Newsfeed

November 2021
  • As Threat of Omicron Variant Looms, School Closures Continue Ticking Upward

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | November 29, 2021

    Correction appended

    Even before the World Health Organization labeled the Omicron coronavirus strain a new “variant of concern” Friday, school closures were continuing to increase across the country. 

    Last week, 621 schools across 58 districts announced new closures for a variety of reasons including teacher burnout, staffing shortages and virus outbreaks, according to counts from Burbio, a data service that has tracked school policy through the pandemic. Since the start of the academic year, 9,313 campuses across 916 districts nationwide have added extra days off.


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    The numbers suggest that nearly 10 percent of the nation’s roughly 98,000 K-12 schools have experienced closures this year. In Maryland, more than 3 in 10 schools have been affected by at least one day of disruption this academic year. In North Carolina, where such events have been most frequent, the number is above 4 in 10.

    Now, schools already struggling to keep classrooms open could face further challenges should the recently identified Omicron variant, which has already begun to show up in U.K. schools, fuel a COVID surge this winter. 

    “This is only going to make matters worse,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, told The 74. “We already see that most districts are short-handed.”

    Earlier in November, lack of substitute teachers forced multiple large school systems to announce unplanned closures as teachers took additional time off around Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

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    Shutting down is a last-resort option that schools should seek to avoid, said Domenech. But sometimes it’s school leaders’ only viable choice, he said.

    “If they have a staff that’s on the verge of burnout and they keep pushing them, they’re only going to lose more staff. And that’s going to result in more closures and fewer kids being in person.”

    Now, with K-12 staff stretched thin in districts across the country, health experts are scrambling to understand the threat posed by the new variant, which Moderna’s President Dr. Stephen Hoge described as having a “Frankenstein mix” of mutations. 

    In South Africa, where Omicron was first identified Nov. 24, the strain has contributed to a sharp spike in cases, leading doctors to believe that it is more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. But whether those cases are more severe, and exactly how much protection is delivered by the vaccines, remains unclear. 

    The South African doctor who first discovered the variant told the BBC on Sunday that symptoms have generally been “extremely mild.” But other experts point out that these initial observations are only based on a very small sample size.

    “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” said President Joe Biden in an address to the nation Monday morning.

    Health experts, the president said, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, believe that existing COVID vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against the new strain, especially for individuals who have upped their immunity through booster shots. But it will be one to two weeks before scientists gain more precise results on just how effectively antibodies built up through vaccination neutralize the Omicron variant, Dr. Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CNBC on Monday. Still, there’s reason to be hopeful, she said.

    “The current vaccines don’t just generate the variant-specific antibodies. They try to generate kind of a broad antibody response,” said the Washington, D.C.-based physician.

    Because of the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday strengthened their language on booster doses to recommend that all adults “should,” rather than “may,” receive a third shot six months after their second. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported Monday evening that Pfizer-BioNTech plans to request that extra vaccine doses be authorized for 16- and 17-year olds, after initial booster data out of Israel showed positive results within that age group.

    While the details of the new variant come into focus, Atlanta-based pediatrician Jennifer Shu said K-12 buildings need to keep their guard up to stave off in-school transmission.

    “It’s important for schools to continue protective measures such as masking, hand washing, physical distancing when possible, disinfecting, optimizing ventilation, etc. to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the doctor wrote in an email to The 74.

    At this point, Domenech said he is not aware of any school leaders within his network having changed their safety procedures in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

    Over the course of this school year, many districts have moved to introduce ‘test-to-stay’ measures that allow students potentially exposed to the virus to skip quarantine, provided they test negative for COVID on a rapid test. The WHO confirmed Sunday that existing PCR tests do accurately detect infection from the Omicron variant, but studies are ongoing to determine the effectiveness at recognizing the new strain of the rapid antigen testing employed in most test-to-stay schemes.

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    Since September, there have been over 1.7 million new pediatric coronavirus cases, and in the week before Thanksgiving, children accounted for about a quarter of new infections, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Weekly youth cases are on the rise, up 32 percent as of Nov. 18 over the previous week to 142,000, but they are well below their peak in early September of 252,000.

    Over 19 million youth have received at least one vaccine dose, President Biden said in his Monday address. Over 99 percent of schools nationwide are now open for in-person learning, he pointed out, compared to less than half this time last year.

    The new strain further underscores the importance of continuing efforts to boost vaccination rates within school communities, said Domenech, and raises the stakes for immunizing newly eligible children.

    “The bottom line here is that unless we get to the point where the majority of people are vaccinated, where we can get to that herd immunity point, these variants are going to keep coming [and] kids are going to get infected,” he said.

    Correction: Last week, 621 schools across 58 districts announced new closures for a variety of reasons. An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that 9,313 campuses across 916 districts had announced closures last week. Those numbers represent the total closures since the start of the academic year.

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  • A Second Pandemic Thanksgiving: Schools Revive Holiday Traditions As COVID Leaves its Mark

    By Meghan Gallagher | November 23, 2021

    Schools across the country have revived holiday traditions after a challenging year, but the pandemic has left its mark on the celebrations.

    Food drives were back in a big way, with schools reporting record donations. With the pandemic pushing up food prices, classes took up lessons in budget friendly Thanksgiving feasts and spending money locally. The annual Thanksgiving high school football game returned. Schools celebrated staff with food giveaways to recognize work above and beyond over the last 20 months. 


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    It wasn’t all good news, but even difficult circumstances were couched as celebrations: Staff shortages and burnout meant more than 20 districts extended Thanksgiving break, giving students and staff the entire week off.

    From record-breaking food drives to practical lessons and more, here’s how schools are “giving thanks” in 2021:

    A middle school in Pittsburgh has held Thanksgiving food drives for 20 years, but this year they collected more food than ever — a record 12,000 pounds for families in need. “Last year was a little bit of a setback with COVID and this year we wanted to come back real strong,” science teacher Kevin Gennaula told CBS Pittsburgh.

    First graders from Valley View Elementary School in McHenry, Illinois, proudly posed with items they brought in for their school’s food drive. “We have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season!!” teacher Dana Clingingsmith tweeted.

    In St. Louis, Missouri, students welcomed back a beloved tradition that was cancelled last year because of the pandemic. Excitement for Webster Groves and Kirkwood high schools’ annual Thanksgiving Day football game was at an “all time high.”

    In Washington state, East Rowan High School students took a close look at grocery prices pushed up because of the pandemic and practiced budgeting meals in Ashley Edmonds’ class. 

    Students also got a “real life” lesson in Mrs. Jones’ math class at Pleasant Valley Primary School in Vancouver, Washington, calculating online costs for budget-friendly Thanksgiving provisions.

    Rather than buying store made pumpkin pies, high school students in Fruitport, Michigan, learned “valuable lifelong skills” and prepared homemade meals: 

    The pandemic inspired many to spend their money locally and shop at small businesses. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, high school students partnered with a local food hub for an “eat local Thanksgiving challenge” preparing 7,500 made-from-scratch meals.

    Masks and gloves, spotted at this California school’s outdoor turkey day celebration, were still an important part of in-person festivities.

    In the spirit of being thankful for all school staff do to keep campuses a safe space for students, Clear Spring high school students in League City, Texas, put together 16 Thanksgiving Baskets for their custodians. “We are so thankful for all they do for our school and all the help they give us!,” they tweeted.

    In Florida, school bus drivers, cafeteria and custodial staff also received turkeys for their dedication to Jupiter high school.

    A school in El Paso, Texas, recognized this school year has been nothing short of a challenge and gifted faculty a full Thanksgiving meal, complete with turkeys. Principal Jon Flores thanked them for their “relentless work this school year,” and for “their commitment to our kids.”

    Before leaving for Thanksgiving break, school officials at Harlan High School in San Antonio, Texas, took a moment to thank a student named Joel for volunteering his time during lunch to help pick up trash in the cafeteria. 

    But in between posts of in-person celebrations were a steady stream of school closure announcements. Districts facing staff shortages and increasing COVID cases extended Thanksgiving break, focussing on the additional time off as an expression of staff appreciation. 

    “While this is something that has not been done before, we felt that there’s never been a more appropriate time to show our appreciation and recognition of efforts made each and every day across our district.” said Brevard Public School board chair Misty Belford in a recorded announcement.

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  • FBI to Pay Nearly $130M to Parkland Families in ‘Unprecedented’ Settlement Following 2018 Mass School Shooting

    By Mark Keierleber | November 23, 2021

    The Justice Department will pay nearly $130 million to the families of those killed or wounded in a 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a court settlement that one school safety expert called unprecedented.

    The settlement follows an admission by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that it failed to properly investigate two tips warning federal law enforcement that a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student was planning an armed attack. Just 40 days before the Valentine’s Day massacre, a female caller to the FBI tip line reported that the former student had purchased guns and she feared he was “going to slip into a school and start shooting the place up.” She told the FBI, “I know he’s going to explode.” 


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    Another tip alerted officials to a comment on YouTube believed to be made by the suspected gunman, announcing plans to become “a professional school shooter.” Neither report was forwarded to the FBI’s South Florida office and the former student, who had  been expelled a year earlier, was never contacted. 

    The court settlement’s details are confidential, but a person familiar with the agreement told the Associated Press the government will pay $127.5 million to resolve a lawsuit from 40 families accusing the FBI of negligence. The tragedy resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three faculty members and left 17 others injured. The 23-year-old defendant pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. A trial scheduled for early next year will decide whether he receives the death penalty or life imprisonment. 

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    Settlements from federal agencies have been exceedingly rare, said consultant Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services who provides expert witness testimony in school shooting litigation. 

    “I cannot remember in my 30-plus years in the school safety field a time where I’ve ever seen a federal agency — in this case obviously the FBI — sued and settled, especially to this extent,” said Trump, who was hired as an expert witness by defense attorneys representing Broward County Public Schools following the Parkland shooting. He’s also worked on lawsuits following the 2012 mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the 2017 tragedy in San Bernardino, California. 

    In a similar move last month, the Justice Department announced an $88 million settlement with the survivors and families of those killed during a mass shooting at a South Carolina church in 2015. That lawsuit accused the FBI of failing to prevent the shooter — a self-proclaimed white supremacist who hoped to start a “race war” — from purchasing a gun to carry out the attack. 

    Speaking about school safety litigation, Trump told The 74, “It could be potentially unprecedented to see the FBI actually settle a case like that, which means it has to be clear internally that some significant balls were dropped to the point where they determined it’s not winnable. I’m sure that most federal agencies don’t want to set a precedent that they’re going to easily settle lawsuits unless there’s really something there.” 

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    Kristina Infante, an attorney representing the Parkland families, said in a statement that her clients had devoted their lives “to making the world a safer place” despite having suffered “immeasurable grief.” 

    “Although no resolution could ever restore what the Parkland families lost, this settlement marks an important step toward justice,” Infante said. 

    Andrew Pollack whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, commended the FBI for accepting wrongdoing and said that other agencies, including the local school district and sheriff’s office, have failed to acknowledge their mistakes. 

    “The FBI has made changes to make sure this never happens again,” he told the Associated Press.

    The Parkland victims’ families reached a $25 million settlement with the Broward County school district last month. 

    Trump said that financial settlements following the Parkland shooting should serve as a wake-up call to districts across the country. Similar to the litigation against the FBI, campus safety lawsuits against school districts generally center on alleged failures by people or lapses in procedures and training. Such litigation doesn’t typically focus on faults in the districts’ physical campus security systems, he said. It’s important, he said, for school officials to compare their written policies against their real-world responses. 

    “So many times there are gaps between policy and practice,” Trump said. “And when you have those gaps, those gaps create a greater safety risk and, in turn, a greater liability risk.”

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  • The Kids Are Not All Right: How 4 States Are Rushing to Improve Student Access to Mental Health Care

    By Marianna McMurdock | November 23, 2021

    Families, lawmakers, doctors and educators across the political spectrum are in agreement: The kids are not all right. 

    Maryland, Colorado, California and New Jersey are among the states that have recently passed laws that expand access to youth mental health care.  New protocols and resources are aimed at getting care to those who need it most — particularly youth experiencing abuse at home, uninsured and LGBTQ+ students.


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    In all four states, rates of youth struggling with substance use and mental illness have worsened with pandemic isolation and inconsistent schooling. Nationally, only 8-9 percent of students of color with major depressive episodes received treatment, compared to 22 percent of their white peers. 

    “This worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020,” an October statement from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association read. 

    But increasing demand for services comes in an era of limited capacity. There’s only about 9.75 child psychiatrists per 100,000 youth under 19. According to the AACAP, there should be more than four times as many available, particularly because providers are congregated in large cities. Most U.S. counties don’t have a single child psychiatrist.

    The groups declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health late last month, advocating for increased access and funding for telemedicine, school-based mental health care and workforce development programs for practitioners.

    Some recent laws fund free therapy and depression screening for youth. And in California, all middle and high schoolers in health class will learn about mental health and illness.

    Statewide reforms have historically been slow to meet student needs. While many like Wisconsin are now allocating federal relief money for school-based mental health care, it’s not yet clear from legislation which programs may take root.

    Between half and one third of U.S. children experience trauma before adulthood. And for children aged 5 to 11, visits to the emergency room for mental health reasons increased 24 percent last year. The U.S. Department of Education even published a resource report in late October to help educators and schools better support children.

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    Here are  four statewide efforts underway that address the youth mental health crisis: 

    Maryland

    As of Oct. 1, Maryland minors 12 and older can consent to mental health treatment on their own. Previously, youth needed to be 16 to access mental healthcare without a parental guardian.

    Advocates of the legislation assert this will expand mental healthcare access to LGBTQ+ youth, those in abusive homes and those whose families may stigmatize mental illness and therapy.

    Others, including the Maryland Board of Nursing and Psychological Association, have expressed concern that 12 may be too young to make informed decisions about treatment, or that youth may be suicidal without the parents’ knowledge.

    Providers can ultimately still choose to disclose treatment information to parents, unless they believe it would lead to harm or deter the minor from seeking care.

    The law also requires health care providers to determine whether the minor is mature enough to understand consent before treatment begins, regardless of age. Psychiatric medication cannot be prescribed to those under 16 without parental consent. 

    California, Illinois and West Virginia have similar laws allowing youth under 16 to access care without parental consent.

    Colorado

    All Colorado youth under 18 now have access to at least three free mental health counseling sessions. No proof of insurance is needed.

    The counseling, by licensed clinicians predominantly via telehealth, is also available for youth 18-21 receiving special education services.

    The ‘I Matter’ program was made possible when state lawmakers allocated $9 million for the effort — the Rapid Mental Health Response For Colorado Youth bill was signed into law in June. I Matter launched officially on Oct. 27.

    To access services, youth first complete an emotional health survey on I Matter’s site. Funding for the temporary initiative expires in June 2022.

    “I’ve already pulled a bill to make this an ongoing program,” Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet told Colorado Public Radio. “I think this is something that we need ongoing in Colorado.

    Colorado has higher rates of youth mental health and substance use issues than 44 other states. 

    California

    All California middle and high school health education classes must now include mental health as a part of their curricula.

    The state Department of Education will also develop plans to expand mental health education in more schools by January 2024.

    And over the next two years, teachers, parents, counselors and students will develop new protocols for schools to address student mental health needs. The protocols will cover how schools will identify which students need support and how to approach external counselling referrals.

    California also joined a host of other states reforming their approach to missing school for mental health needs — the state’s schools will now treat mental health-related absences as they would for physical health concerns.

    The policy reforms signed this summer and fall by California Gov. Gavin Newsom were met with some criticism from conservative parents and politicians who were looking to see, “less mandates coming from Sacramento and a lot more freedom.”

    New Jersey

    Beginning next school year, New Jersey youth in 7th through 12th grade will have access to depression screening in school

    If the screening reveals that a student may be experiencing depression, parents must be notified and provided further resources to support their child. 

    Districts will apply for state funding to facilitate screenings and collect non-identifiable data that will then be shared with the state’s DOE and Department of Children and Families. 

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that youth 12 and older be screened annually. 

    Reflecting on rising suicide rates, assemblywoman and bill co-author Carol Murphy said, “these tragic losses didn’t need to — and never should have —happened. We must be more proactive so that we are not simply reacting to tragedies, but preventing them before they take place.”

    New Jersey also revealed a central resource website at the end of September. The website’s welcome message acknowledges how common anxiety and stress are, and serves as a tool for youth and their families to access resources and behavioral care information.

    “We ask that parents be aware of the signs — maybe it’s uncharacteristic changes in mood, or increased and prolonged patterns of fighting or lying, or maybe it’s not enjoying the activities that they once enjoyed. Don’t be afraid to ask your children what’s wrong, and normalize asking for help when they need it,” Department of Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer said in the state’s press release.

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  • Parents’ Poll: Less Than Two-Thirds Give Schools Top Grades for Handling Students’ Pandemic-Related Academic, Social-Emotional Needs

    By Linda Jacobson | November 22, 2021

    Less than two-thirds of parents give schools an A or B for their handling of students’ academic and social-emotional needs during the pandemic, and almost 60 percent said they haven’t seen or heard anything about additional resources their schools can provide to address these issues, according to a new poll released Monday. 

    Sixty-one percent assigned top grades for how their child’s school is “addressing any learning challenges related to the pandemic,” and 60 percent gave an A or B for “providing resources to support students’ mental health.”


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    Schools get higher marks, however, for keeping parents updated on school policies, assessing where children stand academically and even requirements regarding vaccines, masks and quarantines. Almost three-quarters of parents give schools an A or B in these areas.

    Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, which conducted the survey, said the results suggest parents are “still in the trenches with teachers” but have less faith in the nation’s leaders to make bold improvements to schools. Thirty-eight percent of the sample of just over 1,000 parents give President Joe Biden an A or B on handling schools’ responses to the pandemic, and thirty-six percent give Education Secretary Miguel Cardona high grades on that question.

    Over half of respondents said they’ve heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about federal relief funds or how they can be used for education.

    “Why does everything look and feel the same?” Rodrigues asked. “[Parents] are not feeling the impact of this money.”

    Conducted 20 times since the beginning of the pandemic, the advocacy organization’s poll captures parents’ opinions on the most pressing COVID-related issues facing schools and families — from parents’ willingness to vaccinate their children to how well they think schools are serving students with special needs. Over time, Rodrigues said she has seen parents consistently say they’re concerned about their children’s well-being, but that overall, schools “failed to listen to us.” 

    Some district leaders say they’re hearing the similar concerns about students’ emotional and behavior needs from their staff. In the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, Superintendent David Law noted that focusing on students’ mental health needs is a top priority for teachers.

    “Students are needier than they were in the past,” he said, adding that in his district of 37,000, the 20 percent that did not return to in-person learning last year are “really struggling with the transition” this year.

    But even though schools now have the money to hire more counselors and social workers, “the personnel can’t be had,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Addressing those behavioral and emotional needs is “falling more and more on the shoulders of classroom teachers.”

    The latest results, gathered by Echelon Insights, which conducts opinion research, show 40 percent of parents consider staffing shortages to be a major or moderate problem at their child’s school. Almost the same percentage responded that student behavior issues are affecting learning, and about a third said behavior issues were serious enough to create safety risks. 

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    While parent protests and disruptions at school board meetings have dominated the news, just 16 percent of parents responding consider conflicts over masks, vaccines or quarantine policies to be a major problem in their children’s schools. More than half answered that disagreements over these issues are either a minor problem or non-existent.

    But in some parts of the country, those debates are more intense, and Domenich said superintendents losing their jobs over mask mandates don’t view the issues as minor.

    “In [the Houston Independent School District], we definitely saw the divide with parents on mask mandates after Superintendent [Millard] House and the school board voted for mask mandates,” said Wendy Gonzales-Neal, a National Parents Union delegate in Texas and the executive director of advocacy group My Child My Voice. “Parents are fighting with schools and our elected officials to keep our kids safe.”

    Despite districts’ increasing use of test-to-stay policies — which allow close contacts of students who test positive for COVID-19 to avoid quarantine — just over half of parents, 53 percent, still think students who have been exposed should stay home from school for at least 14 days. 

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    About a third said schools should allow students to come back to class as long as they test negative multiple times in a week, and 5 percent said schools shouldn’t do anything if students are exposed.

    Parents just want consistency, Rodrigues said. 

    “Quarantines are a toss up. They can change from school to school,” she said. “We can’t control COVID, but parents need to know what is going to happen.”

    Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation, the City Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York provide financial support to the National Parents Union and The 74.

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  • States Look to Ed Department for Guidance on Restarting Testing and Accountability After Two Years of Pandemic-Related Interruptions

    By Linda Jacobson | November 18, 2021

    The 2021-22 school year is nearly half over and some state officials say they’re still waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on how to restart the process of identifying schools most in need of assistance and setting expectations for how they should improve.


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    Though assessment issues came up last week in a conversation with state superintendents at a Council of Chief State School Officers policy forum, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona didn’t address a burning question for many state officials — how to meet the accountability requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act after two years of testing disruptions.

    “In some cases we simply don’t have the data to calculate accountability scores using normal business rules,” said Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick. “That will necessitate some adjustments.”

    State assessments were cancelled in 2020. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Education waived the requirement that states test 95 percent of students. And in both years, states were exempted from publicly sharing which schools did not meet standards and how officials planned to turn them around. Some leaders and experts seized on the pause in testing and accountability as an opportunity to rethink the role of standardized assessments in determining school quality. But education advocates and think tanks argue that the disruption in learning due to the pandemic makes it even more important to identify and get help to schools that need it most. 

    “There’s still no clarity from the feds about how they expect testing to proceed — or not — in spring 2022,” said Dale Chu, a senior visiting fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “It’s worrisome.”

    The department did not respond to requests for a comment.

    Experts said they don’t expect the department to issue any more testing-related waivers. Dan Farley, the Oregon Department of Education’s director of assessment, said he’s “awaiting guidance regarding accountability that will largely maintain prior expectations”  in place before the pandemic.

    Under the law, states are required to test students in reading, math and science. They must share the results on state report cards and identify the schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state as well as those in which a demographic group, such as Black students or English learners, consistently performs poorly. States then have to get those schools headed in the right direction, using strategies that can range from hiring consultants to replacing teachers and administrators.

    But even if states resume testing 95 percent of students this year, as federal law requires, some officials still wonder how states will measure school improvement since the 2018-19 school year. In some states last year, large proportions of parents opted their children out of testing or students didn’t take tests because they were still in remote learning. 

    In South Carolina, test participation during the 2020-21 school year fell to 87 percent, compared to 99 percent before the pandemic, according to Ryan Brown, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education.

    The missing data, he said, impacts the scores schools receive for showing improvement over multiple years. And if high school students didn’t take the ACT, SAT or the state’s career readiness assessment, it will be hard to calculate how well schools have prepared students for college or the workforce.

    “We would be looking for guidance and flexibility from the U.S. Department of Education in this area,” he said.

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    But leaders in states that retained high test participation feel more confident about resuming accountability.

    North Dakota had a 97 percent testing participation rate last year. The state education department even sent letters to the top-performing schools and to those scoring at the bottom to let them know where they would fall on the state’s accountability system had it been in effect, Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said in an interview after last week’s event.

    Baesler said she felt it would have been irresponsible not to share that information with local leaders. She didn’t want schools to have a “false sense of accomplishment,” she said. 

    “I think people assumed that because we were in person most of this school year, that we were fine,” she said. “There’s still chaos in our students’ lives and in our teachers’ lives.”

    She’s also among those state leaders who want to see a new approach to assessment. At the state superintendents’ gathering last week, she asked Cardona how states can “measure what we say we really value.” 

    “We’re committed to assessing the whole student,” she said, “but we still have an assessment system that is measuring basic foundational knowledge.”

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  • Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Commits $9 Million to Expand Pathways for Educators, School Leaders of Color

    By Marianna McMurdock | November 16, 2021

    To ensure classroom leaders better reflect and support racially diverse students, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is distributing $9 million to 10 U.S. nonprofits.

    The funding will cultivate career pathways for teachers and district leaders of color.


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    CZI co-founder and co-CEO Priscilla Chan announced the grants for racial diversity in education during the 49th annual National Alliance of Black School Educators conference late last week. 

    “Not only do you help your students learn, but you also help them feel a deep sense of belonging in helping them become the young people who are curious, confident, and caring members of their own communities,” Chan said on Nov. 11.

    From pre-service teacher education to professional support for Indigenous teachers moving into district and school board roles, grants ranging $175,000 to $2 million will support organizations in preparing and supporting historically excluded populations in K-12 leadership.

    Though students of color make up 54 percent of the K-12 public school population, nearly half of schools are operating without any teachers of color.

    CZI’s funding will also support The Hunt Institute in its policy advocacy to add 1 million teachers of color to schools by 2030 — the Institute will work with gubernatorial candidates on their education platforms and offer its state legislator retreat in more regions. The campaign, which launched during the social justice movements of summer 2020, would eliminate the educator diversity gap

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    A more diverse teacher workforce could result in big social, emotional and academic gains for an increasingly multiethnic and multilingual student population. Having had a Black teacher, students — particularly students of color — benefit from higher expectations, experience fewer suspensions and graduate high school at higher rates. 

    Some grantees will also focus initiatives on helping teachers move into district, board and state leadership, and in turn, be able to support teachers of color implementing change. 

    “My experience has been you get a phenomenal principal, or you get a handful of really great teachers or you have an out-of-this-world superintendent, and then when they retire or they move on or for whatever number reason, sometimes those great initiatives fall by the wayside. This is really about creating leader-full communities where, even as people move on … the work continues because the whole community is invested,” said Jonathan Santos Silva, executive director of The Liber Institute, which works with rural communities. 

    The Institute is receiving $800,000 to train Indigenous students, families and leaders to competitively run for school board and district leadership. Their new programming has encouraged thought partnerships with Cambiar Education, the National Indian Education Association and, soon, tribal colleges and universities.

    And for the Equity Institute, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit working with teachers to sustain antiracist learning and teaching environments, their $800,000 CZI grant means long-term growth. They’ll be able to hire more staff, enhance technology, evaluate and spread their work at a time it’s needed most. 

    “We’re in a space and time where — because of COVID, because of the high profile incidents of police brutality and deaths at the hands of officers — that we have to be very, very intentional about how we share leadership and invite people to the table, into spaces where they have historically been neglected, isolated, disenfranchised,” Chief Impact Officer and Co-Founder Carlon Howard told The 74.

    Disclosure: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provides financial support to The 74

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  • Homecoming Legends: Meet the Barrier-Breaking Teens Named 2021 High School Royalty

    By Meghan Gallagher | November 15, 2021

    It’s an American tradition — but with a fresh approach to teenage royalty.

    For years, high school homecoming has been celebrated across the country as a welcome back to classes with a home football game and a dance where the king and queen are crowned.

    This year, instead of the popular cheerleader and talented quarterback becoming homecoming king and queen, classmates broke through stereotypes when electing their new rulers.

    At many schools, crowning the court has become about showcasing great character, celebrating inclusivity and diversity, and creating change.

    Recent social media posts and photos introduced us to this year’s inspiring lineup of kings and queens and the people who voted them in: The football player who traded her helmet for a tiara. A queen who relinquished her title to a classmate who had just lost her mother to cancer. The king who spreads joy to his classmates every day of the week. 

    With homecoming season coming to an end, here’s a roundup of 2021’s high school trailblazers:

    In Mississippi, Forrest County Agricultural High School’s homecoming went viral after a grand act of kindness and selflessness.

    Moments after being crowned, Nyla Covington turned around and placed it on a nominee who had just lost her mother to cancer.

    Meanwhile, in the same state, Long Beach high school elected a four-sport athlete: Ashton Rupert can now add homecoming queen to her list of volleyball, softball, soccer and football accolades.

    In Texas, Clements High School’s basketball team congratulated varsity football player Allison Wang for “Girl power at its finest!” on her new royal title. 

    At Westminster high school in California, yet another football player, Jordan Gavlin, was named homecoming queen.

    Jordan Galvin smiles after football practice in Westminster on Oct. 14. (Getty Images)
    Galvin still has her nails painted from Oct. 8, when she was named homecoming queen. (Getty Images)

    Classmates at Romeo High School in Detroit broke the mold when they voted to make Carson Krawczyk, a student with autism, homecoming king. The “always happy” teen has made a positive impact on many lives, so it was “their turn to make an impact on his,” students said. 

    In Orlando, Florida, history was made when Evan Bialosuknia was elected her high school’s first transgender homecoming queen.

    In another first, Zachary Willmore broke barriers at his school in Missouri this October when he was named queen. “It was an honor to be on the homecoming court in the first place, but you guys have honestly made that one of the happiest nights in my life,” Willmore wrote on Instagram.

    At a Passaic County Technical Institute in New Jersey, Zoe Nelson wanted to “expand the school’s view of gender by running for the title of king as a female,” northjersey.com reported. But it wasn’t without controversy. Shortly after she won, the administration expanded the contest to include two boys as kings, and students subsequently protestested the school’s decision.

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  • Sound Off — NYC Students & Masks: Amid Child Vaccinations, Teachers and Parents Make the Case For Why Schools Should (and Shouldn’t) Roll Back Rules

    By Alina Adams | November 12, 2021

    New York City’s 5- to 11-year-olds became eligible for the COVID vaccine as of Nov. 4, and more than 10,000 doses were reportedly injected over the first two days that shots were made available on school campuses.

    As a result, Mayor-Elect Eric Adams voiced his support earlier this week for getting rid of the mask mandate in schools, asserting, “I think it’s imperative if we can find a safe way to do it, I look forward to getting rid of the masks.”

    That marks a clear split from current Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has issued warnings to maintain current guidelines: “I would keep the masks in place, at least in the short term because they’ve really worked.”

    A Xavier High School student on Sept. 29 in New York City (Noam Galai / Getty Images)

    Across the country, opinions and policies are in flux. Earlier this week in Florida, Miami-Dade Florida Public Schools — one of the largest districts in the country, and one of the few systems in Florida to defy the governor when it came to mask mandates — announced the masks would now be optional for students. Also this week, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who spent most of COVID supporting local efforts to keep schools from reopening due to the risks to teachers, has slightly amended her tune:

    So as the percentage of vaccinated students in NYC schools continues to climb, the new question on the horizon appears to be: Should America’s largest school district start to roll back some of its emergency safety measures?

    I posed the question on my mailing list and via social media to educators and families; teachers from across the country offered the below advice for their Big Apple colleagues.

    Texas-based Vanessa Lal writes, “I absolutely think covid mitigations should be rolled back. I teach in a mask optional school that came back in the late summer during the delta surge sans catastrophe.”

    Oregon’s Lindsay Lyon agreed, “The masks need to come off. Now that all of these age groups have an opportunity to protect themselves, we must end this.”

    Another Oregon teacher, Christina Kennedy, reiterated, “Wearing a mask myself and trying to teach kids to read that are wearing masks is absolutely absurd. They do not wear them correctly and they spend more time messing with them than anything else. They are not helping to prevent the spread of anything–they still pick their nose 🙂, they put them on their heads, they rub their face often, they put their fingers in their mouths, they wear them under their chins etc. I have decided I want to TEACH and not be the mask police, so I am no longer trying to get kids to wear them correctly, but somehow the people making the rules think they are effective. I am not allowed to teach a reading group at school without all of us wearing masks…but if we were at a restaurant across the street, we could all be maskless at the table. Say what?! NO MORE (mandatory) MASKS IN SCHOOLS!! I challenge anyone to actually visit an actual classroom (that isn’t staged for a visit) and you will very quickly understand and see with your own eyes how silly it is to think that masking kids is effective or working at all.”

    A teacher gives a lesson to masked students in their classroom at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on Sept. 27 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

    From a teacher in Missouri comes, “I am exhausted from the burden placed on teachers to somehow keep a virus from spreading by enforcing mitigations which likely have little impact when one considers our students go home and are interacting with family, friends, teammates, all without mitigations.”

    In NYC, a teacher offered, “I am looking forward to relaxing so many of the rigid rules! I am glad the vaccines are available to those who want them. As hard as we try, children will be children and no amount of masks or “social distancing” is really helping anyone!”

    Parents, similarly, had a wide range of passionate opinions on the matter: 

    Some New Yorkers, like Katherine Haver, agreed with those teachers saying now is the time to start moving back to normal: “Masking and distancing need to end now. Masking, as well as restrictions like eating outside while distancing (my younger one must face a wall, not talk and sit on the pavement) and other restrictions (masking even while outside, no playing tag or soccer even outside, no class picture, no singing, etc.) have real harms on kids’ ability to socialize. It’s time to move on.”

    Ambarish Chandra, who moved from Canada, had similar thoughts. “I absolutely support rolling back all safety measures once kids have had a chance to be vaccinated, which would be when schools reopen in January. It is useful to compare our experience with NYC schools to schools in Toronto. None of them insist that kids be masked during recess. They also permit two snack breaks during the day, as well as mask breaks. Students can pull down masks to drink water at their seats. By contrast, here in NY, my son has no snack breaks, no mask breaks, must go into the hallway to drink water, and is masked even during recess.”

    Children line up to go back into their classrooms after taking part in a bunny hop and class portrait in the schoolyard at at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

    Another parent, who requested anonymity, confirms, “Our school let us know that starting in January, kids will no longer be forced to eat outside (they currently eat outside even during sub freezing temperatures). They will, however, no longer be allowed to speak during lunch. I’m shocked that this is the sole “improvement” we can expect once our children are vaccinated. As of now, they will continue to be masked indoors AND outdoors, even while playing sports.

    Other parents, who also asked their names not be used, were adamant that it’s too soon to jettison restrictions:

    MK: “Once I heard the vaccine was available I knew the next step would be the request to loosen safety protocols. But the vaccine is not a cure and students can still become infected and transmit the virus. As a parent this is just too much too soon.”

    MC: “Safety measures should not be relaxed. They should continue for the duration of the school year. Maybe relax procedures during summer school and see how that goes first.”

    AZ: “I don’t believe they should roll back the emergency measures until the start of next school year. This will allow time for all the kids whose parents want to get them vaccinated to complete their vaccine series and to build as much immunity as possible.”

    AM: “I am against relaxing any safety measures unless 70% of the class and 70% of school students are fully vaccinated.”

    Given staff vaccination mandates, and the early numbers of child vaccines being distributed, that 70% threshold may certainly be possible. But on the flip side are evolving public polls that show a growing number of parents across the country saying they do not plan to vaccinate their youngest children

    For parents looking to move beyond masks, priority number one might come far away from the school yard, in convincing their neighbors to change their mind on the shot. 

    Related

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  • Wave of Teacher Time Off Forces Districts Short on Subs to Cancel School

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | November 10, 2021

    With schools across the country short on substitute teachers, staff taking additional days off around the holidays are forcing some districts to cancel classes.

    Seattle Public Schools announced that its 52,000 students would have no school Friday due to large shares of staff making Veterans Day into a four-day weekend. And in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Board of Education voted this week to make a scheduled half-day before Thanksgiving a vacation day for the district’s 165,000 students because there are too few subs to fill in for the large number of educators taking time off before the break.


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    In an even more extreme case, Newaygo Public Schools in West Michigan made a last-minute call to shutter their doors from Nov. 9 to Nov. 15 due to high shares of staff out for COVID-19, other illnesses or for personal reasons, the district announced Monday.

    “We are unable to sufficiently staff our buildings to meet the needs of our students. Sub shortages are not unique to NPS, and this is a challenge we, as well as many other districts are facing,” the district wrote in a Nov. 9 unsigned letter to families.

    In Seattle, more than 600 educators requested substitute teachers for the day after Veterans Day, the district said.

    “We are aware of a larger than normal number of [Seattle Public School] staff taking leave on Friday, and do not believe we have adequate personnel to open schools,” the district explained in an email sent to parents on Tuesday, just three days before the shutdown. 

    In Montgomery County, the sudden change to the Thanksgiving holiday prompted outrage from some parents.

    “To give families 13 days of notice … have you no consideration for parents in health care, parents who are essential workers, parents who basically count on the school schedule that you publish?” parent Dr. Jennifer Reesman told a local news station. “You basically told us all that you don’t care about us.”

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    Interactive Map — The Great Shortage: Explore How Districts in All 50 States Are Grappling With Missing Teachers, Nurses, Cooks, Bus Drivers & Other Essential Workers

    The closures further compound the disruptions that schools have weathered over the past 20 months of the pandemic — exacerbating academic, social and emotional challenges for many students.

    “Now is the time to double down and hopefully get students even more access to even more great instruction, not less,” Tequilla Brownie, executive vice president of The New Teacher Project, told The 74.

    With dwindling substitute teacher reserves in many school systems nationwide, Daniel Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said there’s little district leaders can do when educators request leave around the holidays.

    “These are days that teachers can take,” he told The 74, explaining that the right to use paid time off, known as PTO, is stipulated in many educator contracts. “Ordinarily, school districts would rely on substitutes to cover for teachers. The problem is, you can’t find substitutes.”

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    Closures are “not what superintendents want,” the AASA leader continued. “They want to get the kids back to school … They’re doing everything that they can with the resources that they have to mitigate the situation.” 

    The pandemic, however, has shown that school systems can get creative, Brownie pointed out. Some districts tapped central office staff to help out with remote learning. She wonders whether it could have been possible to replicate those solutions to avoid school closures this time around.

    “The most dismal option is to shutter the doors,” said the education equity expert.

    In Montgomery County, the scheduling change comes on the heels of weeks of educator frustration and burnout. Two weeks ago, teachers held a car rally to protest staffing shortages that, they said, were exhausting and stressing out employees. Signs taped in vehicle windows lamented “skeleton crews” and educators “drowning” in their workload, The Washington Post reported.

    During a press conference Tuesday, union President Jennifer Martin warned of a “great resignation” in Maryland’s largest district if Montgomery County does not improve conditions for its teachers. The school system currently has hundreds of staff vacancies, including 161 teaching positions, according to local reporting.

    “We hope you are able to take some time to rest and recharge during the extended Thanksgiving Break,” said a Nov. 9 announcement to families and teachers signed Montgomery County Public Schools.

    Many school systems across the country have tried to preempt such situations by scheduling extra time for staff and students to recharge. Over a dozen districts — including Alexandria, Virginia and Howard County, Maryland — recently announced days off or shortened schedules to fight burnout and provide mental health breaks for educators, according to a recent report from Burbio, a data service that has tracked school calendars through the pandemic. 

    District announcements generally did not mention substitute teacher shortages, though it’s possible the desire to avoid needing more coverage for teachers than they could supply also played into the calculus for some school administrators.

    Policy varies on whether the days off will have to be made up later in the school year. Most states require that schools be in session 180 days a year. A local news outlet reported that Montgomery County’s 2021-22 school calendar had 182 days built in so the additional day off would not affect it. The Newaygo Public Schools used up five of its snow days in the current closure, reported Michigan Live.

    The disruptions, planned and unplanned, are yet another byproduct of the pandemic, said Domenech. He’s hopeful that newly authorized vaccines for younger children will help make the situation more normal by the spring. 

    But in the meantime, he acknowledged that the scheduling changes may frustrate many families.

    “Working parents very much are dependent on [having their children in school],” he said.

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  • WATCH: Education Experts Talk the Importance of STEM Skills (and the Urgent Need to Accelerate) Math Recovery in a Post-COVID World

    By The 74 | November 10, 2021

    New research suggests the pandemic’s long-term impact on math learning might be considerably more severe than on reading skills. How can educators and parents counter this? Why is it so important?

    Those questions will be on the table Wednesday, when The 74 and the Progressive Policy Institute host their latest webinar, STEM Education and Math Recovery in a Post-COVID World. Panelists include Lagra Newman, founder of Purpose Prep Charter School in Nashville; Shenell McCloud, CEO of Project Ready in New Jersey; Michelle Stie, vice president of the National Math & Science Initiative; Jo Napolitano, senior reporter at The 74; and Patrick Jones, senior vice president at The Mind Trust in Indianapolis. Curtis Valentine, co-director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at PPI, will moderate.

    The webinar is part of a series co-sponsored by the Reinventing America’s Schools Project and The 74.

    Join us Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern: Click here to register and receive the Zoom link, or come back to this page at 1 p.m. to stream the event live.

    Some recent T74 coverage of COVID learning loss:

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  • The Pandemic Exposed the Severity of Academic Divide Along Race and Class: New 2021 Data on Math and Reading Progress Reveal It’s Only Gotten Worse

    By Marianna McMurdock | November 8, 2021

    Despite promises to focus on the growing racial and income divide among the nation’s students, new fall testing data show academic gaps have worsened, falling heaviest on some of the most vulnerable children.

    While education researchers have sounded the alarm for more than a year — that pandemic learning hurts low-income students and students of color most severely — recent scores suggest education solutions cannot come fast enough.


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    “More students are two or more grade levels below their actual grade level this fall than before the pandemic began,” according to Curriculum Associates’ November “Understanding Student Learning” report, which analyzed 3 million students’ fall 2021 i-Ready scores against averages from 2017-19.  

    “This means that teachers will not only have fewer students beginning the school year on grade level, but they will also have more students in need of intensive intervention and support.”

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    In both math and reading, fewer students are ready for grade level work — across all first through eighth graders. 

    Most concerning was the report’s finding that the pandemic has been especially detrimental for four groups: students beginning conceptual math in early middle school; students learning to read; students in predominantly Black and Latino schools; and students in lower-income zip codes.

    More than half of third grade students in predominantly Black and Latino schools are testing two or more grade levels behind in math.

    And for children learning to read in second and third grade, 7 to 9 percent more students are two or more grade levels behind as compared to pre-pandemic levels. These rates are even higher for students in lower-income and predominantly Black or Latino schools. 

    Here are four key findings from the report. 

    For some visuals, only third grade is spotlighted as researchers say it’s a pivotal year for student learning, and one that can help predict high school outcomes

    1. Roughly half of third graders in predominantly Black and Latino schools are 2+ grade levels behind in math and reading — 11-17% more than pre-pandemic.

    Curriculum Associates

    Schools with the highest proportions of Black students have experienced the starkest learning gaps in third grade, faring slightly better with reading over math. 

    As compared to pre-pandemic rates, 17 percent more students in predominantly Black schools are now two or more grade levels behind. The majority of students in predominantly Black schools, 59 percent, test below grade level in math.

    2. 49% of third graders in lower-income areas are 2+ grade levels behind in reading and math — 10-12% more than pre-pandemic.

    Curriculum Associates

    Unfinished learning is most stark in lower-income areas, but drops are across the board. In areas where families earn an average more than $75,000, roughly a quarter of students are two or more grade levels below. For areas with average incomes less than $50,000, there are double the amount of students below grade level. 

    Disparities by income may corroborate concerns of inequitable access to technology, tutoring and one-one support.

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    3. In reading, early elementary schoolers appear most impacted by the pandemic. 9% more second graders are 2+ grade levels behind.

    Curriculum Associates

    The greatest changes from pre-pandemic levels are for second through fourth graders, when many children learn key reading skills.

    Curriculum Associates

    Upper-elementary and middle schoolers, who typically already know how to read and write longer texts, are testing closer to pre-pandemic levels. Still, only about a third are at or above grade level benchmarks.

    4. In math, upper elementary and early middle school students appear most impacted by the pandemic. From second to sixth grade, 10% more students are 2+ grade levels behind.

    Curriculum Associates

    The proportion of students behind grade level increases as students continue through middle school — this year 50 percent of 8th graders, for instance, will require intensive support to get back on track. 

    Part of the reason may be due to content differences, according to Curriculum Associates’ analysis. Algebraic and conceptual thinking, introduced as students leave elementary school, is typically harder for students to grasp than number fluency in earlier grades.

    Curriculum Associates

    These findings are consistent across racial backgrounds; sixth through eighth graders testing below grade level at higher rates than their peers in earlier grades.

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  • After Campaign Turns to K-12 Issues, Democrats Lose Virginia Governor’s Race

    By Kevin Mahnken | November 3, 2021

    Democrats’ first major defeat of the Biden era came on Election Night in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin, a businessman and first-time candidate who made the battle against “critical race theory” one of the hallmarks of his campaign, defeated Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe by more than a two-point margin.


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    The result did not come as a shock to local political observers, who noted Youngkin’s bid gathering steam in the final months of the campaign as attention shifted to K-12 issues. Late-breaking surveys showed McAuliffe’s advantage dissipating, particularly with parents of school-aged children, at the same time that voters increasingly listed education as the most important issue on their minds.

    But the defeat of a broadly popular former governor — along with the GOP apparently seizing control of the state’s House of Delegates and prevailing in races for lieutenant governor and attorney general — marks a reversal in Virginia’s long march leftward in recent years. Democrats had won four of the last five gubernatorial elections and finally seized unified control over the state legislature in 2019. Just last year, President Biden carried the formerly deep-red stronghold by more than 10 points, the biggest win for a Democratic presidential candidate in Virginia since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

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    But the state’s governor’s race has historically swung away from the party occupying the White House. In fact, since 1977, Virginia voters have elected governors from the party out of power in every race except one: 2013, when McAuliffe won his first term. A host of obstacles, from the lingering ennui of the pandemic to Biden’s sinking approval numbers, stood in the way of McAuliffe’s reelection.

    But the last challenge, and perhaps the most significant, was the outrage around issues of K-12 education that steadily built as summer turned to fall. While the Republican primary was still ongoing, Youngkin and his rivals were loudly arguing in favor of reopening public schools for in-person instruction. Once Youngkin secured the nomination, he also pledged to ban the teaching of critical race theory as governor.

    His adoption of the issue dovetailed with several high-profile controversies around diversity and equity initiatives in school districts. In both Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, two suburban enclaves outside of Washington, D.C., that have been among the most Democratic-leaning in the state during its blue transformation, angry parents have moved to recall school board members over dissatisfaction with local COVID mitigation strategies and schools’ approaches to teaching controversial subjects of race, gender, and sexuality. 

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    The dispute gained more airtime as the race headed into its final months, with Youngkin calling on the Loudoun County school board to resign and McAuliffe declaring, at a public debate, that he didn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what to teach.” Ultimately, Fairfax and Loudoun both gave majorities to the Democrat — but they also swung rightward by seven and nine percentage points, respectively, compared with the 2017 governor’s race.

    Tom Loveless, an education researcher who formerly led the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, noted that Democratic candidates like McAuliffe have become increasingly dependent on suburban, college-educated voters during the Trump era. Their positioning on K-12 issues during the pandemic helped cost them the seat, Loveless told The 74.

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    “Schools are important to parents in the suburbs,” he wrote in an email. “McAuliffe put himself on the wrong side of the education issue when he said what he said about parents and schools during the debate. It was a fatal blunder, appearing both tone-deaf and condescending.”

    Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners and a former member of the Virginia state board of education, argued that Democrats around the country “did not do a good job staking out a clear position” on controversial topics in education, allowing their opponents to paint them as hostages to “unaccountable systems.”

    “It’s not that hard for a candidate to tell parents, we’re going to teach an unsparing history curriculum here in this state that is honest about race and racism, but we’re also not going to tell your kindergartener they are complicit in white supremacy or have your second grader doing a privilege walk,” Rotherham said. “Instead, Democrats set themselves up to own any ridiculous thing that happened in a school anywhere.”

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  • Two More School Board Recall Efforts Fall Short on Election Night

    By Kevin Mahnken | November 3, 2021

    The eyes of most political observers were trained on the governor’s races in two blue states on Election Night, with Republicans claiming a convincing victory in Virginia and still threatening to unseat Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey on Wednesday afternoon.

    But closely contested races were playing out down the ballot as well. At the local level, school board members in both suburban Milwaukee and northern Kansas survived attempts to recall them from office. The campaigns were part of one of 2021’s biggest trends in education politics: a surge in recall efforts aimed at board members around the country, with over 200 officials targeted. That number is roughly quadruple the figure in an average year, according to the nonprofit elections site Ballotpedia, while the 84 total recall attempts so far this year total more than triple the usual rate.

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    The most prominent efforts have already generated national headlines and seen some success; in San Francisco, over 50,000 signatures were gathered to force a recall election of three board members in February, while in Loudoun County, Virginia, one targeted member has already resigned rather than see her removal proceedings go to a circuit court trial. 

    But more notable has been a pattern of recalls either not generating enough support to make it to the ballot or failing once they get there. Both of Tuesday’s results met with failure.

    In the Mequon-Thiensville School District, which enrolls nearly 4,000 students in Wisconsin’s suburban Ozaukee County, a well-funded effort to oust four members fell short by significant margins. With over 11,600 ballots cast — close to double the number in the last board race there — each of the four incumbents won over 58 percent of the vote on Tuesday. 

    Recall proponents had raised nearly $50,000 for the effort, with donations and support coming from local conservative donors and nonprofit organizations. The stated reasons for the recall included parents’ frustrations with the board’s COVID mitigation strategies and suspicions that the district leaders were attempting to introduce aspects of “critical race theory” into K-12 curriculum. The election marks the 16th failed recall attempt in Wisconsin since the pandemic began; the state has seen the second-most attempts in that time, behind only California.

    In the smaller Nemaha Central Unified School District in Kansas, board member Amy Sudbeck also beat back a recall attempt, launched this spring after she voted to continue the district’s mask mandate in school buildings. Only 25 percent of voters supported the recall.

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  • Atlanta Voters Choose 5 Incumbent School Board Members as Concern Persists Over District’s ‘Deep Inequities’

    By Linda Jacobson | November 3, 2021

    Updated December 1

    In Tuesday’s runoff to fill two remaining seats on the Atlanta school board, unofficial results show incumbent Aretta Baldon, who has the backing of organizations advocating for the city’s Black and low-income students, barely held on to her seat representing District 2. She received 50.7 percent of the vote, while businesswoman and former Atlanta Public Schools student Keisha Carey earned 49.3 percent.

    Meanwhile, with over two-thirds of the vote, newcomer Tamara Jones, an urban planner, defeated opponent KaCey Venning in a race for the at-large District 7 seat. The incumbent did not seek re-election. 

    All nine seats on the board were up for a vote in this election cycle. But because of a new state law staggering the terms, Jones, and the others holding odd-numbered seats, will serve two years before running again in 2023 for full four-year terms.

    Responding to questions from a civic organization, Baldon emphasized her work to reduce the racial achievement gap, distribute resources more equitably across the district and open remote learning centers during school closures. Jones said she will prioritize improving literacy instruction and said it’s important for the district to work closely with city and county officials to increase wraparound services for students and lower student mobility rates. 

    Five incumbents, including one who ran unopposed, appear poised to continue their terms on Atlanta’s school board following Tuesday’s election. Unofficial results show two newcomers — Katie Howard and Jennifer McDonald — will join them, but two other remaining races will be decided later this month in a Nov. 30 runoff. 


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    In that election, incumbent Aretta Baldon, who was leading with 48 percent of the vote, will face challenger Keisha Carey. Tamara Jones, an urban planner, and KaCey Venning, an education and mental health advocate, are also headed to a runoff.

    The election comes at a time when Atlanta’s population is growing more white and affluent, spurred in part by growth of the city’s tech sector. Overall, student achievement has improved in recent years, but advocacy organizations seized upon the election to raise awareness that many Black and Hispanic students aren’t sharing in that success. 

    Unofficial results show incumbents Cynthina Briscoe Brown, Eshé Collins, current Chair Jason Esteves, Erika Mitchell and Michelle Olympiadis will hold on to their seats — a clear sign that voters are mostly satisfied with who’s running the district, said Anthony Wilson, executive director of Equity in Education, an advocacy organization that trained over 20 candidates for the board.The district’s all-time high graduation rate of 80.3 percent likely has something to do with that, Wilson said. While he said he’s proud of the district’s progress, “I’m also concerned about the deep inequities that persist across our city’s schools.”

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    The group endorsed candidates for seven of the nine seats on the board, including Baldon, Collins, Esteves, Howard, Mitchell and Venning. They also backed Keedar Whittle, who runs an education staffing agency, but was unsuccessful in his effort to oust incumbent Brown for an at-large seat on the board. Brown, an attorney, was leading with over 70 percent of the vote.

    Regardless of the outcome in the two runoff races, the board leading the majority Black and Hispanic district will have at least three new members. Some candidates saw significant overlap between issues facing the city and the district. Venning, for example, mentors young Black boys, many of whom support their families by selling water at intersections and freeway off-ramps. She leads a nonprofit to connect them with members of the business community and other youth employment programs. Across the city, some of the “water boys,” as they have become known, have been involved in violent incidents, contributing to concerns about rising crime — a major issue in the mayor’s race.

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    The election has energized groups focused on holding the 51,000-student district accountable for schools where most students score well below grade level. Equity in Education wants to see more wraparound services for students, integration efforts, and alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. 

    The Latino Association for Parents of Public Schools is another group calling on the district to spread successful practices and programs from high-achieving schools to those that haven’t improved. Ricardo Miguel Martinez, president of the organization, said he’s focused on “every race, every policy, every day” and wants Latino parents not to be afraid to speak up about their children’s schools

    “We look forward to working with all current, new and future elected officials to make sure Atlanta Public Schools and the city of Atlanta is equitable for all,” he said.

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  • In Blow to Union Detractors, Supreme Court Declines to Hear Three Post-Janus Cases Over Dues Collection

    By Linda Jacobson | November 1, 2021

    The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear three cases in which some educators argue that unions continue to violate their First Amendment rights three years after a landmark ruling that made collecting fees from “nonconsenting” public sector employees unconstitutional.

    The plaintiffs in the first two cases, Troesch v. Chicago Teachers Union and Fischer v. Murphy in New Jersey, said that so-called “escape periods” — short windows of time in which employees can opt out of paying union dues — are allowing states to avoid compliance with the court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31

    In Janus, the court ruled that the fees violate non-union members’ First Amendment rights because that money subsidizes political and policy positions.

    The court on Monday also denied a request to hear a case from a Chicago teacher, Joseph Ocol, who argues he should receive a refund for the union fees he paid. Ocol has refused to join the picket line in the past two Chicago teacher strikes in 2016 and 2019.

    A Supreme Court ruling on the post-Janus lawsuits would have impacted nearly 5 million members of public sector unions, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which has been fighting what it calls “schemes” to get around the 2018 ruling. For example, 17 states limit withdrawal from the union to official escape periods, which can range from 10 to 30 days. If educators miss that opt-out window, school districts continue withdrawing the union dues from their paychecks for another year. Some of the laws were passed shortly after the Janus decision. But the Foundation and its clients haven’t been successful, and the appellate courts for the 3rd, 7th, 9th and 10th circuits have upheld restrictions on when employees can opt out of paying fees.

    “We are disappointed the Supreme Court did not take this opportunity to clarify this important issue,” Patrick Semmens, the Foundation’s vice president, said in a statement. “We believe the Janus ruling does not permit public sector employees’ constitutional rights to be limited to an arbitrary union-created ‘escape period,’ and that eventually the High Court will need to step in to prevent Janus from being undermined.”

    The Foundation continues to press that point. In late October, the Foundation asked the court to hear several similar petitions that don’t involve teachers. The anti-union attorneys argue some new employees are never informed about their right to refuse to pay dues under the Janus decision.

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    According to Colin Sharkey, executive director of the non-union Association of American Educators, thousands of teachers contact the organization each year for help on how to exit their union.

    “Numerous states made it even harder to leave the union in the aftermath of the Janus decision, greatly limiting the will of many public employees,” he said.

    But unions, which have seen declines in membership, maintain that they negotiate on behalf of all employees, whether or not they want to be part of a union. 

    Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the court’s denial “exposed these frivolous cases for what they are: a cynical attempt by well-funded, anti-union radicals to flood the zone with countless post-Janus lawsuits to drain unions of resources.”

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