to access students’ computers remotely, giving them a window into how children use district-issued devices. But when the pandemic turned students’ bedrooms into makeshift classrooms, the program gave educators an unprecedented look into students’ homes. By providing teachers access to students’ webcams and microphones, a default setting within GoGuardian allowed teachers to watch tens of thousands of students without their knowledge, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The issue was fixed last month.
A recent report by The 74 highlighted how more than 100 school districts across the country — including the Minneapolis public schools — have contracted with the digital surveillance company Gaggle to monitor students’ online activities during remote learning. Through artificial intelligence and a team of moderators, Gaggle scans student emails, chat messages and files in search of trigger words like “bomb” and “kill me.” Though Gaggle is designed to keep students safe, critics argue it violates student privacy rights.
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Beatriz Beckford, a parent and national director of the nonprofit MomsRising, said during the webinar that third-party education technology companies should be subjected to greater regulation — especially software that “use algorithms that are steeped in racial bias.” Parents are unsure how education technology companies, including big players like Google, which was hit with an antitrust lawsuit this week by the U.S. Justice Department, safeguard student data, she said.
“Parents aren’t at a space where we know to even ask them, like, ‘Oh, they’re using Google Classroom, well how heavily regulated is Google Classroom with respect to student data?’” she said. “‘Is there going to be some data leak that happens somewhere and then that 43 that my kid got on a test because he had the flu that day is now circulating the internet forever?”
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Laird noted that Beckford’s concerns were reflective of parents’ sentiment more broadly, according to the center’s report.
“Most parents report schools not having those conversations with them, so parents are left just wondering what is happening with the data,” she said. “We think that schools should be having those conversations.”
New public opinion research indicates that COVID-19 and the hurried transition to remote learning presented teachers with an array of challenges that seriously damaged their sense of self-efficacy. The quality of school working conditions, including fair expectations and clear communication, was found to be critical in sustaining the educators’ perceptions of professional success.
While over half of the teachers surveyed by academics at Brown University and the City University of New York experienced a decline in their sense of success, those who reported better working conditions were somewhat shielded from the effects, said co-author Matthew Kraft, a professor of education and economics at Brown. He added that lessons could be taken from schools that offered strong instructional leadership and opportunities for collaboration.
“For those organizations that had strong working conditions to support rapid change [to online classes], it’s not that they knew more about how to do teaching remotely during a pandemic,” Kraft said. “It’s that they had an infrastructure that allowed them to successfully work together and come up with how to do it, rather than having teachers on their own islands, floundering, without much sense of community.”
The study, circulated as a working paper through Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, relied on data collected from surveys conducted in the fall and spring of the 2019-20 school year. A sample of nearly 6,000 teachers across nine states responded to both waves of the survey, which solicited their views toward their work environments.
To gauge how the COVID-19 shock affected the teachers’ work, the authors included questions in the spring survey asking how respondents had managed the switch to virtual learning, how engaged their students were in the new online format, and how successful they felt they had been both before and after the coronavirus outbreak.
Responses showed that the respondents experienced a “sudden and steep drop” in their sense of success, the authors wrote. While 92 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that they felt successful in the fall of 2019, just 73 percent said the same in the spring of 2020. In all, 53 percent of the teachers who completed the spring survey reported a decline in their sense of success compared with the period just before the pandemic and closures began.
The setbacks faced by teachers varied according to their levels of experience and the demographics of their schools. For instance, teachers working in high-poverty schools (i.e., those in which at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) reported that only half of their pupils regularly engaged in remote learning; for those teaching in low-poverty schools, three-quarters of students were engaged.
Older teachers were more likely to express uncertainty in adjusting to online learning technology, while their mid-career colleagues (those most likely to have school-age children) reported more difficulties balancing jobs with new caretaking responsibilities. But across the board, most survey respondents said that their sense of efficacy — what Kraft dubbed “the currency of teaching” — had taken a hit.
“I think that teachers are really struggling to find their purpose,” he said. “Many of them signed up for the joy of working with kids in person, and all of a sudden, they’re asked to teach remotely on a long-term basis. That presents long-term challenges, and for some teachers, and it may limit the kind of benefits they experience from working with kids.”
Notably, however, the negative impact of school closures was blunted among teachers who reported positive working conditions. In the spring survey, respondents were asked to rate the quality of their professional environments according to the degree to which they fostered collaboration and effective communication, held teachers to fair expectations, recognized their contributions, and provided targeted professional development.
Teachers who spoke more highly of their schools with respect to those five metrics were substantially less likely to report harm to their sense of success in the aftermath of COVID-19. While respondents at the 25th percentile for working conditions were 10 times more likely to report a decline in their sense of success during remote learning, those at the 75th percentile were only four times more likely.
The pandemic has disrupted K-12 education in a way that only a few historic crises (mostly deadly events like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11) have previously, but the survey evidence demonstrates the power of supportive working environments in helping teachers adjust to even catastrophic change. Kraft likened the baseline conditions of “open communication, strong professional development, rapport, and recognition” to the protection offered by earthquake-proof engineering. While rare, he said, the likelihood of new COVID-like threats could not be discounted in the future.
“I think we’re increasingly going to need to be creative about how we address students’ learning needs as these challenges — whether they be pandemics or wildfires or other catastrophic events — occur. So it speaks to the importance of building systems that are, by design, prepared to adapt.”
Report Estimates 1 to 3 Million Students Missing From School Since March, But Data on Disrupted Learning is ‘At Best a Moving Target’
Between 1 to 3 million students in the U.S. possibly haven’t attended school since pandemic-related closures began in March, according to estimates released today by Bellwether Education Partners.
Pulling from news reports and federal data sources, the team of researchers predict that between 10 and 25 percent of students in the most marginalized populations have completely missed out on learning for the past seven months.
“We did this because we know that just 1 percent of our most marginalized kids not coming to school might not seem like a lot in any one district, and many districts might not even be keeping careful count, but that’s more than 230 schools’ worth of children across the country — and we think that’s a big deal,” said Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner at the Washington-based non-profit who conducted the project with co-authors Bonnie O’Keefe and Matt Repka.
The five high-risk groups that have likely had the most difficulty connecting to school virtually are homeless students, children with disabilities, migrant students, English learners and those in foster care. If 10 percent were disconnected from school, for example, the number of students in those groups would range from 1,500 in Vermont to over 200,000 in California — the size of a large metro school district. If a quarter of students in those groups haven’t participated since March, that would amount to over 3 million nationwide.
“There is not enough public recognition of the serious challenges facing America’s most vulnerable students at this moment or of the consequences if millions continue to be disconnected from schools and other support systems indefinitely,” they wrote.
But they stressed that the estimates are far from perfect because many students fall into two or more groups and “these populations are at best a moving target.”
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The researchers considered two types of students in their model — missing students that haven’t logged on but would participate if they had the opportunity and those who are gone, which they defined as having “made a transition away from school engagement in ways that could be permanent.”
Korman, with Bellwether, noted that the researchers did not use districts’ actual enrollment counts so far from this year.
“Since accurate attendance data is hard to come by this year, and we know that many districts are still struggling to define what ‘in attendance’ even means,” she said, “we decided to focus on a set of hypotheticals that we think align with the reporting to date and the pockets of local data where it has been made available.”
A range of 1 to 3 million missing students doesn’t seem off to Jamie Fox, the head of communications for Remind, a communications platform widely used among schools. The company calculated that 1.3 million students stopped engaging — sending or responding to Remind messages — by the end of last school year.
“We’ve been trying to use our data to help administrators gain [a] line of sight to ‘missing students’ so they can plan interventions early,” Fox said.
Beyond government officials’ efforts to “stomp out” the virus so schools can reopen, the Bellwether authors recommended that education officials develop attendance strategies that recognize students’ unmet needs, work with social services and internet providers to coordinate responses, and collect and report real-time attendance data.
Hard to ‘keep track’
Missing students include those experiencing homelessness who already struggled to find reliable internet service or suitable places to do schoolwork even before COVID-19. A new report this week on rising youth homelessness in California, from UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, delved into the struggles facing these students.
“COVID has exacerbated those challenges since many students are still not going into a physical school location, making it hard to ‘keep track’ of their living situations, needs, and well-being,” said Geneva Sum, a communications specialist for the center. “Several of our interviewees stated that students are trying to do schoolwork in motel rooms with multiple family members and are experiencing difficulty concentrating, so some districts are distributing things like microphones and headphones to mitigate those issues.”
The Greenville County Schools in South Carolina is among those districts using the types of strategies the researchers recommend. To minimize the chances teachers would lose touch with students in the spring, the technology services department sent frequent reports to schools identifying which students weren’t logging on to their classes, according to district spokesman Tim Waller.
If teachers couldn’t make contact, the district’s attendance director and social workers would get involved. Ultimately, the district lost contact with 54 of the district’s 77,000 students.
Prior to the start of this school year, the Fulton County Schools in Georgia mounted a “locate, assess, connect” effort led by social workers at each school. They reached out to almost 7,500 students who missed more than 10 days last spring and completed less than 70 percent of their online assignments in March through May.
With a script and a list of questions for families, they asked about needs, including technology, housing and food.
“We strongly believe that this proactive, structured process was a key component of why we had so many students ready to go on day one in a full-time virtual environment,” said spokeswoman Shumuriel Ratliff.
Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors.
Pressing Through a Campaign Under COVID: Five Ways the American Federation of Teachers Has Changed How it Rallies Members
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten usually draws a few hundred teachers whenever she comes to Cleveland.
On Tuesday? About a dozen. By choice.
Though the union of 1.7 million members nationwide usually relies on large rallies to throw a mass of voters behind issues and candidates it supports, COVID-19 has forced it to change tactics this election season.
That includes limiting crowds for safety reasons. Even as Weingarten came through the city on a month-long coast-to-coast bus tour in a final push to support Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, the Cleveland Teachers Union did not call on members to come out for her morning stop at the May Hayes career training high school.
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The union has also reworked how it communicates with members so it can rally votes for Biden and against President Donald Trump, who it has called a threat to the nation’s democracy.
“If you call this the most consequential election of your lifetime, then you have to act it,” said Weingarten, who stayed masked throughout her visit.
Here are five ways the AFT has changed to a virtual and rarely in-person approach:
1 Door knocking campaigning is out
In previous elections, volunteers would knock on doors of other members or members of other AFL-CIO unions to talk about candidates and issues and hand out literature. That’s not happening this year because of COVID-19, though some volunteers, like in Cleveland, are just dropping off campaign materials at homes.
2 Texts are in
The AFT used to rely on members talking in the teachers lounge or in school hallways to share information. This year, for the first time, it started a formal program to encourage members to text their peers.
3 New AFT Votes app
Union officials created a new phone app called “AFT Votes” to send members news updates and reminders, without needing to update phone numbers and email addresses and send out mass texts.
“Physical distancing might mean we’re apart, but it doesn’t mean we can’t connect,” the AFT website states. “Get the App. Stay in the fight.”
4 Virtual phone banks
COVID-19 has shut down the traditional phone bank, where several volunteers gather at union headquarters to call members about key issues. But the union has still called 100,000 members or more each month since July, with volunteers calling from home. As support for volunteers, the AFT hosts a Zoom room for them while they call. If they have questions about an issue or need emotional support after a difficult call, colleagues are on the Zoom to help out, just as they would be in the traditional phone bank.
The union hoped for 2,000 volunteers to make 100,000 calls this month. It already has 3,000 volunteers and has met its call goal. So it is now making a second round of calls to make sure members have voted early or mailed in ballots.
5 Bus tour
A tour bus painted blue with the words “AFT Votes” and “We Care. We Fight. We Show Up. We Vote.” started a month-long cross-country trip in Los Angeles Sept. 30 with stops in 18 states before ending in Miami on Nov. 1. Weingarten has done shorter regional bus tours in the past, but this is her longest, by far.
Some stops, like in Michigan and Pennsylvania, both swing states in the presidential election, are geared toward promoting Biden over Trump. In others, like Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, Weingarten focuses on local tax issues affecting schools, with presidential or Congressional races added in.
In Cleveland Tuesday, Weingarten was joined by Cleveland school district, Cleveland Teachers Union and Ohio Federation of Teachers officials to promote Issue 68, a renewal and increase of a school tax for the Cleveland schools. The tax would be the first operating increase since 2012 and cover normal cost increases, along with maintaining the shift forced by COVID-19 to providing each student with a computer and internet access.
Along the way, she took a few swipes at Trump — “We see the president of the United States lying about everything every day” — and Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, for her “reckless disregard for children.”
She also urged Congress to pass a federal stimulus package to help schools cope with COVID-19.
“I believe it’s absolutely urgent to spend my October doing this,” she said, just before boarding her bus to head to Cincinnati. ”I’m happy to see the people that we’re seeing.”
But she also worried about the risk of traveling and gathering, even in a limited way, during the pandemic.
“Every time I have a negative COVID test, I’m relieved,” she said. “But I’m constantly concerned if I am putting people in harm’s way.”
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After nearly two years in court, a federal judge dismissed a suit filed by a group of Rhode Island students who alleged that their inadequate civics education left them ill-equipped to exercise their constitutional rights. But he struck an encouraging note in his decision, which he intended to “call out the need for” better civic education.
“This is what it all comes down to: We may choose to survive as a country by respecting our Constitution, the laws and norms of political and civic behavior, and by educating our children on civics, the rule of law, and what it really means to be an American, and what America means,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge William Smith. “Or, we may ignore these things at our and their peril.”
Despite his evident sympathies, Smith on Wednesday, granted a motion filed by the defendants — Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, the leaders of the state legislature, and the state’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education — to throw out the case.
The case, Cook v. Raimondo, was brought in Rhode Island District Court in 2018 by 18 student plaintiffs who argued that the state had failed to instruct them in the values and skills necessary to participate in a democracy, such as voting or serving on a jury. The case immediately garnered national media attention, earning a profile in the New York Times and a segment on the Daily Show.
The U.S. Supreme Court has previously rejected arguments in favor of a constitutional right to an education, an immovable legal impediment that led some to believe the plaintiffs’ cause hopeless. In April, however, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of a right to “a basic minimum education,” which had putatively been violated by the shoddy education offered in Detroit schools.
The full circuit court later voted to rehear the case, after which the state of Michigan agreed to provide a nine-figure settlement to improve conditions of public education.
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Judge Williams acknowledged the earlier decision, but ultimately concluded that the obligations of citizenship are “not wholly inaccessible without civics education.” Still, he commended the former students for bringing the case, writing that it “highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies.”
“The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”
Michael Rebell, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney and a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said that while he disagreed with the ruling, Williams’s decision showed a “wonderful” grasp of the urgency around improving civic education.
“If I ever had a decision where I lost and felt good about it, it’s this one,” Rebell told The 74 in an interview. “It is remarkable how well he understood the civic crisis facing our country and the importance of teaching our young people a broad understanding and respect for constitutional values and civility in relations among people and all of these democratic values that are absolutely necessary.”
Rebell added that he would appeal the ruling before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that Williams’s dismissal had clarified the case and given his clients “a clear map forward” to the appeals process.
“He’s made our path forward for appeal as clear and crisp as possible,” he said. “He brushed aside all the procedural issues and all technical legal standing issues.”
As Schools Impose Mask Rules to Slow Pandemic’s Spread, Disability-Rights Advocates Caution Against Strict Enforcement
Long before the pandemic closed campuses, children with disabilities were subjected to harsh school discipline far more frequently than their peers without special needs. But now, as districts return to in-person learning with a long list of public health rules like face mask mandates, disability-rights advocates fear that the situation could become worse.
“With the already existing crisis, that sets the stage for the crisis to really explode when buildings reopen,” Wendy Tucker, senior policy director at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said during a webinar Tuesday. But collaboration between parents and teachers, and less punitive approaches to enforcing school rules, could make all the difference, she said.
Despite a push in recent years to “rethink school discipline” — including debates about the role of campus cops following George Floyd’s death — Tucker said districts’ punitive responses during remote learning offer good reason to worry about what could come next. One Louisiana student was suspended for having a BB gun in his bedroom during remote learning, for example. Other schools have enforced dress codes for children who are learning at home and faced criticism for adopting remote attendance policies during a time of widespread uncertainties. In another incident, a Michigan teenager was sent to juvenile detention because she didn’t complete her online homework. Such anecdotes, Tucker said, don’t offer much hope “that things are going to be any better” when in-person learning resumes.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, students with disabilities were suspended from school more than twice as often as children without special needs. They were also far more likely to be subjected to seclusion and restraint. Though children with disabilities account for just 12 percent of the school population, they accounted for 71 percent of youth who were physically restrained at school and 66 percent of those who were secluded from their peers in 2015-16, according to the most recent federal data on the issue. Black students with disabilities — who account for roughly a fifth of children with special needs — were especially at risk of facing school discipline, representing more than a third of suspensions.
“Given the disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities pre-pandemic, raising the bar on student expectations feels like a recipe for disaster,” Tucker wrote in a new white paper. “However, schools can actually embrace this change as an opportunity to rethink their approach to discipline. Schools will need to prioritize professional development and intentional staff coaching in order to make important shifts schoolwide.”
While dealing with the slew of new rules around masks, social distancing and lunch protocols, the white paper urges educators to commit to discipline approaches that address the root causes of misbehavior, restorative justice and positive behavior strategies, rather than punitive measures like suspensions, expulsions and seclusion. In fact, restraining kids could put educators at risk because of the physical contact required, Tucker said. Meanwhile, schools should be transparent with parents about new rules and expectations and recognize that many children will go back to the classroom with trauma because of the pandemic, she said.
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School face mask requirements have already become a sticking point as children have returned to campuses, prompting controversy and several lawsuits. For example, a Florida mother recently sued the school district in Tampa over its face mask policy, citing her child’s autism and a belief that masks are ineffective as justification to halt the policy. Guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children wear cloth face coverings at school to prevent the virus from spreading.
However, the national center noted that face masks can be difficult for some children, and this will require districts to balance the needs of children against public health interests. Children with sensory needs may struggle to wear masks on their faces, according to the group, and others with emotional and behavioral disabilities may take their masks off if they become upset.
Such a scenario “demands intentional planning to avoid a tidal wave of harsh discipline in the name of preventing spread of the virus,” according to the white paper. But there are workarounds, and teachers should work in tandem with parents to develop solutions, Tucker said. For example, she said schools could allow children to wear face shields if a cloth mask isn’t feasible. However, there’s growing evidence suggesting that face shields aren’t effective at controlling the virus’s spread from airborne aerosol droplets.
But a mask with fun designs — such as one with a dinosaur or Star Wars theme — could be more appealing to some children, said Nathaniel Beers, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Some children who are averse to wearing masks could grow accustomed if they’re allowed to wear them as bracelets at home before moving them to their faces, he said.
“If we think creatively about how we’re using the face covering, when we’re using the face covering, how we practice using it, and coach students and children through that, we can help many of those kids be able to wear face coverings for much of the school day,” Beers said.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has also raised the tension between mask rules and children with special needs, noting in a Q&A last week that face coverings present a hurdle for some kids. In instances “where a child with a disability has extreme sensory issues and cannot tolerate wearing a face covering in a school or at all,” enforcing mask rules could violate the federal special education law.
“School districts should therefore make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices or procedures — including any addressing the use of face coverings — when those modifications can be made consistent with the health, safety and well-being of all students and staff, and are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability,” according to the office.
Teachers Turned to Social Media as a Remote Learning Tool During the Pandemic, but Privacy Experts Warn the Trend Could Open ‘Pandora’s Box’ of Problems
When the pandemic forced schools to shift to online learning with little warning, teachers got creative. Some utilized Facebook’s live video feature to connect with students. Others shared lessons on TikTok, the video-sharing platform popular among young people that President Donald Trump has sought to ban, citing national security concerns.
But the trend makes student privacy expert Amelia Vance cringe.
“I’ve been a little horrified over the pandemic at the number of teachers who have not been told” about the privacy implications of using social media for classroom instruction, said Vance, director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum. Vance urged teachers to steer away from social media as an educational tool during a webinar last week hosted by the privacy forum and George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, which centered on a need to improve teacher training on student privacy issues and education technology. “It’s something where we desperately need more training and, in this case, not only of teachers, but of administrators on the potential harms and consequences.”
Social media sites offer teachers a convenient way to connect with students remotely, but the privacy forum warns that they carry equity issues and may not comply with student privacy laws. For example, many social media companies explicitly prohibit children younger than 13 years old from signing up for their platforms because they collect user data for targeted advertising — a practice that runs afoul of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
Additionally, posting lessons to Facebook could disadvantage students who don’t have an account or struggle to stream videos because they have poor internet connectivity at home. Relying on social media for school could also have consequences for educators and open up a “Pandora’s box” of legal issues, said Lorrie Owens, the chief technology officer at the San Mateo County Office of Education in Redwood City, California. Such issues could include accusations of sexual misconduct against educators.
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Almost all schools use education technology in some form — especially this year — but student privacy laws vary greatly across the country, with several states taking a more aggressive approach to the issue in the past several years. A California law, for example, prohibits education technology companies from collecting and monetizing student data. However, a new George Mason University report found holes in educator training on education technology. In a survey of elementary school educators from 111 schools across nine states, 62 percent of respondents said school administrators encouraged them to use education technology, but just 44 percent said they were given training on how to actually navigate the platforms.
About half of surveyed educators said training on student privacy was required at their school, and among them, half claimed that they “always” read education technology privacy policies — compared with just 29 percent of those without such training. Training is associated with higher levels of student privacy awareness, according to the report.
Protecting student data from hacks and other breaches is especially important during the pandemic, Vance said, if districts are collecting information about young people’s social and emotional well-being.
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“There’s a lot of students undergoing a lot of trauma right now,” she said. “It is vital that there be trust between students and parents and teachers … to make sure we can really take care of students in the way we so desperately need to, especially right now.”
Parents are also concerned about students’ digital safety amid the pandemic, according to a recent online survey from the Center for Democracy and Technology. Among survey participants, the vast majority support the use of education technology and three-quarters said they’re likely to favor heightened online learning even after the pandemic subsides. However, 62 percent of parents said they’re at least somewhat concerned about the privacy and security of the data collected by their child’s school. Just 4 in 10 respondents said their school has explained to parents how it protects students’ data.
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In order to ensure student safety online, educators should stick to digital education services that have strict privacy protections and use social media only to share general district information, the panelists argued. Through the Forum’s Student Privacy Pledge, major education technology players including Google and Edmodo have vowed to safeguard school data. Yet in 2019, Google-owned YouTube agreed to pay a $170 million fine after federal regulators accused the company of knowingly harvesting kids’ data for targeted advertising. Also in 2019, TikTok agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle allegations that it collected children’s personal information.
“I am the type of person who rarely draws hard lines on things, and this is a pretty hard line,” said Kerry Gallagher, assistant principal for teaching and learning at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. “Social media is a tool for marketing, and it’s a tool for sharing good news about your district, but it is not a tool for communicating with or about students in any way.”