Education Through the Pandemic: From Utah Schools Making Virtual Learning a Long-Term Option to New Jersey Towns Aiding Teachers in Securing Vaccines, 11 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

A directive to states by President Biden to prioritize educators in COVID-19 vaccination plans resulted in a number of states opening up access to vaccines for teachers earlier than originally planned.

Biden’s goal to ensure teachers receive their first dose of a vaccine by the end of March received a boost from plans released by multiple governors, including Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who announced shortly after Biden’s statement that teachers would be immediately eligible to receive the vaccine in the state. Biden is also leveraging the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to further fast track vaccinations for school staff and other child-care workers. The renewed push to vaccinate teachers comes after a Center for Disease Control and Prevention investigation that found that teachers played a significant role in the transmission of COVID-19 in school buildings.

Here are 11 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:

UTAH – Echoing National Trend, Utah District Invests in Long-Term Virtual Options

The Jordan School District south of Salt Lake City, Utah, is accelerating its plans to launch expanded virtual education offerings for students, with District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey saying that some students excelled in the remote environment and would benefit from continuing that trajectory even once the pandemic is over. District officials say the new online schools will employ their own teams of staff and educators who are experienced in delivering remote instruction and will benefit students who are progressing faster than their peers, need additional instruction and time in some areas, or who struggle navigating the traditional school environment.

NEW JERSEY – Towns, School Districts Aid Teachers in Securing COVID-19 Vaccines

Following an announcement by state education officials last week that teachers and education support staff could immediately receive COVID-19 vaccines, municipal and school districts are creating plans to ensure this is possible. In Passaic, officials have begun calling teachers to schedule appointments and Jersey has scheduled COVID-19 vaccine clinics later this month that will be expressly for teachers and support staff. Gov. Phil Murphy commented at a kick-off event for vaccinating educators, “What is best for our educational communities is getting all of our schools back open safely for in-person instruction.”

MASSACHUSETTS – Education Commissioner Exercises New Authority to Require In-Person Learning

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has released a timeline for when schools will be required to return full-time in-person instruction. The memo has elementary and middle schoolers back in classrooms by April. Interestingly, in announcing these dates, Riley is exercising new authority to determine when partial and full-time remote learning models will cease to count toward learning time requirements. The Board granted him this authority in an 8-3 vote last week. Gov. Charlie Baker has stated that the timing is right because public health metrics have shown improvement, vaccination efforts are ongoing, and more is now known about the impact of remote learning.

CALIFORNIA – Deal to Help Schools Reopen Reached as Survey Depicts Parent Concerns

A statewide survey found that three out of four California parents with children aged 5 and under – an age bracket of almost 3 million in the state – are concerned that their educational and social development will suffer because of the pandemic. The results of the survey came as Newsom and legislative leaders were able to compromise on a plan that will give $6.6 billion in funding incentives for schools to reopen, citing similar data on learning loss and other impacts on students. Newsom added that he expects all schools to be open for in-person instruction by the fall.

TEXAS – $1 Billion Push for Student Devices Leaves Digital Divide Closed, Says Ed Commissioner

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath recently said that the digital divide in the state had been “basically completely closed” after massive efforts this school year to acquire and distribute nearly $1 billion in technology and devices to schools and students. While some school officials expressed concern that the influx in tech would be unmanageable in coming years as schools are left to maintain, upgrade, or eventually replace tablets and computers, Houston school district chief technology information officer Scott Gilhousen said he is optimistic that, following the pandemic, few will take for granted the importance of internet and technology access in education.

NEW YORK – NYC to Continue Teacher Evaluations This Year, Soften Stakes

New York City officials have reached a deal with union leaders that will continue educator evaluations this school year, but that will reduce the minimum number of observations administrators must conduct, as well as adjust how student assessment data is used. The temporary changes seek to acknowledge the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on teaching, learning, accountability, and evaluations.

WASHINGTON – Governor Signs Bill Allowing COVID-Related Waivers of Graduation Requirements

In a move meant to reduce the burden on students following a year of disrupted education, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a bill that will allow districts to waive typical graduation requirements for high school seniors – if the student’s ability to complete the requirements was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While schools will still be expected to aid students in successfully completing graduations requirements, Inslee said such waivers could help students access “their life’s ambition” after an unprecedented year. “Our students have demonstrated significant resilience in the face of our recent hardship,” he stated.

VIRGINIA – Department of Education Receives Grant to Study Impact of Pandemic on Public Schools

The Virginia Department of Education has received a nearly $1 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to help the state create a better understanding of the pandemic’s short and long-term impacts on learning and student achievement. In addition to reviewing the effectiveness of district reopening plans, the study will collect data on “student absenteeism, grade-level retention, enrollment in advanced courses and career and technical education programs, identification of students with disabilities and English learners, student mobility, and teacher retention.”

ALABAMA – State Invests in School Mental Health Professionals, Highlights Model Programs

Many students are facing increased mental health concerns after prolonged school closures and a global pandemic. Alabama hopes to combat this issue by enabling districts to employ additional therapists and programs by leveraging $4.5 million in grant funding allocated by state lawmakers in 2020. Some Alabama schools are already working on a model to help students, teachers, parents, and counselors address a child’s mental health concerns, like in Florence City Schools – where a partnership with the Riverbend Center for Mental Health has been able to serve hundreds of students since the 2017-18 school year. Currently, 97 of Alabama’s 138 school districts have applied for and received funding for an additional “master’s-level mental health professional.”

OREGON – Gov. Brown Prods Schools Towards Reopening

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order late last week directing schools to offer in-person instruction for all students by April 19, either through a fully in-person model or in a hybrid setting. Though several of the state’s largest school districts had already announced plans to reopen in early April, a majority of schools in the state are still employing distance learning. While business groups in the state praised the order, teachers unions urged Brown to prioritize the sustained use of safety precautions.

TENNESSEE – As Part of ‘Reading 360’ Effort, State Launches Literacy Implementation Networks

As part of Tennessee’s recently announced $100 million “Reading 360” initiative to prioritize literacy in the state’s COVID-19 education recovery plan, state officials have announced 48 school districts that will participate in “implementation networks” with the goal of “supporting the implementation of high-quality English Language Arts (ELA) instructional materials for pre-K–12 students.” The networks will operate for five years and will be funded by grants from the state department of education. The effort will “foster opportunity for districts to learn from each other and to form unique partnerships to support high-quality literacy instruction to build strong readers,” stated Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

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