Reality Check: What Will It Take to Reopen Schools Amid a Pandemic? From Finances to Teaching to Learning Loss, 32 Experts Weigh In on 8 Big Unanswered Questions

Throughout the month of July, The 74 and the Center on Reinventing Public Education presented a collection of short, provocative responses from a diverse roster of participants — educators and policymakers differing in background, ideology and professional credentials — to eight big, unanswered questions our school systems will face when students return this fall.

Some thoughtful and timely highlights from the “What Will It Take?” debate series:

1 Finances 

Assume districts can’t survive the coming fiscal crisis just by cutting a little bit of everything. What should they cut deeply, or just stop doing? What should they spend more on than they are now?

  • John Deasy: School districts are not going to simply cut their way through, or out of, this recession.
  • John Bailey: States could develop an Online Teacher Corps, consisting of their school systems’ best-of-the-best online instructors, and share them across district boundaries, which could then free up other teachers to provide tutoring and one-on-one instruction.
  • A.J. Crabill: Our lives and our institutions have been disrupted by forces we could not control. What we can control is whether we take this opportunity to create a new, truly equitable order from the chaos. This means doing things differently. Student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

2 Instruction 

What changes have you seen under remote learning that you would like to keep permanent? What are some features of schooling before the pandemic that our schools and systems should never give up?

  • Lakisha Young: We can’t just work to bring our Black and Brown students closer to an equal playing field. We owe them a massive leg up that we build into the system from the start. And if there’s ever going to be a moment when we have the community on board with this kind of bold thinking, it is now.
  • Margaret Molloy: Hopefully, now is when we realize that technology benefits all students, so we can move beyond criticisms like, “It’s too expensive,” “That’s an unfair advantage” or “The real world isn’t like that.” The real world is like that!
  • Cath Fraise: Liberated from the four walls of a classroom, children are getting a chance to explore. Parents are finding online spaces where children can safely discover what resonates with them. People are also finding that you can build a powerful and dynamic community online quite well.
  • John Deasy: I often hear the phrase, “We must get back to normal.” I hope we do not go back to “normal,” the way things used to be, because it was never good for so many of our youth.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

3 Individualized Learning 

Should families demand that schools take different approaches to supporting students’ diverse needs?

  • Amy Berk Anderson: Affluent families will pay for therapy, tutors, materials and classes to supplement in-person learning. Families who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, whose children could benefit greatly from additional resources and advocacy support, can’t afford these opportunities. In response, education systems and others could create funds that learner advocates and families could access.
  • Antonio Parés: We have all seen the video of a police officer, an agent of the state, killing a fellow American, George Floyd — yet another display of state-sanctioned racism and violence. It isn’t new or only found in policing. It exists in many of our country’s systems, including schools. How many children have had their life squeezed out of them by “school” as we know it?
  • Karla Phillips-Krivickas: Teachers and parents have always known that the existence of “the average student” is a myth.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

4 Parental Choice 

Should parents have more schooling options next year? What is best for individual students? What is best for all students?

  • Lakisha Young: It’s not a win to tell the poorest parents their children go back to school first. We can’t require kids without resources at home to report to school in the fall just because they don’t have a computer.
  • Derrell Bradford: Poor folks don’t get what they pay for all the time. It will be interesting to see what happens when the reverse is the case.
  • John Legg: The answer to whether parents should have more schooling choices next year is simple — a resounding no. School choice is the process; education quality is the goal.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

5 Teachers

What new roles will teachers have to play in the future, and how should union contracts shift moving forward?

  • Derrell Bradford: The challenges of remote learning aside, it has given us the opportunity to put more and more people in front of students who are both uniquely good at teaching online and uniquely skilled at their specific content area. … More kids can now get the best teacher. This places tremendous stress on teachers unions because the scale at which people can see excellence unravels their argument that all teachers are essentially equal.
  • A.J. Crabill: Why are teachers expected to be therapists or counselors? Find partners for whom that is their area of expertise. Why are teachers expected to be athletic coaches? Find community partners who can provide afterschool competitive athletics. Why are teachers expected to be lunch monitors? Find a food services partner who takes responsibility for both the kitchen and the cafeteria. Why are teachers expected to search the internet for instructional materials, or pay for books and supplies on their own? Provide teachers with a strong curriculum and instructional materials that they can improve upon if they want to, but not because they need to.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

6 Politics

Will the pandemic create new political constituencies for education reform?

  • Cami Anderson: Will the original vision of education reform gain new support during the pandemic? Only if education reformers learn the right lessons from their mistakes and work to correct them by committing to real equity and understanding that communities, not schools, are the driver of change.
  • Howard Fuller: Put me in the skeptical group when it comes to believing that there will be significant “reform” in how we deliver K-12 education in this country, and who controls those delivery systems.
  • Terry Moe: Although the unions will surely resist, the pandemic — and cost-pressured districts — may well hasten this line of reform, pointing to a future of schools that are hybrid blends of in-person and online learning.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

7 Accelerate Learning 

If we wanted schools to not just remediate but accelerate student learning, what would it look like? What would it require systems to do?

  • Kenya Bradshaw: Helping students get back to grade level starts with rejecting the typical approach to remediation, where students spend most or all of the year on content from previous grades. Schools don’t need to fill in every gap from the previous grade — just the skills and knowledge that are most important to engaging with grade-level work right away.
  • Sonja Santelises: We know we will not be able to remediate our way out of the academic ground that our students lost this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our focus will instead be on accelerating student learning in the fall.
  • Bárbara Rivera Batista: Education models need to reflect the demand for lifelong learning to cope with the technological and social changes we face. The education system must take into consideration the knowledge and skills students will need to compete in the global economy. Now more than ever, education adaptability needs to occur fast.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

8 Learning Loss 

How can parents and policymakers know whether schools are making up for lost learning and addressing individual needs?

  • Hanna Skandera: For the first time, most parents have “experienced” school alongside their child. Some have expressed significant realizations, such as: “I have a second-grader who can’t read.” Many feel their children are doing less schoolwork under distance learning than they would in a classroom. With the start of a new school year upon us, many schools are “on trial” to demonstrate their readiness.
  • Kenya Bradshaw: For years, we have lied to parents about their children’s mastery of content and preparedness for the future.
  • Dale Chu: Speaking as a girl dad — my ferocious princess will be entering kindergarten this fall — the last thing I need are empty and unsubstantiated reassurances that my daughter is doing just fine.
  • Go Deeper: Read the full exchange.

Reality Check: See all our experts’ answers to the 8 Big Questions at The74million.org/WhatWillItTake

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