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Educating Amid COVID: From Kentucky Counselors Sounding Alarm About Student Mental Health to New Mexico Investing in ‘Academic Coaches,’ 11 Ways States Are Confronting the Crisis

By Joshua Parrish | October 25, 2021

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A rash of states in recent weeks — including Louisiana, Ohio, Kansas, and Oklahoma — have announced disappointing academic indicators for their students during the pandemic, including depressed test scores, rising chronic absenteeism, and faltering graduation rates. 

In most cases, states are attempting to gain approval from federal education officials to omit some information on school performance from school report cards, citing pandemic disruption and staggered recovery efforts as reasons that typical school ratings would not be accurate. Experts caution that worrisome academic indicators should continue to be expected as the nation’s school steer their way out of the worst of the pandemic, with one report on graduation rates from America’s Promise Alliance estimating that the peak graduation rate achieved in 2019-20 may be hard to reach as schools struggle to return to normalcy.

Meanwhile, new nationwide polling from the National Parents Union says parents are being left out of decision making around the use of billions of dollars in school relief funding being distributed to states and schools. 

Of the respondents to the poll, “56% said they have not seen or heard anything about how funds were being spent in their child’s school or classroom,” writes Education Week’s Evie Blad. Even higher percentages say they’ve had no outreach or communication from schools about the recovery funds. “For districts around the nation who have received an extraordinary amount of resources during this critical time, it’s heartbreaking for parents,” says NPU President Keri Rodrigues, “It seems to be a slow ooze back into the status quo.”

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Beyond issues of test scores, graduation rates and relief funds, here are 10 other updates from across the country about how states and school systems are confronting the challenges posed by the pandemic and the Delta variant — and working to preserve student learning amid the pandemic:

KENTUCKY – School Counselors Say Kids are Reporting Depression, Suicidal Thoughts Amid Pandemic

Kentucky school counselors and educators are appealing directly to lawmakers in the state on the topic of student mental health, testifying to the General Assembly Education Committee that the COVID-19 pandemic “compounded the problems of adolescence” and has led to as many as 1 in 4 students reporting struggling with their mental health or even contemplating suicide. “Prior to the COVID pandemic, there were students at my school who suffered from mental illness,” said one teacher in comments to the committee. “However, the sheer frequency and intensity of those affected has increased exponentially since the pandemic. I’m sad to report that, like the national statistic, the number of suicide threats at my own school has skyrocketed since COVID.” The educators called for increased funding to school mental health programs, staff, and services.

NEW MEXICO – New Mexico Awards $2M Contract for ‘Academic Coaches’

The New Mexico Department of Education is renewing a contract with a service that connects students and families to an academic coach through a text and call-based system. Officials say that nearly 40,000 students were referred to the program during the past two years, with almost half opting to engage with academic coaches.

ARIZONA – When Fourth-Graders Can’t Read: One Phoenix School Has a New Way to Fight Pandemic Learning Loss

 An elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona, is garnering national attention for implementing an expansive new literacy program across all of its grades and courses, including physical education and music. Erika Twohy, principal of Sevilla East Elementary, moved to focus on literacy when school reopened this school year, citing national and state-level assessment data showing steep declines in student literacy progress during the pandemic. Twohy hired a team of literacy and instructional coaches to help teachers of all subjects learn how best to integrate literacy instruction and practice into their courses. In addition, the curriculum, programs, and resources were reworked to be aligned with the science of reading and phonics. Despite the intensive efforts, Twohy says she remains concerned for students who are as much as two years behind where they started the pandemic. “I feel like we’re running out of time,” Twohy said.

IDAHO – Early Retirement One of Idaho’s Labor Shortage Problems

The story of two Idaho educators and their experience with pandemic education represent challenges facing many teachers across the state, writes Kelcie Moseley-Morris for the Idaho Capital Sun. Moseley-Morris reports on record rates of retirements in the Gem State through the pandemic, with K-12 education not being spared from the trend. Idaho education officials note that while retirements increased during the pandemic, Idaho schools didn’t experience as many difficulties in retaining teachers as many other states and districts. 

CALIFORNIA – California Is Mandating COVID Vaccines for Kids. Will Other States Follow?

An announcement earlier this month from state education officials that schools would begin to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 once the vaccine is approved for use by children is sparking questions about whether other states will follow suit. State officials downplayed caveats that the vaccine requirements would be easier to waive than other traditionally required vaccines and that the requirements would be phased in by age group, meaning a vaccine requirement would not likely be in place for most younger students until summer of 2022. Reporters for Education Week note that the significant variance between state vaccine laws, including a rising number of states actively banning schools from requiring some vaccines, and national survey data showing nearly 20% of parents opposed to vaccinating their children against COVID-19 make it unlikely that many states will follow California’s lead.

INDIANA – Teachers May Get 3% Raise in Indianapolis Public Schools

According to a tentative agreement reached between Indianapolis Public Schools and the district’s teachers union, educators are poised to receive as much as a 3% raise after years of frozen salaries. Educators across Indiana say the state trails the nation in teacher pay, sparring lawmakers to direct special attention to compensation throughout pandemic challenges.

KANSAS – Enrollment in Kansas Schools Dropped by More than 15,000 in the First 18 months of COVID-19

The trend of declining enrollment during the pandemic has continued into the new school year in Kansas, according to Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson. Watson recently announced public schools across the state shed more than 15,000 students between 2019 and 2021, with the beginning of the new year failing to show an influx of enrollment that would indicate students returning to the school system. “The last 18 months have been the hardest on our state, and schools are a microcosm of that, in the history of private and public schools,” Watson said.

ARKANSAS – South Arkansas Groups Receive State Education Grants

Arkansas education officials recently announced that over $5 million in COVID-19 school relief aid will be used to support a wide array of “afterschool, summer, and extended-year learning programs” across the state. “For every child in an afterschool program in Arkansas, three more are waiting to get in,” said Laveta Wills-Hale, network director of the Arkansas Out of School Network, who applauded the investments. “The same is true for summer learning programs. In 2019, more than 26,000 additional children would have been enrolled in a program if one were available to them,” Wills-Hale concluded.

LOUISIANA – State Looking to ‘Home Grow’ Teachers to Meet Shortage

Louisiana is looking to “home-grow” educators to meet the increasing teacher shortage in the state, a challenge being faced in states across the nation. Through “Educators Rising” clubs expanded in high school across the state, educators and officials hope to introduce the teaching profession to students as they’re planning for college, with the Louisiana Department of Education even establishing a “pre-pathways” program to help high school students earn credit to use toward a college program. “The long-term plan is a “grow your own” initiative,” said Aimee Barber, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “We need to look into our own community and reframe choosing the teaching profession.”

NEVADA – School District Offering Free Lunches to all Students Through 2025

Clark County School District, which serves the Las Vegas region and is the nation’s fifth largest school district, announced that students will be offered free lunches through the 2025 school year, extending a free lunch program put in place by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. The district follows others in states like California and Maine that have announced similar extensions of free lunch programs.

This update on pandemic recovery in education collects and shares news updates from the district, state, and national levels as all stakeholders continue to work on developing safe, innovative plans to resume schooling and address learning loss. It’s an offshoot of the Collaborative for Student Success’ QuickSheet newsletter, which you can sign up for here

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