Educating Through the Pandemic: From Rural Texas Schools Pivoting to 4-Day Weeks to California Losing 100,000 Students, 9 COVID Challenges Facing Leaders

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A recent review of school guidance and communications from the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention argues that the federal agency failed often in its goal of providing timely, actionable information to states and districts around COVID-19 safety protocols.

As Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum reports, research on the effectiveness of masking, appropriate distancing, and school building ventilation were shared without evidence or with mistakes that were never corrected. “They had a really hard job. This has never happened before in anybody’s lifetime,” said Doug Harris, a Tulane University researcher who has studied schools through the pandemic. Still, he said, “The quality of research coming out was disheartening.”

Looking beyond safety research and guidance, here are eight other updates from across the country about how states and school systems are confronting the challenges posed by COVID-19 and its variants — and working to preserve student progress amid the pandemic:

1 TEXAS — 4-Day School Week Picks Up Steam in Rural Texas Districts

Amid rising teacher burnout and declining student attendance and enrollment, some rural districts have opted to transition to a four-day school week. Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University, has conducted research surrounding the impacts of four-day school weeks on students. “A common reason districts – both rural and urban – seek this model is because it can save money and effectively recruit and retain students and staff,” Thompson said. In turn, advocates opposed to a four-day school week have said it could result in less quality instructional time for students.

2CALIFORNIA – State Public School Enrollment Spirals, Dropping by 110,000 Students this Year

Enrollment declines that began before the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing in the Golden State, with officials recently announcing a fifth consecutive year of shrinking enrollment. State education officials say the pandemic exacerbated the trend, with enrollment declining 1.8% or 110,000 students. “One of the questions that we just have to come back to is, just where are those kids?” said Heather J. Hough, executive director of the Policy Analysis for California Education. “We don’t have satisfying data to answer that question.”

3UTAH — State Invests $8 Million into Free Early Learning Program for Children

The state of Utah is kicking off an $8 million early childhood education program with a local nonprofit called Waterford Upstart, a program meant to expand access to pre-k and kindergarten opportunities to rural families. “Our state leaders recognize we must do something to help our children stay on track, and that help must come early,” said Kim Fischer, the national spokesperson and senior vice president of communication for Waterford.org. “Waterford Upstart is a great solution because it gets families involved and it can be done in conjunction with traditional education.” Among the resources provided to families by the Waterford Upstart program are access to technology and internet, personalized learning software, and coaching. 

4SOUTH CAROLINA – Proposal Would Pay State College Students Majoring in Education if They Become Teachers

More and more teachers are leaving the classroom and fewer people are setting their sights on teaching as a career, prompting South Carolina lawmakers to counter the trend with a proposal that would incentivize students to pursue a degree in education via a yearly stipend. Palmetto State Teachers Association Director of Government Affairs Patrick Kelly expressed to members, “The retention part, you guys are working on through other avenues – unencumbered time, other issues – but we’ve got to get them into the pipeline. If we don’t, there’s nobody to retain.” The Commission on Higher Education would be responsible for defining which majors and students would be eligible for the stipend.

5MICHIGAN – Detroit School District Plans to Scale Back COVID Testing Next Year

Detroit Public Schools will soon move to small-batch COVID testing instead of universal screening as emergency public health guidelines are scaled back across the state. Citing a sharp increase in school districts dropping mask mandates and testing requirements, Detroit officials say they expect limited testing to remain in place through the fall.

6ALABAMA – Lawmakers Passed Teacher, Substitute Pay Raises, Certification Updates … What’s Next?

Alabama lawmakers sent a number of education bills to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk alongside a record K-12 budget recently as the state legislature adjourned. The expanded state budget includes significant raises for most public school teachers, while a series of legislation would expand resources for classroom supplies, open new routes to licensure for teacher candidates, and set controversial rules on classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

7INDIANA – State Board OKs Measures to Ease Special Ed Teacher Shortage

State education officials approved a set of changes meant to boost the pipeline of special education teachers in the state as schools face sharp staffing shortages and growing populations of students with disabilities. “Through a new license option, approval of additional transition to teaching programs and financial assistance to support training for our current and future special education teachers, we’re committed to supporting our local schools as we seek to grow the pipeline of educators in this high-demand field,” said Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner. Officials say that the number of special educators in Indiana has declined 4% since 2014, while the number of students receiving special education services grew by 12%.

8NATIONAL — With Millions of Kids on the Line, Can Schools Make Tutoring Work?

Amid a historic surge in tutoring services due to pandemic disruption to learning and overflowing school coffers, experts are increasingly concerned that schools may struggle to deliver the high-quality, targeted type of tutoring interventions that have proven to be effective. Catherine Gewertz of Education Week cites the inclusion of tutoring as a key recovery strategy and investment across more than 70% of surveyed school districts, as well as a $100 million philanthropic initiative, as representing a wave of programs whose quality schools may find difficult to ensure. “Because so many are launching big programs so quickly, their impact might be disappointing, sparking a backlash,” says one tutoring researcher, urging districts to “plan carefully, think long-term, and resist quick conclusions.”

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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