Trump Issues School Choice Executive Order Allowing States to Repurpose Funds for ‘Emergency Learning Scholarships’; Critics See Biden Swiftly Revoking Pandemic Measure
After failed attempts in Congress to shift more funding to parents wanting their children to return to in-person learning, President Donald Trump on Monday issued an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services to allow block grant funds to be used for pandemic-related private and homeschool expenses.
States would be able to use Community Services Block Grant funds to issue “emergency learning scholarships” to “disadvantaged” families. The funds could also be used for participating in microschools and pods, as well as therapy services for students with special needs.
“The prolonged deprivation of in-person learning opportunities has produced undeniably dire consequences for the children of this country,” the order said, noting that more than 50 percent of all public-school students in the U.S. began school remotely this fall.
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The block grant, funded at $775 million for fiscal year 2021, is used for a wide swath of anti-poverty programs in low-income communities, ranging from employment, nutrition, housing, and health care. Education is an allowable use for the funds. Trump, however, actually recommended eliminating the block grant in his budget proposal earlier this year, as well as throughout his administration.
The order came on the same day that departing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos commented on the $2.3 trillion pandemic relief and funding bill Trump signed Sunday, saying that the legislation “took the same tired approach” by not including provisions in the School Choice Now bill, which would have set aside 10 percent of federal relief funds for scholarships for private and homeschooling expenses. In a tweet, she said, the order “demonstrates our continued commitment to empowering students with the resources they need to find the right fit for their education.”
The Trump administration hinted in mid-November that the president might make such a move, but observers and public school advocates characterized it as “more bluster for the base” and an executive action that wouldn’t hold up in court.
They had the same reaction today.
“It’s super weird,” Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said about the executive order. “This will obviously not go into effect.”
She said that Biden would be able to reverse the order once he takes office Jan. 20. Biden’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who has opposed attempts in his own state to use earlier relief bill funds for school vouchers, said, “this move is a day late and a dollar short — a day late because the students have been waiting on federal leadership on the issue of school reopening for over half a year and a dollar short because this random idea to use health and human services funds is very unlikely to move the dial for many families.”
But school choice advocates celebrated the announcement.
“This is big, welcome news,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs at EdChoice, an advocacy organization. “Microschools, private schools, and homeschool co-ops are excellent options. Kids need help now; they don’t have time to wait.”
The order references guidance that the Department of Health and Human Services issued in August allowing federal child care funds to be used during the hours that students would normally be in school. But it adds that “virtual instruction is an inadequate substitute for in-person learning opportunities and this aid is insufficient to meet current needs.”
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Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, said she took exception to “deficit mindset perspective” of the order, but said the organization’s polling shows that more parents, especially parents of color “would love to participate in learning pods and other innovative educational approaches if funding and resources were available to them.”
“The key,” she added, “will be ensuring the equitable distribution of this funding to typically underserved and underresourced children who need it the most.”
Officials announced major changes Friday to admissions processes for selective New York City middle and high schools in the nation’s largest school district and one of its most segregated.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made the revisions — which advocates and integration supporters have long urged him to pursue — seven years into his tenure and one year before leaving office. Disruptions to testing and attendance brought on by the pandemic drove the timing of the changes, at least some of which are expected to outlast the coronavirus crisis.
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New York City has a greater percentage of screened schools than any other, and selective schools citywide tend to under-enroll Black, Latino and low-income students, who comprise the majority of the system’s 1.1 million students.
“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed longstanding inequities in our City’s public schools,” de Blasio said in a statement issued Friday. “Now, as we rebuild our city, we are expanding opportunities for all public-school students and doubling down on our mission to provide a quality education for all, regardless of a child’s zip code.”
Here’s what you need to know about the changes.
1 They’ll most affect middle school admissions
About 40 percent of middle schools citywide, 196 total, are selective, and historically, they’ve been disproportionately white. The mayor’s update orders middle schools to suspend all admissions-related screens for one year, including grades, standardized test scores and attendance, in favor of a random lottery system. Those familiar with Brooklyn District 15’s admissions overhaul might recognize the idea; in 2018, that district swapped middle school screens for a lottery in order to diversify schools. Families typically submit middle school applications in the fall. This year, they have from early January through early February to do so.
2 Screening at selective high schools will basically remain the same, with a few major exceptions
Officials this year are scrapping the geographic priority policy, which has in the past given students living near selective schools first dibs on spots. The change extends to District 2, the oft-cited poster child of schools skewed in the direction of the white and wealthy. That district, which includes the Upper East Side and West Village, has nearly four times more white students than the citywide average. Students citywide are supposed to have access to any NYC high school, according to a 2004 policy issued by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but that change doesn’t apply to certain districts and schools that are among the most sought-after.
De Blasio’s announcement won’t touch the entrance exam for the city’s eight specialized high schools — something he can’t do without state approval. In 2019, he tried to broach that subject with the legislature, but state lawmakers refused to eliminate the single, high-stakes test that governs admission to top schools like Stuyesant and Bronx High School of Science. Some have speculated that Democratic lawmakers, who recently secured a supermajority in the state Senate, might be willing to reconsider abolishing the test, which yields admissions offers to a very small number of Black and Hispanic students each year. In the meantime, eighth- and ninth-graders hoping to enroll in those schools next year will take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test starting in late January 2021, albeit in middle schools around the city, not just at a few campuses.
Performing arts high schools will hold virtual auditions this year; otherwise, admissions there will remain unchanged. The traditional and highly competitive audition process has also produced segregated high school enrollments, including at the famed LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, where 63 percent of students are white and Asian.
3 The city is taking steps to encourage individual districts to integrate
The mayor announced Friday that he would add five more grants for districts to craft their own diversity plans, in the vein of District 15’s efforts. That will mean 13 districts are now working on their own strategies, the mayor’s office said. They added that, over the next four years, officials intend to expand diversity planning to include all 32 community school districts.
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4 Gifted and Talented screens are here to stay
Among the assessments that will remain: the controversial standardized test given to very young children for admission to elementary school Gifted and Talented programs, which is administered by a proctor one-to-one. Eliminating it was one of the recommendations of a task force appointed by the mayor in 2019, and it remains to be seen what the evaluation will look like during the pandemic. The city’s Gifted and Talented programs are overwhelmingly white and Asian.
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5 The changes are a result of COVID
The mayor, who has at least nominally centered equity since his campaign days, has always had the ability to change admissions policies. In recent years, pressure has mounted for him to implement relevant revisions: In November, Teens Take Charge filed a federal complaint over high school screens contributing to segregation, and in December, District 2 principals called upon the city to eliminate the policy giving local students privileged access to their schools. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus made gathering the metrics often used in screening impractical — including grades and attendance — that de Blasio moved on the issue. After schools shuttered in March, students in younger grades changed from letter grades to pass-fail, administrators stopped using attendance records to assess student achievement, and state tests were canceled.
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6 Whether they stick will probably depend on next year’s newly elected mayor
De Blasio said Friday morning that “the status quo in NYC schools cannot continue.” But only a year of his tenure remains, so decisions about whether these policy changes should endure will fall into the hands of whoever assumes office in 2022. None of the sizable group of mayoral contenders, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn borough President Eric Adams and former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, have said much so far about school integration.
Sophie Mode, the communications director of Teens Take Charge, the student advocacy group that’s pushed for school integration, said Friday she’s already looking well beyond de Blasio to the forthcoming election.
“I think this is a really important time for candidates to prove they’re committed to an agenda that prioritizes our public schools,” she told The 74, adding of the recent changes, “This is definitely progress. But it’s nowhere near enough.”
In Final Hours of Senate Negotiations, Congress Poised to Approve $82 Billion in New Assistance for Schools, Including Funds to Help Reopen Classrooms
Dec. 28 Update: After keeping the nation in limbo over the holidays, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan COVID-19 relief package Sunday night. “I will sign the Omnibus and Covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” he said in a statement.
The president said he wanted $2,000 payments to individuals instead of $600. The House is expected to vote on a standalone bill that would increase the payments to $2,000. but it’s unclear whether Senate Republicans would even consider it. The long-awaited relief package includes about $54 billion for K-12 schools and $23 billion for colleges and universities.
Senate negotiators were closing in on a $900 billion bipartisan relief deal Thursday that would include $54 billion for schools, saying they were prepared to work through the weekend to get it done. That’s four times the amount schools received in the March relief package, but less than earlier proposals from both parties.
Lacking from the deal, however, is funding for state and local governments, which Democrats and education advocates believe is necessary to minimize cuts to education funding, but that President Donald Trump has called a “bailout.”
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on Congress not to leave for the holiday break without passing a bill that included funding for states to help families struggling financially, implement vaccination plans, and spark economic recovery.
To keep the government running, Congress must pass a $1.4 trillion federal spending bill before midnight Friday or a continuing resolution to buy some more time over the weekend.
The relief proposal no longer includes language that would make payments contingent on whether schools physically reopen — a provision that would have been nearly impossible to enforce as surging COVID cases has many districts wavering between remote and in-person learning.
State leaders are concerned about shortfalls in income and sales taxes as well as ongoing costs related to the pandemic. The National Conference of State Legislatures is forecasting revenues to be an average 11 percent lower than earlier projections for the rest of fiscal year 2021, according to Austin Reid, who directs the organization’s education standing committee.
While specific cuts to education won’t be finalized until state legislatures begin meeting next month, he said at least 10 states have either announced cuts so far or eliminated proposed increases. A 10 percent decline in state revenue generally translates into a 6 percent cut in education funding, he said.
The relief deal — which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly hopes will boost the chances of two GOP senators in a Georgia runoff election — also leaves out liability protections he sought to protect employers, including school districts, from legal claims if employees get COVID-19 at work. The results of the Jan. 5 runoff will determine whether Republicans remain in control of the Senate and McConnell keeps his position as majority leader.
Those omissions, however, could pave the way for another relief bill in the Biden administration, experts said. President-elect Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that there should be more relief to come. “It’s an important down payment,” he said.
Without state and local funding and liability protections, both parties would have an incentive to work on another package, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
“I would be concerned if McConnell were to do a deal that moved one, but not the other, because then there is feasibly less pressure for both parties to come back to the table,” she said.
Negotiators are working on a compromise between two proposals released Monday by a coalition in the Senate that included Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah. One plan totaled $748 billion, but left out state and local funding, while the other included that funding and an additional $160 billion for liability protections.
Holding up the current deal are decisions about whether to extend an eviction moratorium that expires at the end of this month and the amount of direct payments to families and individuals.
The plan is expected to use the same structure for education funding as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, passed in March — an allotment for states to distribute to districts through Title I and a $7.5 billion fund for governors that would include $2.5 billion for private schools.
The proposal also includes $10 billion for child care — a fifth of what Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, ranking member on the education committee, recommended in May. And it includes $10 billion for broadband, including $3 billion for distance learning.
While the CARES Act allowed states and districts to direct funding toward distance learning, it did not include targeted funding for broadband access and devices. Still, Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, suggested the $3 billion is inadequate and that the current proposal “regards that access as a luxury.”
“The pandemic exposed the digital inequities among our students,” he said. “Sufficient, reliable broadband and device access is an essential condition for high-quality education.”
Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit, said the inclusion of funding to close the “home learning gap” was encouraging and that $3 billion could meet the demand for internet access for students for the rest of the school year. A permanent solution, however, would involve changing the federal internet service discount program, known as E-Rate, “so that schools have an ongoing source of funds to ensure every student has equal access to educational opportunity.” The program currently doesn’t cover students’ home internet access.
The $54 billion is roughly a quarter of the amount AASA and the Council for Chief State School Officers have estimated they need to reopen schools on a broader scale. And it’s less than the $125 billion superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts — New York’s Richard Carranza, Los Angeles’s Austin Beutner, and Chicago’s Janice Jackson — called for in a Sunday op-ed.
Districts have been using their own funds to cover cleaning, coronavirus testing, contact tracing, mental health support and other expenses, they wrote. On Dec. 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report estimating the total costs of recommended cleaning procedures at $3 billion nationally, while the price tag for custodial services would range between $5 billion and $10 billion. Transportation costs could also reach roughly $9.5 billion, the report said.
The deal in Congress wouldn’t include targeted funding for programs such as tutoring and summer school to help students make up for lost learning — another reason advocates could continue to push for another bill early next year.
“Budgets are shrinking while needs are expanding from the pandemic,” Nozoe said. “Schools need that funding not just to stabilize budgets shaken by local economies, but to accelerate learning after the pandemic.”
Anti-LGBT Activist Loses Orleans Parish School Board Race to a Gay Educator; 4 Other NOLA Runoff Elections Settled
After coming within a hair of winning a third term on the Orleans Parish School Board in November, Leslie Ellison lost a recent runoff in New Orleans’ District 4. Businesswoman Ellison has a history of anti-LGBTQ activism, eight years ago urging Louisiana lawmakers to allow charter schools to deny admissions to gay students.
All seven seats on the board were up for election this year. In addition to the contest in which adjunct community college professor J.C. Romero, a gay former teacher, bested Ellison, four other races were settled in the Dec. 5 runoff election. In Districts 2 and 7, incumbents Ethan Ashley and Nolan Marshall Jr. were reelected. An open seat in District 5 went to Katie Baudouin, and newcomer Carlos Zervigon won District 6.
In the runup to the general election, attention focused on some candidates’ desire to weaken the superintendent’s authority over closing failing schools in the nearly all-charter district. The final results of the election suggest such a change is unlikely.
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Several prominent education groups did not endorse in the District 4 contest, though less than two weeks before the runoff, an 11th hour controversy arose. The Black Alliance for Civic Empowerment Action Fund, which received donations from a political action committee associated with Democrats for Education Reform and from Walmart heir Jim Walton, paid for signs and mailers promoting Ellison.
It’s not clear that either donor knew the organization was planning to spend in support of Ellison, who is African-American. Romero is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants.
Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.
Research Shows Changing Schools Can Make or Break a Student, But the Wave of Post-COVID Mobility May Challenge the Systems in Ways We’ve Never Seen
This article is one in a series spotlighting the broader consequences of families disenrolling their children, students changing schools and children going missing amid the coronavirus crisis. See all our coverage at ‘COVID’s Missing Students.’ (If you or a student you know changed schools or stopped going to class altogether because of the pandemic, tell us your story. On Twitter: #WhereAreTheKids and #IAmHere)
The closing months of 2020 have brought little certainty to the question of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Through the beginning of a new school year, the drawn-out climax of a disputed election, and even the development of three separate vaccines, coronavirus infections and deaths have surged in a frightening second wave that has left tens of millions of K-12 students stuck in virtual classes for the time being.
But as 2021 nears, the mystery of when they will return to in-person learning will give way to the question of where they will return to. Whether most districts open their buildings this spring or must wait until next fall, a significant number of children will eventually find themselves enrolled in schools different from the ones they left last March. And the academic consequences of that change in environment may be huge.
Social scientists have spent decades studying school mobility, the phenomenon of students leaving one school and enrolling in another. Their accounts are complex and sometimes ambiguous. Almost every student eventually changes schools, even if only through grade promotion. The effects of those moves, particularly when they occur intentionally and strategically, can be advantageous to learning as kids embrace new academic challenges and a better social fit. But with few exceptions — military families being the most notable — students who move frequently tend to do worse than those who stay put. What’s more, schools that enroll larger proportions of highly mobile children are typically stressed learning environments where even non-mobile students struggle.
The tidal movements of school migration accelerated by the pandemic will push and pull various populations of students in radically different directions. Some families, economically unmoored by the shock of the COVID recession, will be forced to move to new school districts. The desperate parents of special needs students will search far and wide for in-person services to replace those their children lost in the spring. And with a number of major districts still debating when and how to fully reopen their campuses, those with the means and inclination will simply opt out of public education altogether.
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Evidence of the latter possibility has been plentiful in recent months. Interest in homeschooling has exploded since the end of the 2019-20 school year, and an industry group for private schools has said that over half its members saw more inquiries this summer than in the previous year. The wealthy and cosmopolitan-minded have even been willing to leave the country for Canada and New Zealand.
But for students without international passports, the prospect of switching schools will often be colored by economic necessity and tortured decisions. Stefanie DeLuca, director of the Poverty & Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University, told The 74 that “the same vulnerabilities that were present before COVID will be exacerbated, especially with respect to housing.”
“In our work in a number of cities…much of the school ‘choice’ among poor families, especially poor families of color, was reactive — sparked by housing and other instabilities that we know are already increasing with COVID,” DeLuca wrote in an email. Those instabilities mean that parents are forced to seek new places to live and work, she added, “often finding that the neighborhoods where they can get housing have schools that don’t meet their needs.”
The persistence of American social inequalities, through years normal and freakish, mean that the present wave will unfold in some familiar ways. But COVID’s uncanny hold on our fears — the disease is killing more Americans than ever, even with treatments being rushed for public use — means that it will also uproot masses of children in ways somewhat similar to disasters like Hurricane Katrina, said Syracuse University economics professor Amy Ellen Schwartz. The scope of the changes make it “difficult to draw lessons from the existing research,” she said.
“You have to leave because your parent moves, that’s an individual experience. You have to leave because your whole school shuts down, that’s totally different. And we can think of lots of examples of that: school buildings destroyed by hurricanes, or wildfires in California. If I had to guess about what will be the impact, I’d want to think about that kind of mobility because it’s a shared experience, and you’ve got a bunch of kids in this boat together.”
‘In general, it’s bad’
The traditional forms of student mobility don’t look much like the kind precipitated by COVID-19 and prolonged school closures. But much of the research around unplanned or involuntary mobility — triggered perhaps when a student’s family circumstances change, or when they are expelled from their school — has shown negative effects, especially for children who move frequently.
Russell Rumberger, an emeritus professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has published widely on mobility and attempted to differentiate among its manifestations. In a 2015 brief on the existing literature for the National Education Policy Center, he concluded that most research studies had found “consistent and severe” negative effects on test scores and high school graduation rates.
In an interview, Rumberger gave his overall takeaway: “In general, it’s bad, and the more it happens, the worse it is.”
“How I look at mobility is through the notion of instability,” he said. “Kids crave and need stability — especially younger kids, but even older kids. You can have instability in your school life, or your home life, or your community, but the cumulative effect of this instability is problematic for a lot of kids.”
Moves between schools, especially those undertaken in the middle of a school year, can often be traced to destabilizing family events like divorce, eviction, or a parent’s job loss. Among the populations most likely to be chronically mobile are homeless and foster children, with one study of 159 students finding that they averaged eight school transfers during less than seven years of foster care. Because such transfers often allow two- or three-week intervals before students must be present at their new schools, Rumberger said, the moves are often entwined with long periods of absenteeism.
Even more prosaic changes have the potential to impede learning. Early education specialists have warned recently that the transition from preschool to kindergarten can be accompanied by serious anxiety, with low-income kids needing particular assistance in making the switch.
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If a change of that magnitude, undertaken by every child in the country, can carry deleterious consequences, the upheaval of the coronavirus could potentially mark students for years to come.
A 2008 RAND Corporation study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers troubling conclusions. An astonishing one-fourth of Louisiana’s public school students were at least temporarily displaced by Katrina’s destruction, and many were afflicted by setbacks that went beyond the academic, including mental health and behavioral problems. Schools with a high percentage of displaced students saw much higher rates of tardiness, verbal abuse of teachers, bullying, and even robbery.
Marshall Jean, a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago, said that the logistical difficulties and wholesale unfamiliarity characterizing large-scale mobility (often occurring due to promotional changes, like when a cohort of students moves from elementary to middle school, or when schools close for financial or academic reasons) made it more difficult for both students and schools to cope with the pedagogical challenge.
“A school counselor will doubtlessly find it easier to provide support for a dozen or two new entering students versus hundreds at a time,” he argued. “I would speculate that any substantial increases in COVID-related mobility will have similar destabilizing effects on academic environments that will exacerbate disruption in learning.”
Because highly mobile students are often carried on the winds of massive social disadvantage, however, it can be hard to differentiate the causal impact of a move from the circumstances that precipitated it. If a family moves to a new state after a family breakdown that involved domestic abuse, for example, the multiple layers of dysfunction preceding the school switch likely explain far more than the mobility itself. Julia Burdick-Will, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins, said that she considered the isolated effects of moving schools to be meaningful, but “not massive.”
“The effects of other things, like family changes and economic hardships, are probably larger,” she said. “For kids in those circumstances, if you can provide a stable school enrollment, that would be better. But you also don’t want to take it so far that you think that the school changes on their own are going to be the biggest thing going on.”
“The literature says, ‘These [mobile] kids do worse,’” she noted. “But really, on the whole, we’re unable to fully disentangle the effects of moving from the underlying factors that led to it. And from a policy point of view, I’m not sure it matters: You show me a kid who’s moved three times in the last eight months, I’ll show you a kid who needs special attention.
Effects on schools
Entirely apart from the effects of moving schools on individual students is the structural impact on the schools and school systems that enroll them.
Burdick-Will’s research largely focuses on youth in Baltimore, who are highly likely to move between schools in any given school year. She warned that COVID-19, which has already interrupted parts of two school years, could ultimately result in the kind of “unmanageable churning that makes enrollments really hard to predict and classrooms really hard to teach.”
“You end up dealing with a whole new population every year,” Burdick-Will said. “And that’s just if you’re talking about year-to-year.” When transfers occur in the middle of the school year, it can complicate teachers’ jobs even more. “Kids just show up in the classroom in the middle of the year, and the teacher doesn’t know anything about what they’ve been doing. That’s a real instructional problem.”
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The academic losses are even felt by students who haven’t switched schools. In 2011, researchers at the University of Chicago published a study that tracked over 300,000 students who attended the city’s schools between 1995 and 2005. The negative effects of being enrolled in schools with high rates of mobile classmates accumulated over time, they found, contributing somewhat to the district’s mathematics achievement gap between white and African American students. Disturbingly, those effects were felt by both transferring students and stable students.
Several sources cited the danger that COVID-related transience posed to older students, who will exercise more autonomy than elementary or middle school students. One 2012 study found that high school “switchers” were 6-9 percent more likely to drop out than “stayers” who didn’t change schools. Johns Hopkins’s DeLuca, one of the paper’s coauthors, observed that the social ties tethering adolescents to their classmates, coaches, and instructors “can be what makes or breaks it when it comes to staying in school and staying off the street.”
“It’s not just about math and reading,” Deluca wrote. “it’s often about the enjoyment, motivation and support [students] receive through interactions with teachers and peers, inside the classroom and during extracurricular activities. Both, but especially the latter, can provide meaning, purpose and escape from the often unstable and difficult homes poor students come from.”
Given that dropping out is often a gradual process that can be halted by schools through outreach to absent or struggling students, it will be even more incumbent on schools to keep track of comings and goings once they reopen. Burdick-Will compared the data collection challenge to the one facing districts after disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
“Texas and Louisiana have systems for tracking enrollments and closures due to hurricanes in a way that a state like Maryland just doesn’t,” she said. “Even when kids go back to school, there are going to be two-week shutdowns here and there, and we’re going to need a system to account for those dates and figure out where those kids re-enroll. So it’s not a natural disaster in the same physical sense, but I think it’s going to have the same kind of social disruption.”
For all the academic and developmental dangers faced by younger students separated from their schools, Burdick-Will said she was grateful that her own children are still in the early grades.
“Kids in late middle school, high school, they don’t have the time to recover,” she lamented. “The consequences are greater because there are other options: They can just go to college, get a job, whatever. If it’s just temporary, kids are incredibly resilient. But if you’re late in the schooling process, or there’s other kinds of instability on top of it, then there’s no chance to figure out how to make it work.”
This article is one in a series spotlighting the broader consequences of families disenrolling their children, students changing schools and children going missing amid the coronavirus crisis. See all our coverage at ‘COVID’s Missing Students.’ (If you or a student you know changed schools or stopped going to class altogether because of the pandemic, tell us your story. On Twitter: #WhereAreTheKids and #IAmHere)
A new 40,000-person study from Iceland has found that children under 15 are about half as likely as adults to be infected with COVID-19 and, when they do catch the virus, only half as likely as adults to transmit it to others.
As U.S. officials grapple with school closures in the midst of the country’s deadliest surge in coronavirus cases to date, and as failure to control the virus has led to over 316,900 confirmed cases in K-12 schools, the findings deliver the most definitive numbers thus far on youth infection and transmission. The results come from contract tracing and genetic sequencing conducted by Iceland’s Directorate of Health and Reykjavik-based human-genomic company deCODE genetics.
The findings from Iceland build on the scientific consensus that age matters when it comes to catching and spreading COVID-19. Some studies, however, put the immunological threshold even earlier, at 10 to 12 years old. As children begin to go through puberty, it appears that their risk of contracting and transmitting the virus increases. Data from a national tracker of school coronavirus cases called the COVID Monitor, which includes case numbers from over 7,000 U.S. school districts, find that the rate of positive cases for high school students is nearly three times that of elementary school students.
As metropolitan school systems such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and the nation’s largest district, New York City, use these numbers to guide their reopening strategy, many worry that the teachers who share the classroom with younger students are not out of harm’s way. Educators’ fears of being sickened by the virus have at times pitted demands from teachers unions to keep schools remote against the needs of stressed-out and concerned families. Many students’ grades have plummeted and, in extreme cases, entire classes have fallen behind.
While student infections are far lower in elementary school than in high school, teacher case rates do not vary significantly by grade, national data show.
“If you’re concerned about staff exposure, then elementary schools aren’t that great,” Rebekah Jones, who runs the COVID Monitor, told The 74.
Emily Oster, Brown University professor and curator of the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, interpreted the staff case numbers differently, chalking them up to community spread.
“The reason for [the comparable rates among teachers across grade level] is likely that infections are occurring outside school,” she told The 74 over email. “So it just suggests the outside activities are similar in the two groups of teachers.”
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Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration late Friday approved a COVID-19 vaccine formula from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, a major step toward thwarting the pandemic in the U.S. It remains unclear, however, whether young people under 16 will have access to the shots and whether teachers will get priority in line, meaning the science on school-level transmission will remain critical.
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Scientific studies offer preliminary insight on why youth and adults interact with the virus differently. One potential explanation, based on an antibody study published in Nature Immunology, lies in young people’s dynamic immune system, which uses “new T-cells” that may be able to adapt to COVID-19 as opposed to adults’ “memory T-cells” that rely on exposure to past contagions and are not as effective.
“School-age children, they’re designed to respond to new pathogens efficiently,” Donna Farber, a Columbia University immunologist and study co-author, told The 74 last month.
As Coronavirus Cases Surge, New Antibody Study Shows Young Children May Be Less Likely to Spread Virus; Could Spell Good News for In-Person Elementary and Middle School Learning
Disability Rights Groups Send Letter to Biden Transition Team Opposing Education Secretary Contender Eskelsen Garcia, Say Former NEA Chief Failed to Steer Union ‘Toward Equity and Access for Students With Disabilities’
Controversial comments that Lily Eskelsen Garcia made five years ago in an address to a progressive advocacy organization have resurfaced this week as speculation continues over whether the former National Education Association chief will be named President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for education secretary. As Linda Jacobson reported on Wednesday, backlash has been mounting online this week over the speech, during which Eskelsen Garcia can be heard detailing a list of students with diverse needs, such as the “hearing impaired” and “physically challenged.”
She then also included “the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.”
On Thursday, numerous disability rights groups co-signed and circulated a letter they had sent to the Biden transition team, expressing concerns for Eskelsen Garcia’s track record on issues involving students with disabilities:
Dear Members of the Biden Education Transition Team,
The signatories of this letter are national advocacy organizations that represent students with disabilities, their families, and the educators who serve them. Together, we advocate for policies that ensure students with disabilities are included in all aspects of society and have every opportunity to succeed. We write to express serious concern about the potential nomination of Lily Eskelsen Garcia as the Secretary of Education and positions previously taken by the National Education Association (NEA) while she served as their president.
Eskelsen Garcia served as President of the NEA from 2014 through 2020 and, in that role, led and oversaw the development of many positions that stood in direct opposition to those taken by parents and parent advocacy organizations in support of children with disabilities. The positions taken by NEA were detrimental to the success of students with disabilities. These include but are not limited to the following:
1. Opposing the core legal tenet of “least restrictive environment” in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA makes clear that every child with a disability must receive their education alongside students without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. This fundamental promise within the law is known as the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) requirement. Students with disabilities are general education students first. Any student receiving specialized services (e.g., students with disabilities, low-income students, English Learners) is first and foremost a student in the general education system. Research overwhelmingly shows that providing students with disabilities an education in the general education classroom has clear academic, social, and behavioral benefits for students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities. Despite this, in 2016, NEA published an article suggesting that inclusion does not prepare students for life after high school and that following the law’s requirement of LRE is not always appropriate.
2. Opposing statewide assessments, citing their harm on students with disabilities. NEA’s “2020 Policy Playbook” indicates their opposition to statewide assessments and calls on policymakers to reexamine the assessment system due to the tests’ “negative effects on students from all backgrounds, especially those from under-resourced communities, English language learners, children of color, and those with disabilities.” Ironically, statewide assessments are the only comparable indicator available to the public demonstrating how all students with disabilities are performing compared to their grade level peers in multiple grades. It wasn’t until the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 that students with disabilities were counted in state and district accountability systems. Before this, parents did not know how their children were performing against state grade level standards. Disability and civil rights advocates strongly oppose a return to an era when students with disabilities and other systemically marginalized students were
3. Opposing the 1% cap on the use of alternate assessments in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Research shows that the vast majority of students with disabilities can and should be achieving at grade level content standards.4 It is only appropriate for a small percentage of students with disabilities to participate in statewide alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS). Thus, the Every Student Succeeds Act imposes a 1% cap, limiting participation in these assessments to 1% of students (approximately 10% or less of students with disabilities). NEA opposed this cap and fought to allow more students to be held to this lower standard, despite students’ ability to achieve at higher levels. Despite it being contrary to the law, being assigned to the AA-AAS can have very significant negative consequences for students with disabilities, including removal from general education instruction and lowering expectations for students to achieve grade level standards, being assigned to segregated classrooms, and being unable to graduate with a regular high school diploma.
4. Opposing the elimination of the “2 percent” assessment. After the passage of No Child Left Behind (when students with disabilities were first included in the assessment and accountability system) and before the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states were permitted to develop alternate assessments on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS). According to the National Council on Disability (NCD), “[t]hese assessments allowed districts and states to count students with disabilities who were ‘unlikely to achieve grade-level proficiency’ as proficient if they scored proficient on alternate assessments on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS) as long as students included as proficient did not exceed 2% of all students assessed (2% translates to approximately 20 of students with disabilities).” In practice, this assessment (and the instructional practices that accompanied it) was used to lower expectations for students with disabilities and many states assessed more than 2% of their students using this test. In some places, such as districts in California, as many as 70% of students with disabilities were tested under the AA-MAS. With the support of the disability community, the U.S. Department of Education issued a rule in 2015 to prohibit the 2 Percent rule.
5. Opposing efforts to eliminate seclusion and reduce physical restraint in schools. Data from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection continues to show that most students restrained and secluded were students with disabilities, who comprised 13 percent of all students enrolled, yet represented 80 percent of all students physically restrained, and 77 percent of all students secluded. Restraint and seclusion are dangerous practices that continue to cause children trauma, injury, and death. The disability community has advocated for many years that federal legislation is needed to establish national minimum standards to prohibit the use of seclusion and prevent the use of physical restraint in schools. NEA supported the Keeping All Students Safe Act in 2014 but then failed to do so under Eskelsen Garcia’s leadership through 2020.
As the leader of NEA, Eskelsen Garcia had the opportunity to steer the organization toward equity and access for students with disabilities but failed to do so. We have serious concerns about placing someone with such values at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education — a federal agency that is charged with upholding the civil rights of students with disabilities and improving outcomes for all students.
We would be happy to discuss these concerns in greater detail and hope you’ll seriously consider them as you develop and finalize the slate of potential nominees. We encourage you to ensure that any nominee for Secretary of Education has a strong track record of supporting the inclusion of and ensuring high standards for students with disabilities.
Association of University Centers on Disabilities
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Center for Public Representation
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools
National Down Syndrome Congress
The Advocacy Institute
Five years ago, states took back control over public schools.
That’s how Congress framed the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by then-President Obama on December 10, 2015. An unexpected bipartisan gift during a period of divided government, the bill swept aside the top-down mandates of its mostly unloved predecessor, No Child Left Behind. In the future, states would instead be trusted to judge failing schools according to their own criteria and provide them with the targeted assistance necessary to turn things around. The watchword, forever on the lips of politicians and the pens of headline writers, was “flexibility.”
At the half-decade mark, however, some worry that very flexibility could be coming at the cost of equity — and historically underserved students will likely bear that cost. A new report released today from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national education policy and advocacy group, finds that different states vary dramatically in the schools they identify for support; in several, large percentages of even the lowest-performing schools are not offered crucial federal resources for improvement. The students who attend those struggling schools, disproportionately drawn from poor and minority families, are in danger of being overlooked, the authors warn.
Ominously, the disparities observed don’t even capture the effects of 2020’s unprecedented K-12 event, the coronavirus pandemic. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden still needs to decide whether to allow states to pause this year’s round of standardized testing, but the need to strengthen accountability frameworks is made even clearer by COVID’s disruptions to information-gathering on metrics like absenteeism and high school graduation rates, according to report author Anne Hyslop.
“This data came from Year One of ESSA implementation, before the pandemic, and I don’t think anyone is expecting that these [accountability] systems have gotten better this year,” said Hyslop, the Alliance’s assistant director for policy development and government relations. “If this is the situation before the COVID-19 crisis, it’s incumbent as we think about recovery that we think about what kids need moving forward.”
The analysis relies on publicly available data from 10 states: Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, and Washington State. Hyslop and coauthors Lindsay Dworkin and Ziyu Zhou studied the quality ratings each state assigned to its schools, the demographic composition of those schools, and the criteria by which the states identified them for additional support. The data came from the 2018-19 school year, the first in which states issued ESSA-compliant school ratings and identifications based on the previous year’s data.
The findings show that the law has done what many of its authors vowed it would when debating its provisions in the late Obama era. States are allowed much greater freedom to determine whether a given school qualifies for intervention, a process that requires schools to develop their own improvement plans and allows them access to federal Title I money to implement them.
But that freedom was supposed to be mixed with firm guardrails pushing states to step in when schools persistently underperformed (scoring in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools statewide, for example, or graduating fewer than two-thirds of high school seniors). Similar rules applied to schools where one or more groups of children, such as low-income students or English learners, were underperforming. Hyslop said that when push came to shove, those precautions didn’t prevent states from under-identifying schools for badly needed help.
“There was hope that the floor that states had to set was high enough,” she lamented. “What we found with this analysis, unfortunately, was that even some of the guardrails that were perceived as the most clear-cut and straightforward…are not so clear-cut in implementation.”
One glaring example involves graduation rates. While states are required to flag high schools where fewer than 67 percent of seniors graduate, in practice, some slip through the cracks because of states’ differing criteria for intervention. Sixty-seven percent may be the federal benchmark, but states don’t have to measure by four-year graduation rate; some rely on a five- or six-year rate, and a few average that rate over successive years.
That allows different states to identify radically different portions of their schools. Florida identified nearly 70 percent of its schools for some form of institutional support, while Connecticut identified just 4 percent. Even among schools that are acknowledged to be among the lowest-performing in their states — receiving F ratings — significant differences exist. In Michigan, a full 80 percent of schools rating in the bottom 5 percent statewide were overlooked for support.
Under-identification exerts a disproportionate impact on students from disadvantaged groups, who are much more likely to attend poorly rated schools. In Mississippi, for example, African American students are 17 times more likely to attend an F-rated school than white students. Nearly half of those schools were not identified for support by the state.
In particular, Hyslop pointed to the example of Connecticut, which is plagued by one of the steepest achievement gaps in the country between white and non-white students. The state’s definition of a “consistently underperforming” group of students is so restrictive, the authors note — it had to perform in the bottom 1 percent statewide across 12 separate academic indicators for three consecutive years — that few, if any, schools met the classification.
Hyslop said she found the process “egregious,” but that it was well within the state’s intended flexibility under federal education law. It “wasn’t a case of Connecticut going around the law,” she added, but rather one of ESSA “[allowing] states to craft a definition of consistently underperforming subgroups to pick and choose which schools it wants to support — and, by extension, which students.”
“There definitely is no Goldilocks, ‘just-right’ number of schools to identify,” she concluded. “But when you see only one school identified for Latino students in the entire state of Connecticut, given the state of their achievement gap, that makes me question whether the system is credible and is set up in a way to make sure that schools serving historically underserved kids are getting the resources and help they need.”
Former NEA Chief Eskelsen Garcia, Possible Education Secretary Pick, Under Scrutiny for Comments About Special-Needs Kids
Updated December 18
On December 10, numerous disability rights groups co-signed and circulated a letter they had sent to the Biden transition team, expressing concerns about her track record on issues involving students with disabilities. Read the full letter.
Comments that Lily Eskelsen Garcia made five years ago in an address to a progressive advocacy organization have resurfaced this week as speculation continues over whether the former National Education Association chief will be President-elect Joe Biden’s likely pick for education secretary.
In a list of students with diverse needs, such as the “hearing impaired” and “physically challenged” Eskelsen Garcia included “the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.”
Eskelsen Garcia apologized, saying the first was a slip of the tongue — she had meant to say “tardy” — and the second was a reference to students who try to annoy their teachers when they have a bad day.
But the disability community didn’t take it that way, and now, opponents of a union leader being named education secretary are putting a spotlight on her words.
“And you all were worried about @BetsyDeVosED?” Center for Education Reform CEO Jeanne Allen tweeted Monday. “Did you ever hear her say anything mean about a child?”
“She has a history of being incredibly caustic and negative about a lot of things,” Allen said. “I think she’s got a history of saying pejorative things.”
Allen added that those who raised the issue are advocates for children with special needs. “These are not people who are particularly on one side or another,” politically, she said.
The question is whether Eskelsen Garcia’s comments — whether intentional, misunderstood or something else — could derail her chances at the nomination.
It’s “hard to imagine that would be a deal-breaker for someone with her long public profile and bona fides,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.“But sensitivities are such that almost anything is possible.”
Eskelsen Garcia, Utah’s Teacher of the Year in 1989, served as NEA president from 2014 until earlier this year. In 2017, she led an effort to craft the union’s policy statement on charter schools, saying it supports only those that are authorized and held accountable by school districts, not those that are managed by private organizations.Joanne Cashman, an independent consultant, worked with Eskelsen Garcia on issues related to special education when Cashman directed the Individuals with Disabilities Act Partnership at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. She said Eskelsen Garcia continued that work while she was president, after federal funding ended.“She has supported that kind of relationship-building, and that idea that we have to learn by interacting with other people, not just at one-time events,” Cashman said. “She has done what she could do to move [the work] through the channels at NEA so it had organizational support.”Leslie Finger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas, agreed that Eskelsen Garcia’s comments likely wouldn’t be enough to knock her off the top of a list of Biden nominees, especially since she has strong support among Hispanic groups.
But Finger doubted that someone with a more moderate stance toward charter schools and school choice would be getting the same treatment.
“I think that the education reform community doesn’t want somebody so closely aligned to the teachers unions and has an incentive to discredit her,” Finger said. “Prominent education reformers seem to have been broadcasting these comments.”
The 74 reached out to the NEA for comment but did not receive a response.
Hess added there’s a growing “real sense she could be the pick,” and that Eskelsen Garcia “checks a lot of boxes for Biden and has a strong public presence.”
If that is the case, and the Senate confirms her — which could hinge on the results of the Georgia runoff election next month — advocates for students with disabilities will be looking for how she’ll approach issues related to special-needs children.
“The leader of the agency responsible for implementing the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] and enforcing protections through the Office for Civil Rights needs to be a leader in establishing that students of all abilities are valued and respected,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.
The sentiments Eskelsen Garcia “has shared in the past reflect a sense of ‘otherness’ which is hugely problematic to everything we are trying to accomplish for students with disabilities,” Morando Rhim added. “We would love to hear more about her plans to elevate students with disabilities and make that message of value and respect clear if she is selected for the role.”