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January 2022
  • Boston Study Offers Latest Evidence that Charter Schools Boost Voting

    By Kevin Mahnken | January 31, 2022

    Charter schools in Boston, considered some of the strongest in the country, improve voter participation as well as academic outcomes like standardized test scores, according to a recently released study. The effects are significant in size and may be attributable to charters’ success in inculcating noncognitive skills, the authors find. But they are also driven entirely by gains among female students.

    The study, circulated as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, represents the latest evidence pointing to some charters as institutions that strengthen civic engagement. A paper published last year that focused on North Carolina schools found lasting benefits to traditionally underserved students, including more frequent voting and reduced criminality, who attended a charter secondary school rather than a traditional public school.


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    And both echo the findings of a separate analysis of the civics-focused Democracy Prep charter schools. Graduates of the network, which operates over 20 schools across five states, were 12 percentage points more likely to vote in the 2016 presidential election than similar students, according to that study, and substantially more likely to be registered as voters. 

    Related

    Teaching Democracy: How One School Network Has Baked Civics & Activism Into Its DNA — and Produced Graduates Who Are More Likely to Vote

    Sarah Cohodes, an economist at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a co-author of the Boston paper, noted that the voting effects she found were about half as large as those generated by Democracy Prep — six percentage points of increased voting likelihood, from a status quo of 35 percent — and that she measured no impact on registration. But a network like Democracy Prep, which persistently emphasizes civic participation and demands that students demonstrate mastery over multiple democratic skills, might be expected to lift voter participation, Cohodes added.

    “This [research] is showing that even if you have a school where civics isn’t the mission, but you are still instilling more general skills — executive function, conscientiousness — alongside academic skills, that spills over into voting,” she said.

    Cohodes and co-author James Feigenbaum, a professor of economics at Boston University, gathered student records from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, along with lottery reports and voter records. The academic data included a battery of student demographic information, as well as performance metrics on state standardized tests, Advanced Placement course enrollment, SAT-taking, and college enrollment and persistence. Their sample included 12 Boston charters that enrolled students who were at least 18 years old at the time of the 2016 U.S. elections.

    They then matched those records with Massachusetts voter files drawn from 2012, 2015, and 2018 (as well as files from nearby states New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine, to account for out-of-state moves). 

    Like many other studies of charter school effectiveness, the analysis relies on the lottery mechanism that randomly assigns admissions to Boston’s heavily oversubscribed charter sector. Lottery “winners” (students who are ultimately enrolled in the charters) are broadly similar to lottery “losers” in terms of racial and ethnic background, socioeconomic status, and prior academic performance.

    After comparing the two sets of data, the authors found that charter attendance increased students’ incidence of voting in their first presidential election after turning 18 by about 17 percent. That effect is particularly noteworthy because the study found that charter attendance did not seem to increase voter registration, often cited as one of the biggest procedural barriers preventing people from turning out on Election Day.

    But within those results, an even more striking pattern emerged: The average increase in voting is the result of an especially large boost to female charter students — 12.5 percentage points — and no corresponding rise among males. That outcome generally mirrors broader patterns in U.S. voter distribution, which have increasingly shown females outvoting males in recent years. 

    To isolate a possible explanation for the gender split, the authors studied the various ways in which Boston charters affected their pupils compared with traditional public schools, including academic aptitude (measured through test scores), civic skills (measured through enrollment in an AP government or U.S. history class), and non-cognitive abilities (measured through school attendance and a student’s decision to take the SAT). Ultimately, the third category was the only realm in which a similar gender disparity existed, showing significant increases for girls compared with boys.

    That detail is reminiscent of research conducted by political scientist John Holbein, who has found that high school students who are more likely to describe themselves as gritty are also more frequent voters. The link between non-cognitive skills like grit and persistence and voting propensity could be due to the obstacles that often stand in the way of filling out a ballot, Cohodes argued.

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    America’s Young People Don’t Vote. In a New Book, Professor John Holbein Considers What Schools Can Do to Produce Better Citizens — and Maybe Even Get Them to the Polls

    “You have to register, you have to find your polling place, you have to make your plan for getting there and getting off of work,” she said. “And then you actually have to show up and do it all. That involves persistence and follow-through, and…that’s where I see those schools coming in.”

    It’s unclear whether charter schools in Boston are aiding the cultivation of such follow-through in female, but not male, students — or, perhaps, that they are burnishing those qualities in equal measure, but that boys begin school already far behind their female classmates. In either instance, Cohodes concluded, the findings provide more reason to think that the civic byproducts of charter schooling could be as consistent as their academic effects, which have largely been shown to be replicable across different settings and charter models.

    “I do think it’s a different dimension of skill from academics, so it’s not necessarily the case that the schools that are bringing up test scores the most are also bringing up voting the most. But the things that Boston charters do are also things that KIPP schools do, that STRIVE charters and others do. So it’s not like it’s something that’s totally out of left field.”

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  • Citing Promising New Research on Babies’ Brain Development, Senators Renew Pitch for Expanded Child Tax Credit

    By Linda Jacobson | January 26, 2022

    Calling it the “biggest investment in American families and children in a generation,” five Democratic senators on Wednesday urged President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to keep the expanded Child Tax Credit at the center of any future version of their domestic policy agenda. 

    The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan, which the House passed in November, has been stalled in the Senate largely due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat, to some proposals, including extending a beefed-up version of the credit. The monthly payments, up to $300 per month for young children, ended in December. Census Bureau data shows most families have used the money for rent, groceries and school-related expenses.


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    “The expanded [Child Tax Credit] is a signature domestic policy achievement of this administration, and has been an overwhelming success,” Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rev. Ralph Warnock of Georgia and Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote in a letter. “After historic progress, it is unacceptable to return to a status quo in which children are America’s poorest residents and child poverty costs our nation more than $1 trillion per year.”

    The senators’ letter comes a week after Biden cast doubt on his ability to reach a deal with Manchin that includes the expanded credit. In a Jan. 19 press conference, he said he cares “a great deal” about the credit and said he would keep trying to get it passed. The senators also highlighted research released this week showing such policies can have positive impacts on babies’ brain development. With the Senate soon expected to return to discussions over Build Back Better, the question is whether the study could influence Manchin’s position.

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    Supporters of cash support for low-income families are “quite enthusiastic” about the findings, said Greg Duncan, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a lead researcher on the $17 million Baby’s First Years project. He’s working with advocacy groups in West Virginia to schedule a briefing for Manchin, and added that the researchers have “tried to connect with all sorts of people on the political spectrum.”

    The first U.S. evaluation of a “direct poverty reduction” focused on early childhood, according to the press release, the study randomly assigned 1,000 low-income, mostly Black and Hispanic mothers in four cities to receive debit cards with monthly payments of either $333 or a nominal $20. After one year, infants in households that received the assistance were more likely than those in the control group to show brain activity associated with thinking and learning.

    The researchers suggest that the cash support can reduce stress on mothers and in turn improve home environments for young children. The study began before the pandemic, but bimonthly surveys by researchers at the University of Oregon have shown that lockdowns, family isolation and financial stress related to COVID-19 have led to greater anxiety among parents and irritability among children.

    While researchers can’t predict if children in the families receiving the payments will continue to have an advantage, they didn’t expect to see such quick results.

    “It surprised most of us that after only one year of [cash] transfers that this would actually show up as clearly as it did in the data,” Duncan said. “We always take the long view and thought it would take several years before the stress levels would be reduced.”

    A second paper focusing on whether mothers spent the money on drugs or alcohol is expected this spring, followed by a third looking at whether the financial support is associated with mothers pulling out of the workforce. Critics, including Manchin, argue such programs should have a work requirement.

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    Child Tax Credit Payments a ‘Shot in the Arm’ for Families, But Some Argue Extending Them Should Depend on Results

    Duncan said that the findings add to a body of evidence that suggests “income has a causal effect on child well-being, particularly in early childhood and when poverty is quite persistent.”

    Katharine Stevens, founder and CEO of the Center on Child and Family Policy, called the study an “unusually rigorous attempt to begin identifying the most effective, policy-relevant drivers of child well-being.” But she rejected the suggestion that the money was a direct cause of the brain growth in children. 

    Babies “do not eat, breathe or interact with money,” she said, adding that more research is needed to determine the “mechanisms that matter most” in young children’s development. 

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  • College Board Announces Streamlined, Digital SAT as More Universities Go Test-Optional During Pandemic

    By Kevin Mahnken | January 25, 2022

    The SAT will be given to students virtually beginning next year, according to the College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns and administers the test. The change, revealed Tuesday morning, is designed to make the SAT easier to take during a period when hundreds of colleges and universities have dropped the test as an admissions requirement.

    The digital version of the test will be rolled out internationally in March 2023, while students in the United States will have to wait until March 2024. A pilot of the online test was conducted last fall, with both test takers and administrators largely voicing their approval.


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    The new testing format will be accompanied by a number of substantive changes. The test will now take roughly two hours to administer, down from approximately three hours for the pencil-and-paper version; students will also receive more time to answer each question. Reading passages will be shortened, with just one question attached to each passage, and calculators will be allowed for all math sections of the test (currently, the math portion includes some “no calculator” sections). 

    But according to the College Board’s announcement, some elements of the new SAT will resemble the old: Scores will still be measured on a 1,600-point scale, and the test will be accessed by students at schools or testing centers, rather than at home. 

    Most of all, the College Board emphasized, the virtual test would assess the same material, at the same level of rigor, as the SAT does today. The organization’s vice president of college readiness assessments, Priscilla Rodriguez, said in an interview that the benefits of the change lay in “streamlining and simplifying everything around the assessment of reading, writing, and math.”

    The digital SAT is “measuring the same skills and knowledge that today’s SAT does, it’s just doing it in a slightly different way,” Rodriguez said. “Students still need to know the core reading, writing and math skills that research shows, again and again, are necessary for career and college readiness.”

    The process of simplification could yield some logistical benefits to everyone involved in taking or giving the SAT, according to the College Board. Online test administration will reduce the burden of sorting and shipping test materials and allow students to receive their scores in a matter of days rather than weeks. Schools will also have greater latitude in deciding where and when to administer the exam, which could allow more students to take it.

    The new version of the exam received high marks from both students and test proctors in a survey conducted by the College Board, with 100 percent of proctors reporting that their experience administering the digital SAT was either the same or better than its paper-and-pencil equivalent. Eighty percent of student respondents said that the changes made the process of taking the test “less stressful.”

    Christal Wang, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, was part of a randomly selected group of about 500 students in eight countries who took part in the virtual pilot in November. While she did not receive her score from the pilot, Wang said that she found the online test easier than the paper-and-pencil version — which she took in August — because of the changes to the reading portions.

    “They removed the long passages that were traditionally in those sections and replaced them with short paragraphs for each question,” she wrote in an email. “I personally liked the digital format more primarily for this reason, because it took less time for each question and it helped me maintain focus.”

    But the unveiling of the new format may also raise the question of whether the digital exam is not only easier to take, but also also easier to pass — especially given the pace at which colleges have adopted test-optional admissions requirements during the pandemic.

    According to a December report from the Urban Institute, the number of four-year universities featuring test-optional policies has increased from 288 to 927 since the emergence of COVID-19. Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell Universities — among the most prestigious in the world — have all suspended testing requirements through at least 2024, and several legislatures have passed laws to make their entire state university systems test optional over the past year.  

    At the same time, just 1.5 million members of the high school class of 2021 sat for the SAT — down 700,000 from the total for the class of 2020.

    Rodriguez said that she hoped the alterations to the exam would make it “more approachable” to students, but added that the move online was also the realization of a plan that COVID had accelerated, not originated.

    “We’ve been listening for years to students and educators on what it’s like to take or give our test. There are a lot of limitations to being a highly secure, paper-and-pencil test that circles the globe, and we’re able to break a lot of those limitations by going digital.”

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  • Report: With Omicron, Math App Zearn Reveals a Troubling New Gap in Student Engagement — Even Where Schools Are Open

    By Beth Hawkins | January 24, 2022

    When COVID-19 forced school closings in March 2020, Shalinee Sharma was among the first to document the pandemic’s disparate impact on student learning. Zearn, the nonprofit she co-founded, collects real-time data on use of its math app, which is used by one in four U.S. elementary students. So she could see that kids in affluent places were rebounding or zipping ahead, while those in low-income communities languished. 

    Since the start of the current school year, the gap had been closing, but in December, the Omicron variant sent school systems back into disarray. Between Nov. 28 and Jan. 9, Zearn use among students in prosperous school districts fell 2 percent. In school systems with concentrations of poverty, however, it plunged 13 percent.


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    Dramatic, yes, but the next discovery was the bigger surprise. While students who were able to attend school in person have better weathered the pandemic academically, Sharma was stunned to see that Zearn’s new data did not correlate to places where schools had shifted to distance learning because of the variant. 

    This time, the gaps appear to be biggest where COVID-19 infection rates are highest.

    “While schools are open amidst Omicron surges, students from low-income communities are missing critical instructional time,” the report states. “While Omicron is everywhere, its inequitable effects are not.”

    It’s a preliminary snapshot, Sharma says, but its implications merit immediate attention: Keeping schools open for in-person classes is not enough. Schools need better plans for preventing new disruptions from interrupting student learning. Zearn’s researchers aren’t certain what’s happening, but they have suggestions about what education leaders should consider.

    “Districts that have remained open have experienced high student and teacher absence rates, either because they or someone in their family has contracted the virus or they have needed to quarantine for exposure,” the Zearn report notes. “In many districts, particularly those that serve students from low-income communities, the digital divide continues to exist.”

    Separate research has found that up to 12 million students still lack reliable internet connections. And while school districts have spent billions in federal relief funds on technology, it’s not clear to Sharma that students have adequate access to them this year.

    “Do these kids have devices at home if they need to quarantine, if their parents need to quarantine, if their teacher is sick?” Sharma wonders. “Because it looks like they don’t. Why aren’t they logging in? My wondering is, have we spent money but not actually solved the digital divide? Are they letting the computers go home? I think they’re not.”

    The data Zearn collects remains one of the nation’s only real-time indicators of children’s math participation and achievement. Economists at Opportunity Insights, jointly run by researchers at Harvard and Brown universities, use the data as part of an economic tracker documenting the pandemic’s inequitable impacts on different socioeconomic groups. 

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    The 74 last year took a deep dive into how the Opportunity Insights data was showing up in schools. Academic assessments, surveys of student and educator mental health and other sources of information have since backed up many of the predictions researchers made in those stories.

    When the gap yawned open again in December, Zearn researchers first compared locations where app use had plummeted against a closure tracker maintained by Burbio, which catalogues disruptions to in-person schooling nationwide. Surprised to see no correlation, they tried the same exercise using the New York Times’ interactive case-count tracker — to a very different result. 

    In December, as Omicron’s disruptions were just beginning, McKinsey & Co. released an analysis that showed the achievement gap has widened by a third. Before the pandemic, students in majority-Black schools were nine months behind their peers. Now they are a full year behind.

    The new disparity will compound existing gaps, Sharma predicts: “The kids who missed the most [at the start of the crisis] are now again missing the most.”

    Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provide financial support to Zearn and The 74. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provide financial support to Opportunity Insights and The 74.

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  • New Poll: Los Angeles Parents Share Their Perspectives (and Concerns) on How Schools Have Fared During COVID

    By Veronica Sierra | January 24, 2022

    Updated Jan. 26

    This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

    Los Angeles families are divided along racial lines and income levels over how well the Los Angeles Unified School District handled remote learning and other issues during the pandemic, a new poll shows.

    The annual poll by Great Public Schools Now of 500 Los Angeles families found 43 percent of “very low income” and 27 percent of families of color did not believe the quality of remote learning was good; while just 7 percent of higher income and 27 percent of white families experienced similar problems during the 2020-21 school year. 


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    “Many low-income and families of color feel positive about what is going on in public schools in general; but not at the same level as higher-income families and white families in the school systems,” write the authors of the report.

    “One resounding finding is that ensuring all students and their families have access to the same quality experiences is still not realized,” the report concluded. 

    When classes went remote in the spring of 2020, many L.A. students faced challenges such as not having devices or wifi access, the poll found. Concerns were also expressed about student mental health services and educational resources, with white families often reporting better interactions with the school system. 

    Here are 5 key findings from the report:

    1 Opinions on mental health support for students varied by race and income

    78 percent of the respondents said schools handled mental health support well, but racial and income gaps persist: While 80 percent of white families approved of how student mental health supports were handled, just 61 percent of Black families felt that way.

    2 Opinions on the quality of remote learning were also mixed

    More than 80 percent of higher income, and 63 percent of white families said remote learning made things better for their children, while just 30 percent of very low income and 57 percent of families of color had that experience.

    3 Students faced struggles accessing the internet at home — an issue that was true for students from all backgrounds

    According to the survey 84 percent of families encountered internet connection issues at home. This issue transcended race and income with 25 percent of Latino families reporting “poor access to good internet” compared to 24 percent of white families; and 18 percent of Black families.

    4 Survey showed gaps in family perspective on school decisions 

    A majority of the respondents (81 percent) reported feeling listened to when it comes to school decisions, but not everyone feels heard equally. Families with higher incomes overwhelmingly felt they had more influence on school decisions than those poor families; while fewer low income families felt this way.

    5 Across the board, Los Angeles families wanted a better quality of education

    Looking ahead, Los Angeles families uniformly wanted more and better educational resources; with tutoring at the top of the list; followed by after school programs that offer both academic and non-academic support, and out of school time support.

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  • Black, Latino Students Disproportionately Taught by Inexperienced, Uncertified Teachers, New Research Shows

    By Marianna McMurdock | January 19, 2022

    Black and Latino students nationwide are disproportionately learning from inexperienced and uncertified teachers, according to new research. 

    Across the country, schools serving predominantly Black students have 5 percent more novice teachers than schools with fewer Black students, according to analysis from education advocacy nonprofit The Education Trust.

    In a quarter of states, gaps are even wider: Predominantly Black schools have at least twice as many novice teachers as schools serving the fewest.


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    In two particularly egregious cases, researchers found in Mississippi, a quarter of Black students attended schools with high percentages of novice teachers, compared to just 7 percent of non-Black students. And in Louisiana, one in three Black students attend schools with high percentages of inexperienced teachers.

    “Our findings reveal that our education system is failing Black students, as they find themselves more likely than any other group of students to be in classrooms with teachers who are in their first years of teaching or teachers who are uncertified,” the two reports, focused on Black and Latino students separately, stated.

    Little progress in efforts to retain teachers in these schools has been made since federal data showed similar disparities in 2014 — so stark then that the Department of Education began requiring states to outline teacher equity plans

    The Education Trust

    Novice teachers said they leave their posts because they receive little training or mentoring. As a result, students could go years without an experienced educator — the primary predictor of student success.

    Gaps in access to quality teachers can have long-term consequences on students’ academic achievement, college enrollment and future income

    Without action, the churn of inexperienced teachers will have long-term, negative impacts on students of color at a rate not experienced by their peers in predominantly white schools, Education Trust researchers said. 

    “…The pattern of Black and Latino students getting assigned to brand new teachers year after year after year — attending schools with a majority of teachers who haven’t had the time to master their craft and need more support — is at its heart a racial justice issue,” said Sarah Mehrotra, who co-authored the two reports.

    “If we care about equity in education, we have to pay attention to who is teaching our Black and Brown students, and what we can be doing differently to support them,” she said.

    In 32 states, there are more first-year teachers in schools serving the most Latino students. Three – Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Washington – have the biggest gaps, with Latino students at least twice as likely to have a novice teacher.

    The Education Trust

    In Massachusetts, access to certified teachers is particularly inequitable: 29 percent of Latino students attend schools with high percentages of uncertified teachers, compared to just 12 percent of their peers. 

    The findings bring states’ commitment to teacher development into question at a time when many face educator shortages and allocate billions in pandemic relief aid to accelerate learning.

    “This disparity… means that groups of students are missing out, by no fault of their own, on the critical learning opportunities necessary to prepare them for success in college and/or the workforce,” the reports stated, analyzing the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection.

    In the predominantly Black and Latino schools analyzed, where there are fewer experienced educators, teachers of color are “over-represented” and have higher turnover rates than their peers — a “disruption” for students and communities, Mehrotra said. 

    Teachers of color experience “antagonistic school culture, [are] deprived of agency/autonomy, navigating unfavorable working conditions and carrying an “invisible tax” – the extra work they take on (being a translator for families, being a disciplinarian) without additional compensation,” she added. Vacancies are filled by substitutes or novice teachers. 

    One New Orleans teacher told the Education Trust: “The teaching profession was built on altruism, and many folks have taken advantage of this to bring in teachers on lower salaries.”

    Though 2020-21 data is not available, Mehrotra predicted schools serving predominantly low-income students and students of color, where teachers double as counselors or manage larger classes, “are bearing the brunt of these pandemic related exits, teacher burnout and these alarming shortages.” 

    Stronger statewide data systems — to track teacher departures, demographic data and professional development opportunities — tops the reports’ policy recommendations to retain experienced teachers for students of color.

    Researchers say while there are bright spots like Colorado — where new teachers enter a three-year mentorship program and can access loan forgiveness for working in high-needs schools — the problem and its solutions have been widespread and well-known.

     “We could have predicted the data in a lot of ways,” Education Trust researcher Eric Duncan said, adding the gaps have persisted for years. States and districts must double down on their commitment to engage teachers directly to, “go a little bit more under the hood and say, Why is this happening?”

    Further recommendations from the reports include investing in mentorship, residency and grow-your-own programs; incentivizing work in high-need schools and subjects; and hiring earlier in high-turnover districts.

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    Disclosure: Marianna McMurdock was an intern at the Education Trust-West in the summer of 2020. 



  • Watch: Education Experts & Student Advocates Explore America’s Growing Movement for a Constitutional Right to a Quality Education

    By The 74 | January 19, 2022

    A movement to create a constitutional right to a quality public education is gaining momentum in several states. Wednesday afternoon, at a special 1 p.m. webinar, The 74’s Linda Jacobson — who wrote about just such a campaign in California in November — will be part of an elite panel of experts discussing the potential impact a constitutional right could have in closing racial and economic achievement gaps in America. 

    If you can’t view the video, click here to watch.

    Sponsored by The 74 and the Reinventing America’s Schools project of the Progressive Policy Institute, the online panel will also include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Alan Page, former Minnesota Supreme Court justice; Ben Austin of Education Civil Rights Now; and Dr. Pedro Noguera of the University of Southern California. Curtis Valentine, co-director of Reinventing America’s Schools, will moderate. This will be an important conversation; join us at 1 p.m. Eastern.

    You can watch the panelists talk about this fascinating subject right here when the event starts.

    For more information on the event, and to sign up to receive a livestream link, please click here.

    Some recent coverage of this issue from The 74: 

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  • Democracy Prep Founder Pleads Guilty in Fraud Scheme

    By Kevin Mahnken | January 18, 2022

    Seth Andrew, founder of a sprawling charter school network and a former Obama administration official, pled guilty in federal court Friday to one of wire fraud. The charge was in connection to a plot to steal more than $200,000 from Andrew’s own Democracy Prep schools.

    Andrew has agreed to pay restitution to Democracy Prep. He could face up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 14. 


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    By that time, nearly a year will have passed since the school reform giant was first arrested and charged with fraud, money laundering, and making false statements to a bank. Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York accused Andrew of misappropriating the money in order to secure a better mortgage rate for a million-dollar Manhattan apartment.

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    Charter Founder Seth Andrew Charged with Stealing over $200,000 from Civics-Focused Network He Created

    “Seth Andrew, a former White House advisor, admitted today to devising a scheme to steal from the very same schools he helped create,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in a statement. “Andrew now faces time in federal prison for abusing his position and robbing those he promised to help.” 

    Andrew first launched Democracy Prep in 2005 at a single middle school in Harlem. The fledgling charter gained interest from families — and powerful political allies, such as then-U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel — through its curricular focus on civics instruction and democratic engagement. In a little over decade, his brainchild had expanded to campuses across New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Nevada. 

    As their enrollment grew to over 6,000 students system-wide, the schools earned praise for their academic performance and impressive record of sending graduates to college. Additionally, a 2018 study from the Mathematica research group found that Democracy Prep students were much more likely to vote, and to be registered to vote, than otherwise similar peers.

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    Teaching Democracy: How One School Network Has Baked Civics & Activism Into Its DNA — and Produced Graduates Who Are More Likely to Vote

    Andrew left the organization in 2013 for a position in the U.S. Department of Education. But he remained a brand ambassador for Democracy Prep, seldom spotted in public without his yellow cap bearing the network’s logo. 

    He was photographed in that hat in security footage from one of the banks where he improperly withdrew funds from three Democracy Prep school accounts. By New York state law, every charter school must maintain substantial funds in escrow in the event that they are unexpectedly forced to dissolve. 

    In a statement provided to The 74, Andrew’s attorneys, Tim Doherty and Edward Kim, said that their client had “worked tirelessly to expand educational, democratic, and technological opportunity to disenfranchised communities around the world.”

    “Seth’s life has always been motivated by a civic mission, and he deeply regrets his past mistakes. He has, with courage, accepted responsibility for them. With the help and support of his family and loved ones, Seth looks forward to deepening his commitment to service and innovation in the next chapter of his life.”

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    Eager to Distance Itself From Founder’s Legal Woes, New College Strives to Rescue a ‘Good Idea’ for Low-Income Students

    In an email, a Democracy Prep spokesperson wrote that Andrew “will make full restitution to our institution for all of the money he stole. We are glad that this sad chapter is over and thankful to the authorities for their hard work on this case.”

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  • ‘Government Speech’ or Private Prayer?: Supreme Court Takes Case of Football Coach Fired Over Giving Thanks After Games

    By Linda Jacobson | January 18, 2022

    The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of a Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach who was fired after he refused to stop holding post-game prayers on the field. Joseph Kennedy sued his school district in 2016, claiming officials denied him his constitutional right to religious freedom.

    The district said students felt pressured to join Kennedy’s moments of prayer. They argued that because the coach was on the job, officials would have appeared to be endorsing the activity, putting them at risk of violating the First Amendment’s separation between church and state.


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    The decision to hear Kennedy v. Bremerton School District puts yet another case on schools and religion before the court’s conservative supermajority. The court has already heard oral arguments this term in a Maine lawsuit over public funding for private religious schools. At stake in Kennedy is the extent to which public school employees can practice their religion at work. Attorneys for the district said officials were protecting students’ religious freedom by ending what one called a “pray to play” arrangement. But Kennedy’s legal team warns that a decision in favor of the school district could make any expression of religion at school, such as wearing a yarmulke or bowing one’s head in the lunchroom, grounds for dismissal. 

    “There is clarity that the court really needs to provide here,” said Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm representing Kennedy. “There’s always tension between the administrators trying to stamp out religion, and coaches and teachers who want to engage in their religious beliefs.”

    This is the second time Kennedy’s case has reached the high court. The court opted not to hear it in 2019 because the facts regarding Kennedy’s dismissal were unclear. But even then, four justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — signaled that they would be open to hearing it in the future, saying the lower court’s “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling.”

    That invitation could bode well for Kennedy this time around, said Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. 

    “My initial reaction is that the court is going to side with Kennedy since some of the justices already laid out the legal roadmap for him a couple years ago,” he said. 

    Dunn wrote in 2019 that should Kennedy get another shot, the case could lead to a decision that “moderately” expands educators free speech rights or to a “truly landmark” ruling regarding how far governments have to go to accommodate employees’ religious practices.

    Since then, a sixth conservative, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, has joined the court, leading some public school supporters to agree that the justices will lean Kennedy’s way.

    “I think, given the makeup of the court and their decisions thus far on religious freedom, that the district will not be successful,” said Sasha Pudleski, advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “But I hope I’m wrong.”

    In 2020, the court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, that excluding a religious school from a tax credit scholarship program simply because it was religious was unconstitutional. Last year, the court ruled unanimously that a Catholic social services agency, had a right to exclude same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. And while the court has not yet ruled in the Maine religious school choice case, conservative justices appeared ready to side with the plaintiffs during oral arguments in December.

    Related

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    ‘Impressionable students’

    The Kennedy case gives the court another chance to weigh in the issue of religious freedom. But the Bremerton district argues that students’ religious freedoms were compromised, not Kennedy’s. 

    “No student should ever be made to feel excluded — whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field — because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represents the district, said in a statement. “This case is about protecting impressionable students who felt pressured by their coach to participate repeatedly in public prayer.”

    The district offered to give Kennedy a private space on campus to express his Christian beliefs, which included giving thanks after games. But Kennedy turned them down and publicized the fact that he was going to continue his prayers.

    For that reason, the district argued that the coach “was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature,” according to the lawsuit.

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    The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in favor of the district, looked to a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos in making its decision. In that case, the court said governments can discipline public employees for what they say while they are performing their jobs. 

    Laser, with Americans United, urged the Supreme Court not to “fall for” the argument that Kennedy was praying silently. 

    But First Liberty Institute, in its appeal to the court, argued there’s a difference between government speech and private speech, and that Kennedy was still engaging in personal prayers. To suggest that everything Kennedy did while at work was government speech, they wrote, is an “overbroad job description” that other courts have rejected.Republican attorneys general from 24 states agreed. In a brief, they predicted “grave effects on public employees and employers alike, especially within the realm of public education” if the lower court ruling stands.

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  • NYC Mayor, Teachers Union Head, Schools Chancellor Appear at Odds Over Remote Learning Option Amid Omicron Chaos

    By Jo Napolitano | January 13, 2022

    Updated, Jan. 13

    In remarks where he took a swipe at Chicago’s recent labor dispute that shut down its public schools, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Thursday he was “willing to sit down and entertain” with the teachers union a temporary remote learning option.

    While the mayor referred to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew as his “good friend,” he did not indicate that the city and the union had reached an agreement on what a “quality” remote option would look like. A sticking point may be whether the union would allow classroom teachers to livestream their in-person lessons to remote students.

    More than once, Adams described any possible remote learning option as temporary and strongly reiterated his position that students needed to be in school. “We’ve lost two years of education. Two years” he said. “The fallout is unbelievable. Math and English. English is is not as bad as math, but the numbers with math, they are frightening.”

    One day after Mayor Eric Adams said it would take six months to develop a solid remote learning program, the head of the New York City teachers union pressed for quicker action and the schools chancellor said he was working on a plan.

    But it might be at odds with how teachers want to deliver virtual learning, leaving students, parents and educators unclear about a path forward as the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeps through the state and nation.


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    “We’ve called for a remote learning program since September, and we believe we need to do this,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. “I think Mayor Adams is really thinking it through, because it is just the fact there’s over 200,000 children who haven’t been in school for over two weeks.”

    Mulgrew’s remarks came during a town hall meeting Wednesday evening with roughly 15,000 UFT members and again Thursday morning on Good Day New York

    “We need to set something up, because we hope this is the last wave,” he said, “but we do not know if it is. So, I think it’s time for the city really to think about it and contemplate it.”

    Adams’s ​​estimate that it will take roughly six months for city schools to include virtual options would effectively push remote learning off until the end of the school year. He made the comments Wednesday during a conference call with officials, including more than two dozen city and state legislators who sent him a letter in the first week of January calling for a pivot to remote learning through Jan. 18 to slow the spread of the virus.

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    Meanwhile, Chalkbeat reported, schools Chancellor David Banks told a parent advisory council Thursday morning that the city was in talks with the union to create a remote option for this year, but needs to iron out the details. 

    “My goal is to create an option that will take us at the very least to the end of the school year,” Banks said at a virtual meeting. “If I could figure out a way to do a remote option starting tomorrow I would … It’s not quite as simple as that because you have to negotiate this stuff with the unions.”

    NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks and Mayor Eric Adams speak at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx Jan. 3, the first day back from the winter holiday break. (Tayfun Coskun/Getty Images)

    According to Chalkbeat, Banks suggested that one way to have remote learning immediately would be to do away with an agreement with the union that prohibits schools from requiring teachers to livestream their lessons and urged parents to take their demands for a remote option directly to their local UFT chapter leaders. 

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    The back-and-forth was prompted by one of the most chaotic weeks in NYC schools since the pandemic first shut down classes in March 2020. Fear of the Omicron variant sparked widespread school walkouts by NYC students, who say they feel unsafe on campus and at risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families. Worried parents have also been keeping their children home in unprecedented numbers: The New York City Department of Education reported Wednesday’s daily attendance at 76.34 percent. 

    The figure is a marked improvement from last week when more than 300,000 students skipped class. 

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    While some reports show the city might have already hit its peak, the infection rate remains troubling with roughly 40,000 new cases each day.  The fast-spreading Omicron variant now has scores of teachers in the nation’s largest school district calling in sick

    Studies have generally shown remote learning has led to academic, social and emotional harm compared to in-person instruction. In its earlier incarnation in NYC schools, it also posed staffing challenges with one set of teachers instructing children remotely while another set worked with them in the classroom. 

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    Mulgrew, whose union represents nearly 200,000 public schools educators and school-related professionals, among others, said the city needs a reliable means to connect with those students who are unable or unwilling to come to campus. 

    “We have to make sure we are getting to all of the children because the learning loss we’ve seen already … is quite large,” he said. “But on the remote option, we don’t want to go back to 65 percent of the children staying home. So, for parents, I’m going to ask again, please if we have this option use it judiciously. And again, think about giving us consent for testing your child and really contemplate about getting your child vaccinated. Because these are two of the things the school system needs right now for keeping your child and all of the children safe.”

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  • Majority of Americans Back Remote Learning to Protect Children, Teachers from COVID Spread, New Poll Finds

    By Marianna McMurdock | January 13, 2022

    More than half of Americans favor remote learning to protect students and teachers’ “health and safety” as COVID surges, according to a new Harris Poll conducted for Axios. 


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    The findings, consistent among all racial and ethnic groups Axios said, came as students, teachers and parents in New York City and Chicago protested in-person learning.    

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    Of the 2,093 Americans surveyed over the weekend of Jan. 7-9, 56 percent said avoiding COVID exposure was more important than keeping schools open. 

    Here are the poll’s key findings: 

    Parents are even more likely to support distance learning amid the surge

    Of those polled, 62 percent of parents with school-aged children favored remote learning. Preliminary findings from The 74’s parent survey found similar results: 60 percent favored a remote option. 

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    Republicans more hesitant to close schools 

    Differences in how Americans responded to the poll fell squarely along party lines: Only 37 percent of Republican respondents backed remote learning, compared to 70 percent of Democrats. 

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    Findings also exposed generational and income divides

    Younger, lower-income respondents more frequently chose to protect “health and safety” over in-person learning — with more than 60 percent of Gen Z, millennial and Gen X respondents believing schools should move remote. Of boomers, aged 57 or older, 48 percent responded the same.

    The poll showed differences along income as well, with 63 percent of Americans earning under $50,000 annually favoring distance learning.  Those earning more than $100,000 were nearly divided, with 49 percent favoring remote and 51 percent backing in-person learning.

    Axios noted a key limitation to the findings is that “risk tolerance exists along a spectrum,” but respondents were only offered a choice between prioritizing “health and safety” or in-person learning. 

    Parents who opt to send children to in-person classes presumably may feel that “health and safety” is prioritized inside schools, while others believe daily exposure to hundreds of people is not a risk their family is willing or able to take. 

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  • 5 Takeaways from Historic 10-Week Columbia University Student Workers’ Strike

    By Marianna McMurdock | January 11, 2022

    The largest labor strike in the country, the longest higher education has seen in a decade, ended Friday. 


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    After 10 weeks, nearly 3,000 undergraduates, researchers, instructors and graduate teaching assistants at Columbia University celebrated higher wages, expanded child and dental care, and greater protections against harassment and discrimination. 

    Over the past year, relationships between student workers and administrators became increasingly frayed at Columbia, one of the country’s wealthiest private universities with a $14 billion endowment. Many of the workers described living paycheck to paycheck, securing food stamps and public benefits to survive, with some earning just $15 an hour. 

    “We are thrilled to reach an agreement with Columbia after seven years of building toward this first contract. What our members achieved is impressive, but this is only the start,” Nadeem Mansour, bargaining committee member and PhD candidate, said in the Student Workers of Columbia union statement. 

    Wage increases featured in the proposed 4-year labor contract (Columbia University)

    From Nov. 3 to Jan. 7, the 3,000-member SWU, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union, protested with support from faculty and continued striking amid perceived retaliation from administrators. 

    The newly proposed four-year contract significantly expands working protections, including: 

    • Pay raises ranging 6 to 9 percent for PhD students;
    • Increased minimum wage for hourly research and instructional workers from $15 to $21 effective this January and $22.50 by August 2024
    • $5,000 stipends for child care, to increase $500 annually 
    • Access to an emergency health fund of at least $300,000
    • Coverage for 75% of dental premiums 
    • The right to outside, third-party abitration in the event of discrimination or harrassment claims

    SWU members will vote to approve or reject the contract late this month, with a  decision expected by Jan. 28. 

    But passage is not certain. 

    Union members are prepared to reject the contract if the University does not compensate for completing fall semester teaching responsibilities. Without the “back pay,” hundreds of undergraduates would also go without feedback and final grades in graduate-run classes.

    The strike marked SWU’s second in less than a year. Previous efforts to solidify better working conditions came to a halt last spring, when members rejected the University’s proposed contract.

    Below, we’ve compiled five facts to remember from the last few months of higher education labor organizing: 

    1. The strike solidified the role and strength of student unions in higher ed.

    Though higher education institutions have relied on student labor for centuries, Columbia’s contract would become one of the first 10 to exist at private American universities.

    It would also be the first to recognize all undergraduate teaching and course assistants. 

    The union’s fight resonated well beyond the walls of higher education. New York comptroller urged university President Lee Bollinger to prioritize negotiations and finalize a “fair contract” in late December, for the “greater good of New York City.” 

    U.S. congress members Mark Takano (D-CA), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also expressed support for striking workers. 

    2. Threatening emails from University admin only fueled support.

    In early December, an email from the University’s human resources department stated, “Please note that striking student officers who return to work after December 10, 2021, will be appointed/assigned to suitable positions if available.”

    The likely scare tactic appeared to have the opposite effect. Immediately following, hundreds showed up in protest on Columbia’s central campus, blocking entrances. 

    Some say the email galvanized more faculty to support the union’s plight, with roughly 100 joining in protest on Dec. 8. 

    “That’s part of what I think is driving more faculty to come out. It was retaliatory, it was inappropriate and it was hugely disturbing,” Susan Witte, a professor at the School of Social Work, told Ashley Wong of the New York Times.

    3. Many question the legality of Columbia withholding doctoral stipends, not just salary wages, during the strike.

    Doctoral students are missing roughly $8,000 — separate from teaching salaries withheld from striking — from the fall semester. The money can make or break students’ ability to pay rent, food and living essentials. 

    When the union voted to strike, members were under the impression that the stipends would be guaranteed given they compensate students for scholarship, not labor.

    Many await word from the University, falling further into debt and possibly forced to disenroll because of the financial stress. 

    4. Students on strike relied on mutual aid for rent, food, child care and healthcare costs. 

    “SWC members are thousands of dollars in debt from the strike and need immediate support to pay late fees, rent, and bills,” reads SWU’s Twitter, soliciting support for their hardship fund.

    The mutual aid fund has raised $378,392 to date, yet split among 3,000 union members, would only make a dent in a week’s worth of food.

    PhD candidates’ compensation packages were also up to $18,000 below a living wage before striking. And strike funds, made accessible through United Auto Workers, were capped at $275 weekly

    The financial strain has driven “back pay” and stipend reimbursement to the forefront of debate as the union enters its discussion period before the end-January vote.  

    5. This marks the end of the largest strike in the U.S. and longest higher education strike in more than a decade.

    Fed up with poor wages, costly healthcare amid a pandemic, increasing tuition, mounting student debt amid a host of other woes, students organized en masse in 2021. A swell of strikes and renegotiated contracts made headlines, most notably at New York University and Harvard.

    Yet the sheer length of Columbia’s strike — 65 days, which found students gathered in freezing picket lines — sets it apart from past education labor actions. 

    “There is no doubt that this has been a challenging period for the University, yet all who were involved in collective bargaining shared the common goal of creating a stronger Columbia…” Provost Mary Boyce said in a statement

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  • ‘No One Wins in This Scenario’: As Chicago Schools Prepare to Reopen, Rift Between Mayor and Union Deepens

    By Linda Jacobson | January 11, 2022

    Decisions to shift to remote learning in Chicago will be made on a school-by-school basis, depending on teacher and student absenteeism, and the district and union will work together to enroll more families in a voluntary COVID-19 testing program, under an agreement reached Monday night.


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    But the Chicago Teachers Union walked away from its four-day “work stoppage” without much of what it was hoping to achieve, including district-wide triggers for closing schools and a mandatory student testing program that required parents to opt-out. One official lamented that workers gave up four days’ wages in exchange for concessions like increasing the supply of masks to schools.

    “We sacrificed pay for face masks,” Stacy Davis Gates, political and legislative director for the union, told reporters.

    The plan, which won’t be released until the union’s full membership votes this week, also includes efforts to reduce staff shortages by adding pay incentives to increase the substitute pool when teachers are out, and stipends for employees who help register families for testing and vaccination appointments. Staff members will also be trained to conduct contact tracing.

    “We understand that our relationship to our families is a critical part of engaging in this testing program,” added Jennifer Johnson, CTU’s chief of staff. The goal, she said, is to sign up 100 percent of families by Feb. 1.

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    Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who faces reelection next year, also promised to consider the perspectives of parents should there be another management-labor breakdown. “We will never, never not have you at the table,” she said. While some parents expressed deep concerns over safety in keeping their children home after the holiday break, others argued that remote learning was detrimental for their children and wanted to see better cooperation between the mayor and the union. Some also agreed with the city that making decisions about closures on a school-by-school basis makes more sense at this point in the pandemic because vaccinations are available and Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness.

    But observers said the conflict didn’t leave either side in a good place.

    “No one wins in this scenario. Parents and students lost with five days of disruption to their schooling routine,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant education professor of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, adding that the district and teachers union “further solidified” a relationship in which they “only operate in crisis versus collaboration.”

    The agreement, he said, will likely make schools “marginally safer,” but strikes and threats of strikes every time the district and the union negotiate are bound to wear on parents and educators.

    The conflict also drew attention to the low vaccination rate among Chicago students. Less than a third of the district’s 340,000 students are fully vaccinated and rates vary widely at schools across the district. 

    As cases spiked in December, “We began to have an increasable sense of foreboding,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during the union’s press conference. 

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    While almost two thirds of the union’s delegates approved the agreement, Sharkey suggested the rank and file members might not be satisfied.

    “We don’t try to sell people on the benefits of the agreement that are not there,” he said. “Our members are grown ups, and we understand sometimes you don’t have a guarantee in advance.”

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  • Here We Go Again: Parents Share Frustrations and Triumphs as Remote Learning Returns

    By Meghan Gallagher | January 10, 2022

    For many parents across the country, back to school 2022 is looking and feeling a lot like spring 2020 all over again.

    From kitchen counters and living room couches, their kids are home signing onto laptops and other devices for virtual classes as Omicron disrupted plans to open many schools nationwide — or parents kept their children home voluntarily. 


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    While remote learning offered some parents and educators peace of mind as COVID surged, its return is also full of troublespots and roadblocks, from finding childcare to connectivity issues, to overseeing their kids’ classes while working from home.

    The 74 bent our ears towards parents: First we created a survey and asked parents what options they want and how their districts are handling the latest COVID crisis. Then we turned to social media for real-life updates from those on the frontlines at home.

    The poll, which has received responses from 146 parents so far, showed that most want their children learning in-person:

    But parents were divided about whether schools should offer a remote option:

    Here’s what the moms and dads of America are saying about having their kids at home again:

    That look when you realize you’re facing another stint of remote learning:

    With his child once again learning in a tiny New York City apartment steps away from his bed, this parent was wondering what year it was. 

    This mom’s tweet reminded us that it’s not always easy learning remotely, so  students are calling on the adults in their lives for extra support.

    Scattered throughout The 74 survey were a few small victories — like this note from a Colorado parent:

    Logging onto school from the kitchen table wasn’t the return from holiday break these kids expected, but they were still excited to see their friends and teachers virtually. 

    In the 74’s survey, many parents expressed concern for their children’s safety as a reason for keeping them home, but were also worried over the lack of the quality of remote learning.

    This mom captured how her son is handling the transition from holiday break to remote learning, and offered his teachers an apology: “It’s not you. He’s struggling.”

    Knowing that many kids grapple with learning from a screen, this mom/educator took to Twitter to share top tips for navigating remote learning:

    One Virginia parent told The 74 their children have turned to sports for social interaction during remote learning.

    Feeling for those who don’t have the flexibility to work from home with their kids, this Georgia mom says she would have quit her job if her son weren’t old enough to stay home alone for remote learning.

    Going remote puts parents who don’t work from home in a pinch for childcare, as James Fogarty noted in The 74’s survey.

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    So, should schools still be open or is remote learning safer? This parent admits they don’t know what’s best — but knows how their child feels about it.

    Do you want to share your family’s experience with returning to class during the Omicron surge? Take our poll! Click here if you are having trouble viewing the poll.

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  • Ask the Doctor: Navigating the ‘New Math’ of Omicron in Schools

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | January 7, 2022

    It’s a tricky moment in the pandemic for parents.

    Mere weeks ago — though it may feel like a lifetime — K-12 operations seemed to be moving toward something of a pandemic equilibrium. Studies had confirmed that COVID spread less in classrooms than the surrounding community, children as young as 5 had gained access to vaccinations and, according to the White House, 99 percent of schools were open for in-person learning.


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    Then came the Omicron variant, sweeping over the country like a tsunami and plunging nearly all aspects of everyday life back into deep uncertainty.

    In the weeks since, daily reported COVID cases in the U.S. have exploded, breaking pandemic records. More children are being hospitalized with the virus than ever before. And positivity rates among school communities have reached levels that were previously unheard of: 18 percent in Chicago, 25 percent in Yonkers, 36 percent in Detroit.

    While most districts reopened as planned after the holidays, nearly 4,800 schools closed their buildings for all or part of the first week of January, according to the data service Burbio. 

    Even where classrooms did reopen, many parents chose not to return their children. In New York City, for example, nearly a third of students did not show up on the first day back from break and on Friday when parents were also dealing with a morning snowfall, attendance plummeted to 44.5 percent.

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    The unprecedented case numbers usher in a “new math,” in the words of Harvard University infectious disease specialist Jacob Lemieux, for understanding and navigating life as the variant circulates.

    “It’s likely that Omicron COVID is going to be so ubiquitous that every child will be exposed repeatedly at school and elsewhere,” Rebecca Wurtz, professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota, told The 74.

    For many parents, that may be an unnerving reality.

    The questions swirl: Do vaccines work against Omicron? How much protection does my child get from a cloth mask? What about an N95? What should I do if my kid tests positive?

    The risk calculus can quickly become overwhelming.

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    Amid the widespread anxiety, and as pandemic fatigue continues to creep, The 74 spoke directly to health experts for clarity on how to understand the virus during this latest stage — with many of their takeaways offering reassurance.

    Experts also weighed in on hot topics like what masks to wear in school, how to handle positive cases and the recent, controversial move from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cut its recommended quarantine time for infected individuals from 10 to five days.

    Here’s what they had to say:

    1 Are schools safe for children right now?

    Yes, under the right circumstances, doctors agreed.

    “I think for school districts that have a high vaccination rate, I think for school districts that have mandated indoor masking and I think for school districts that have appropriate ventilation and distancing … they’re going to be OK,” Philip Chan, medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Health, told The 74.

    Numerous academic studies underscore that when schools employ multiple mitigation strategies together — like masks, distancing and ventilation — transmission of the virus happens less frequently in classrooms than in the surrounding community.

    “Teachers and students are far more likely to be infected at social gatherings, restaurants, etc. than at school,” George Washington University Professor of Public Health Leana Wen wrote on Twitter.

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    Even as thousands of schools across the country announced closures in the early days of the new year, President Biden implored K-12 leaders to continue in-person learning.

    “The president couldn’t be clearer: Schools in this country should remain open,” said White House advisor Jeff Zients during a Jan. 5 press briefing.

    Health experts say classrooms are safe, even amid Omicron, as long as schools double down on mitigation measures like masking and ventilation. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

    But school leaders are running into a roadblock: not enough staff due to high shares of K-12 workers testing positive for the virus. Where COVID spread is especially rampant, it may be the right call to take a brief pause on in-person learning, said Kristina Deeter, a physician at Renown Children’s Hospital in Reno, Nevada. Teachers, she added, should not be coming into school if they’re sick.

    In Chan’s Rhode Island, the majority of schools are open, though a handful had to close due to positive cases. The father of a 10-year old and a 14-year old, Chan said he felt confident sending his children back to their public school classrooms after the winter break. Both are fully vaccinated and wear surgical masks inside the building.

    “I’m reassured that they’re protected, even against the Omicron variant,” he said.

    2 Do vaccines work against Omicron?

    The unanimous response from health professionals came in the form of a three-letter word: Y-E-S!

    (Doctors, often technical and somewhat restrained in their email responses, answered this question using more exclamation than any other.)

    Omicron has caused more breakthrough infections than other strains, they acknowledged, but emphasized that the immunizations have overwhelmingly succeeded at their key functions.

    “The vaccines are still doing what they are intended to do: preventing severe infection and death,” said Peyton Thompson, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 

    “Deaths are declining despite the rapid rise in cases, thanks to vaccination,” she added.

    And while it remains possible to catch the virus if you have received two, or even three shots, each dose of the vaccine provides an added layer of protection. Such cases tend to be mild, explained Wurtz.

    “Breakthrough infections are almost always asymptomatic or trivial. Occasionally flu-like. So, yes, we can count on our vaccinations to keep us from getting really sick,” the Minnesota professor wrote in an email to The 74.

    Seven-year-old Milan Patel receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a school-based Chicago clinic in November. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    Children under the age of 5 are not yet eligible for shots, and are not expected to gain access until this spring at the earliest, Pfizer announced on Wednesday.

    In the meantime, “the best way to protect kids under 5 is to vaccinate all of the people around them – their older siblings, other family members, day care providers [and] teachers,” said Wurtz.

    3 Boosters for kids — yay or nay?

    The Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized third doses for 12- to 15-year olds and, on Tuesday, the CDC recommended an extra shot for immunocompromised children as young as 5, five months after the initial two-dose series.

    Deeter recommends that those who are now eligible receive their third doses.

    “Many of our vaccines are actually three-shot series,” she told The 74, citing the Hepatitis B immunizations, for example. 

    “My message to teenagers is this: you got your first shot, you got your second shot, you’ve got to finish the series.”

    4 Why are so many children being hospitalized with COVID?

    The answer, doctors say, boils down to two factors: vaccination rates and community spread.

    Nationwide, pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations are at a pandemic high, the latter surging 66 percent in the last full week of December to an average of 378 daily admissions.

    But at the same time, vaccination rates among young people remain much lower than adults. Less than a quarter of children ages 5 to 11 have received a single dose of the COVID vaccine, and just over half of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have been fully immunized, according to data published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. By comparison, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults have received both shots.

    The overwhelming majority of hospitalized pediatric COVID patients are unvaccinated, physicians report. “This is tragic, as the vaccine could have kept these children out of the hospital,” said UNC-Chapel Hill’s Thompson. 

    And regardless of vaccination status, the ballooning pediatric hospitalization levels do not mean that the Omicron strain is more severe to kids than previous variants.

    “​​In large part, this is a numbers game,” said Kanecia Zimmerman, a study lead on Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides school leaders on how to navigate COVID policy. 

    Even though surging caseloads nationwide have meant that more children have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks, “the proportion of hospitalized children remains small among the number of infected children,” the pediatrician explained.

    5 What kind of masks are “good enough?”

    The extreme transmissibility of the Omicron variant has spurred numerous districts, some in red states, to reinstate mandatory masking rules — and has also reignited debates over which face coverings are most effective at protecting against infection.

    There’s no doubt that the N95 and KN95 models do a better job of filtering out viral particles from the air, doctors agreed. They have a layer of polypropylene, a type of plastic, that can trap the virus. Compared to a cloth mask, they can extend the time it takes to transmit an infectious dose of COVID by over seven times. If both the infected and exposed individuals are wearing N95s or KN95s, compared to both wearing cloth masks, transmission can take up to 50 times longer.

    That said, Chan admits that the N95 and KN95 masks can be uncomfortable, and some may find it harder to breathe while wearing them.

    “With my kids, I send them to school with surgical masks,” he said, noting that he himself will slip on an N95 before walking into crammed indoor spaces like the grocery store. 

    A cloth mask, a surgical mask and a KN95 mask

    But whether you opt for a simple surgical mask, or something beefier, here’s his bottom line: “The cloth masks just aren’t quite as good as other types of masks,” said the Rhode Island doctor.

    6 How should my child’s school be testing students and staff for the virus?

    In December, the CDC endorsed “test-to-stay” guidance that allows students and teachers who may have been exposed to the virus to take rapid tests and return to the classroom if their results are negative.

    It’s a helpful approach, Duke’s Zimmerman believes. Through the Delta variant wave, 98 percent of people who were exposed to the virus were never ultimately infected, she said — meaning that without test-to-stay, the vast majority of quarantines are forced to miss class without ever having gotten sick.

    Related

    As Schools Brace for Winter Omicron Wave, CDC Endorses Test-to-Stay to Keep Students in School

    But testing can be costly and a heavy logistical lift. Furthermore, COVID tests are in short supply nationwide. To cut down on the total number of noses to swab, schools in her state of North Carolina target resources to lunchtime exposures, where children drop their masks, she explained, eliminating the possibility of quarantine among less-likely cases where both students are masked.

    Also important, according to Zimmerman: testing location. If students need to travel to an off-site area to receive their tests, it can exclude youth without access to transportation from participating in the program, forcing them to miss class for quarantine and creating further setbacks for the students already most affected by the pandemic. 

    “Offering testing at individual schools (not centralized locations) is critical for [the] success of this program because it is more likely to provide equal opportunity to all eligible staff and students within the district,” said the Duke pediatrician.

    7 How should I navigate quarantine if my child or I test positive?

    In late December the CDC reduced its quarantine guidelines for those who test positive for the virus from 10 days to five, a move that divided many in the medical community.

    The takeaway, according to the doctors we spoke to? “Yes, returning to school or work five days after a known infection when someone is no longer symptomatic is fine,” said Wurtz.

    Emphasis, they noted, is on no longer being symptomatic. Many individuals will continue having symptoms well beyond the five-day quarantine recommendation. If that’s the case for you or your child, you should continue to isolate until symptoms subside, or test results come back negative, as you may continue to be infectious, doctors said.

    “Come back symptom-free,” said Deeter.

    8 How long will the Omicron surge last?

    A bit of good news here. 

    Though epidemiologists don’t know for sure how long the Omicron surge will last in the U.S., cases have begun to subside in South Africa, where the variant was first identified in late November. Some believe the peak in many American communities will arrive before the end of January.

    “In most countries that saw Omicron, it went up sharply, which is happening now in the U.S., and it came down sharply,” said Chan. “There should be a steep decrease in the near future for us.”

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  • T74 Parent Survey: Moms and Dads, We Want to Hear How Your School Is Faring During Omicron & Your Top Education Concerns Amid the Latest COVID Surge

    By The 74 | January 6, 2022

    As the infectious Omicron variant sweeps across the U.S., families and educators are facing a new wave of school delays, campus closures and classroom safety concerns. Here at The74Million.org, our education reporters want to know more about how this surge is affecting parents, students and school communities — and what you’re thinking and feeling about this latest learning disruption. 


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    Do you agree with how your school district is handling the Omicron surge? Do you want more options from your school districts? Are you worried about your child’s safety? What are your frustrations and triumphs? 

    See the full survey below; your responses will help our journalists better report on this surge and on how the pandemic is continuing to affect children and families. We’ll also be gathering and sharing out the most memorable responses from across the country. (Want to hear what others are saying? Sign up for our newsletter to see our survey results). 

    Fill out the answers below (If you can’t see the survey, please click here

    Some of our recent COVID coverage: 

    —School Staffing: Disease expert warns that overwhelming Omicron surge could make it difficult to keep schools, “everyday life” operating in January (Read more

    —Child Trauma: 1 in 450 youth have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID (Read more)

    —Students Thrown Off Track: Over 1 million high school grads skipped college in 2020. Only a tiny fraction re-enrolled in 2021 (Read more)  

    —Learning Recovery: Districts are receiving billions for academic recovery, but some parents struggle to find tutoring for their children (Read more

    —Parents Wary of Vaccinating: With nearly half of parents expected to forgo child COVID shots, schools brace for new wave of vaccine hesitancy (Read more

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  • Video Replay: Chicago Mayor Lightfoot, Schools Chief Martinez Implore Teachers Union to Keep Classrooms Open Ahead of Vote to Halt In-Person Learning

    By The 74 | January 5, 2022

    Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and Mayor Lori Lightfoot addressed local media Tuesday evening, just ahead of a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union to return to remote learning for two weeks, unless the number of positive COVID-19 cases decline or an agreement is reached with the district over safety precautions.

    Watch a full replay from the hearing: 

    Lightfoot compared the situation to the movie “Groundhog Day,” insisting “there is no basis in the data, the science, or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can surgically do this at a school level.”

    Martinez emphasized the district’s empowerment of school principals: “There is no evidence [that schools aren’t safe]. Now, what is real is cases are rising and we have said, the best solution is to do it at the school level. Our principles are empowered, our teachers are empowered, they have safety committees, we have invested in the filtration systems…”

    Related

    Chicago Cancels School Wednesday, to Dock Teachers’ Pay as Union Votes Against In-Person Learning; CTU Accuses Mayor of Prioritizing ‘Free Child Care’ for Business Class

    CTU spokesman Chris Geovanis said that while some schools implement all COVID mitigation strategies, not all do.

    Geovanis said the union doesn’t hold Martinez responsible for the lack of agreement and instead faults Lightfoot, who has control over the school district. “It says nothing about Pedro. He’s not the boss,” ​​Geovanis said, accusing the mayor of wanting to appease parents in wealthier parts of the city, saying she’s siding with “the business class who relies on CPS for free child care.”

    Shortly after the press conference CTU voted to halt in-person instruction, and classes were immediately canceled on Wednesday as a result. Read Linda Jacobson’s full report on the reactions to the Tuesday evening vote.

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  • Oster Study Finds Learning Loss Far Greater in Districts that Went Fully Remote

    By Kevin Mahnken | January 4, 2022

    What are the consequences of closing virtually every American school and shifting to online education for months at a time?

    It’s a question that education experts have been asking since the emergence of COVID-19, and one whose answers are gradually becoming clearer. With federal sources reporting that 99 percent of students have now returned to classrooms, newly available data are showing how students were affected by spending long stretches of the last two school years at home. And the signs are not good.


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    Perhaps the most disturbing news yet was found in a working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that state test scores dropped significantly in both reading and math during the pandemic. In a discovery that will reopen questions about the wisdom of keeping schools closed, economist Emily Oster and her co-authors found that learning loss was far worse in districts that kept classes fully remote, and that declines in reading scores were greater in districts serving predominantly poor and non-white students.

    Oster, a Brown University professor and popular author, has won both adulation and criticism in the COVID era as an advocate for school reopenings. One study she co-authored, examining the spread of coronavirus in 250 Massachusetts districts last winter, helped persuade officials at the Centers for Disease Control to reduce the recommended social distancing requirement in schools from six feet to three.

    Related

    Inside the Massachusetts Study that Helped Change the CDC’s Stance on Social Distancing

    In an interview, Oster said that while the pandemic’s academic impact was “probably larger than [she] expected,” the differential effects related to closure policy were not unexpected.

    “Certainly I do not find the direction surprising, or the fact that there was a significant difference across these groups,” she noted.

    The study makes use of two huge sources of information. One, the COVID-19 School Data Hub, was launched in September by Oster and her colleagues to track the different learning models (virtual, in-person, or hybrid), enrollment trends, and public health outcomes that prevailed in schools during the 2020-21 school year. 

    The other was assembled from the 2021 math and English scores for students in 12 states between the third and eighth grades. The states studied (Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming) were chosen because their student participation rates in state tests remained above 50 percent this spring, and they offered at least two years’ worth of testing data from the period before the pandemic.

    The researchers found that overall student pass rates — the rate at which students score at or above “proficient,” however that is designated by the state administering the test — dropped in all 12 states, though with a wide variation in the size of the declines. In Wyoming, pass rates fell 2.3 points compared with prior years; in Virginia, they plummeted by 31.9 percent. 

    What’s more, the scale of learning loss was far more substantial in areas that kept schools closed longer. 

    The team specifically targeted the effects of school closures by dividing all school districts in their sample into three groups: those that offered in-person learning for at least two-thirds of the 2020-21 school year, those that went in-person for less than one-third of the year, and those that fell somewhere in-between. Then they compared changes in test performance among schools that fell into the different categories.

    The total effect of a district shifting from 0 percent in-person learning to 100 percent would be to reduce the drop in math pass rates by 10.1 percentage points (or more than two-thirds the average amount they declined during 2020-21, 14.1 points), Oster and her collaborators calculated; the same change would reduce the drop in English pass rates by 3.7 percentage points (more than half the average amount they declined over the same period, 6.3 points). 

    The downward movement on achievement was also somewhat linked to student background. By indexing the decline in scores to district demographic information, the authors found that in districts that enrolled over 50 percent African American or Hispanic students, the effect of switching from fully in-person classes to fully remote was associated with a drop in pass rates of 9 percentage points. Meanwhile, in a district enrolling no African American or Hispanic students, that switch only brought about a drop of 4.3 points.

    Those disparate trends find support in other research. Recent results from the online i-Ready assessment, administered to over 3 million elementary and middle schoolers across 50 students by Curriculum Associates, showed that students in majority-African American schools have fallen behind those in majority-white schools by a full 12 months of learning during the pandemic. Black students, on average, have enjoyed much less access to in-person classes during that time, studies have demonstrated.

    Related

    New Research: Students in Majority-Black Schools Had Been 9 Months Behind Their White Peers. Now, the Gap Is a Full 12 Months

    One lingering question is the extent to which the results were influenced by the cross-section of students who sat for tests this spring. With a sizable number of students either opting out of state-required testing or simply leaving public schools entirely, some have wondered whether the students who participated in the exams offer a representative sample from which to draw conclusions. 

    Oster said that the high participation rates in states that were selected for the study (all above 80 percent, and most above 90 percent) gave her “more confidence” in the effects she found. If anything, she said, the groups that were underrepresented in spring testing — disproportionately English learners and special education students — made it likely that the study was underestimating the damage wrought by the pandemic.

    “You see pretty consistently across states that there was less participation among English language learners or special ed students. That makes me think that…these numbers could be even larger if we sampled those groups at higher rates also.” 

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  • Disease Expert Warns: Overwhelming Omicron Surge Could Make it Difficult to Keep Schools, ‘Everyday Life’ Operating in January

    By The 74 | January 1, 2022

    Amid a record surge of COVID cases across the country and evolving CDC guidance surrounding both shortened isolation periods for Americans who test positive and eliminating the need to test negative before returning to work, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, appeared on MSNBC Thursday with a dire prediction of how the latest variant could escalate so quickly in the coming weeks that it could disrupt daily life through January:

    “Right now we have a very imperfect situation that is going to require some very imperfect responses,” Osterholm said on Dec. 30, the day after America recorded more than 465,000 new COVID cases. “Over the next three to four weeks, we are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically that we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating.” 

    Asked specifically if this unprecedented Omicron surge could threaten the reopening of schools during the first week of the new year, Osterholm said the situation may have less to do with student safety than a profound disruption to the available teacher workforce: “It’s not even a function of ‘Should they delay [reopening schools] because of kids getting sick?’ I worry very much that even with vaccinated teachers, we still could have breakthrough infections; we’re going to have a hard time staffing our schools in the next three to four weeks. 

    “All of society is going to be pressured by this – it’s health care, big box stores that are actually considering closing or have closed because they can’t find enough workers to actually be at work. From the school standpoint, we know schools are a place where this virus can spread, it will spread, kids will get it there, kids will bring it home, kids will take it to school, teachers will get sick …  I think the next month is unparalleled in the kinds of decisions we [will] have to make and schools will be one of them.” 

    Get our latest updates on COVID and education policy by signing up for our daily briefing. Some of our recent coverage about students and schools:

    — Child Trauma: 1 in 450 youth have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID (Read more)

    — Students Thrown Off Track: Over 1 million high school grads skipped college in 2020. Only a tiny fraction re-enrolled in 2021 (Read more)  

    — Learning Recovery: Districts are receiving billions for academic recovery, but some parents struggle to find tutoring for their children (Read more)

    — Parents Wary of Vaccinating: With nearly half of parents expected to forgo child COVID shots, schools brace for new wave of vaccine hesitancy (Read more)




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