Education Through the Pandemic: From Growing Concerns About California’s Missing Kindergarteners to New Florida Proposals to Repair Learning Loss, 10 Ways States Are Coping With COVID-19

This update on the COVID Slide 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’ COVID Slide Quick Sheet newsletter, which you can sign up for here

The percentage of schools offering in-person instruction has surpassed those maintaining a virtual model in the nation’s largest 200 school districts, according to tracking compiled by FutureEd. The data reflects a sustained push for reopening schools from the Biden administration, numerous governors and state lawmakers, and even a leader of one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions.

The push to reopen schools this spring comes after updated school guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that not all teachers in a building must be vaccinated for the school to reopen – and as the consequences of keeping schools closed continue to climb.

Though few disagree that the best learning takes place when most students are able to be in school, teachers continue to highlight the challenges and risks they face — as efforts to distribute vaccinations have failed to keep pace with the momentum to reopen classrooms. Underscoring that tension, new survey data released by the Rand Corporation and covered by The 74’s Linda Jacobson show that nearly half of teachers who left the profession in the last year cite COVID-19 as the reason, though many suggested they would consider returning once widespread vaccination is in place.

Here are 10 other updates from across the country about how states and school systems are confronting the challenges posed by the coronavirus emergency — and working to preserve student learning amid the pandemic:

CALIFORNIA – Educators and Officials Foresee Problems Stemming from Kindergarten Attendance

California is one of 32 states where kindergarten is optional and, amid the unique challenges of educating the youngest students during the pandemic, thousands of families across the state chose not to send their children to school this past year. Next year, as many as tens of thousands of children will enter first grade without kindergarten instruction, putting additional stress on an already strained system. In addition to being behind other children in key areas, Gennie Gorback, president-elect of the California Kindergarten Association, explains that children who have never gone to preschool or been in an organized setting need to learn how to “do school,” resulting in greater pressure and higher stakes for teachers and students alike.

FLORIDA – Legislature Considers Proposals to Tackle Learning Loss Across State

The Florida Legislature is considering a wide array of proposals aimed at tackling learning loss as a result of COVID-19 school closures this legislative session. Already making up nearly a third of the state’s total spending, any new resources or programming focused on helping students and families will likely come with an increased price tag – as, so far, lawmakers debate expanding tutoring programs, bolstering literacy efforts, investing in early education, and continuing to build out virtual learning capacity and device and internet access. House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson additionally shared their alarm at the 88,000-student decrease in enrollment in the state’s public schools this year. They are seeking to encourage schools and districts in efforts to “find these missing children” to stave off sharp declines in school budgets.

MASSACHUSETTS – State to Employ ‘Pooled’ Testing to Quicken Reopening Pace

Hundreds of schools in Massachusetts have expressed interest in joining the state’s new “pooled” COVID-19 testing program, an effort launched as Secretary of Education Jim Peyser began seeking new ways to get schools reopened for in-person learning at a faster rate. “The first priority has to be to bring as many students as we possibly can back into their schools, back into their classrooms with their teachers, with their peers for in-person instruction as soon as possible,” Peyser stated.

MINNESOTA – Governor Announces Budget Bump to Account for Student Enrollment Drop

The Minnesota Department of Education has reported a drop in public school enrollment of nearly 17,000 students as families pursued options such as home schooling, private schools and delaying entry into kindergarten due to the coronavirus pandemic. The enrollment decrease, because of the per-pupil formula used by the state to allocate school funding, could result in state education coffers losing about as much as $10,000 per unenrolled student. To temporarily ameliorate the difference, Gov. Tim Walz has included a one-time $25 million increase to his proposed education budget this year.

VIRGINIA – From Mass Vaccinations to Outdoor Lunches, Northern Virginia Districts Prepare for Reopening

In Virginia, Arlington Public Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools are pressing forward with plans to reopen and have recently released new details on their strategies to keep students and staff safe. Arlington will launch a health screening platform that students will fill out daily and plans to have school lunches outdoors whenever possible. Alexandria has reported that 1,700 out of roughly 2,700 staffers have begun the vaccination process and nearly 60 percent of staff have indicated they will resume teaching in person. Arlington and Alexandria both aim to have all students who choose to do so return to in person learning by mid-March.

SOUTH CAROLINA – Local Assessment Confirm Predictions of Learning Loss

Results from a South Carolina Department of Education comparison of local MAP assessment scores from 2020 with those previous pre-pandemic years depicted “pronounced learning loss,” echoing data from a recent NWEA study using similar data at a national level. Britt Wilkenfeld, of Education Analytics, a Wisconsin-based company that focuses on analyzing education data, said, “The main purpose of this is to identify where students would have been without [the COVID pandemic], and where they are with COVID.” The state will provide districts with an analysis of their students’ test scores and in return require them to create an academic recovery plan that addresses students’ specific learning loss.

KENTUCKY – State Sets the Bar for Vaccinating Teachers, Reopening Schools

Kentucky has prioritized teachers in its statewide vaccination plan and are achieving milestones at an accelerated pace, with roughly all the teachers who chose to receive the vaccine having already received their second dose. Gov. Andy Beshear said the pace is the nation’s fastest, “and I don’t think it’s close.” Following this success, Beshear has unveiled an executive order recommending schools in Kentucky return to in-person learning or expand in-person learning with hybrid models. Already, all but six of the state’s 171 school districts have returned to some form of in-person instruction.

TENNESSEE – Officials Set Sights on Literacy In State’s COVID-19 Relief Plan

Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, took to Forbes.com to highlight a robust effort by Tennessee officials to prioritize literacy achievement as they seek to roll out their COVID-19 recovery plan. The $100 million literacy initiative combines a number of innovative measures, including $1,000 stipends for teachers who complete foundational literacy trainings, expanded communications to parents and families, and grants aimed at expanding tutoring and other supports. Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, in discussing the undertaking with Cowen, stated, “Ensuring every child is reading on grade-level is the most important thing our school systems can do.”

MONTANA – Bozeman District Plans to Launch Permanent Virtual Learning Option

The Bozeman School District in Montana is moving to create a virtual charter school, stating that families in the state will continue to need flexible learning options and noting that if the public school system failed to provide alternatives, private schools would. Bozeman Online Charter School, as it would be called, would offer separate K-8 and high school programs and would feature “remote learning, in-person support and enhancement meetings, expeditionary learning (outdoor and community learning projects), flexible scheduling, and competency-based learning,” according to district descriptions.

COLORADO – Advocates Call on Governor to Address Learning Loss During Summer

The Colorado Education Initiative is looking ahead and asking the state to consider expanding summer recovery programs for students this summer. Colorado Education Initiative President and CEO Rebecca Holmes sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis asking that he address learning loss that many experts say could have lifelong implications. Holmes suggests prioritizing elementary-aged children and high schoolers and that this summer is important in helping remind students how much they love learning after a year wrought with disruptions.

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