The 74 Interview: Ed Finance Guru Marguerite Roza on Funding, Parental ‘Awakening’ and Being a Data Person in a Time of Pandemic ‘Panic’

Marguerite Roza, right, and her daughter Adeline, 19, who ran cross country while in high school. (Marguerite Roza)

Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

To mark the 700th day since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going. 

Marguerite Roza is executive director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. A school finance expert, Roza advises districts on budget decisions, and has helped school leaders and the public understand regulations and the flexibility tied to the billions of dollars districts received in federal relief programs. In a January interview, she discussed those issues as well as concerns closer to home: how watching her daughter’s loneliness during lockdowns left her “scarred” and fighting to hold her tongue about COVID risks in the face of pandemic panic.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Feb. 14 will be 700 days since most schools began closing. That number even took us by surprise. What’s your initial reaction to it?

Marguerite Roza: I mean, wow — what a seismic interruption to education unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. All these enrollment shifts going on. Normally we would say a 1 percent change in enrollment from one year to the next is sort of earth-shattering to finance, and we’re seeing 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 percent enrollment shifts in some districts, and some of those are large districts. Those kinds of things are going to change the structure of education forever.

The pandemic has also created some sort of awakening in parents that we’ve not seen before in terms of the worldview they have and the kind of expectations they have now. I don’t think there’s any putting that genie back in the bottle. 

My dad was in the Netherlands in World War II. He was a 10-year-old when his house was bombed, and they went in the middle of the night to stay with a neighbor. Within a month, school started up again even though they were occupied by Nazi Germany. Kids couldn’t ride their bikes because the tires had gone flat and they couldn’t get tires and things like that. They would just walk to school and still have school. There was no power or anything.

I know it’s different, but it feels like it became OK to deprioritize school in the big picture. I’m thinking about how that changes what you tell your kids: “Oh yeah, you can sleep in or just log on and go through the motions or whatever.” How do you get them to work hard and take it seriously and how do you recover that groove, those habits? Schools have been ground zero for fear, compared to other industries or organizations. Obviously, hospitals have had their own focus during this time. But schools have been where both sides of desperation have come together and really butted up against each other.

What was the moment you realized everything changed? What were you doing before and after?

My daughter and I were driving to go pick up some fish for dinner, and in the car, they announced the governor’s order. It was with a bigger lockdown kind of order. We walked into the fish market place and the guy behind the counter goes, “Have you heard anything yet?” Because everybody was talking [about the} press conference. And we were like, “Yeah,” And he goes, “What did he say?” And we say, “Lockdown,” and he [grunts] “Uhhhhh.”

Already the streets were pretty empty and the first person we talked to was the guy who is packaging up our salmon.

What has been the darkest part of the pandemic for you?

The hardest part was when it looked like there was no reopening school. This was November of 2020. The governor had established these metrics by which you could open schools, and as far out as the modelers had modeled, it was never going to reopen. My then-high school daughter [a cross country runner] was getting more and more discouraged. You could just see it was not really healthy for her just to be home all alone every day, and as a parent, you start to feel desperate.

You keep looking for the next press conference. I used to listen to press conferences constantly to see if there was any movement. Even when the evidence said he could start opening schools again, you could see that there wasn’t going to be any movement. I was very worried about her. The sports season had come and gone. There were no sports, obviously. School was online, so that was probably the darkest time, which coincides in Seattle with it being really dark, [at] like 3:45. 

Somewhere around a year ago, my daughter wrote a piece for the Seattle Times, and she had been tracking, tracking, tracking the data. She would send emails to Harvard epidemiologists to ask them their take on certain things. She’s the one who came down and said, “We’re never gonna reopen. Look at this data. If this governor has this as a metric, we’re never going to reach it.” And she was right. She would email her principal all the time. The Seattle Times piece starts off, “I’ll admit it. I’m lonely.” I read that and cried. 

She got a lot of response on it, not just in Washington, but from other states. Somehow that opening struck a nerve with people who were feeling desperate about the same kinds of things. 

Did the pandemic impact her educational plans?

She was a junior when it hit and had to go through a college application process that was all messed up. Tests were canceled. We flew to another state to try to take a test. It was such a mess. One of her coping strategies was to go outside and run. She had been a middle-of-the-pack cross country runner, or a little bit above middle-of-the-pack, but not like anywhere in the top 10. She just started running as her own personal therapy. And then she was running more, and some of her friends’ parents would let their kids go out running. 

One day she was like, “I ran a marathon today,” and we were like, “What is going on?” First we’re excited, and then we thought she’s maybe doing too much running. She got so fast, she could have been a [Division] 1 runner. 

Finally, they got around to having the season in the spring and she’d also gotten all her friends on the team to run. Their team went from 72nd in the state in cross country the year before to first. So she had this massive success in running, but because of the pandemic, she could never use it for college. It was too late. The colleges had already filled their teams.

What do you feel hopeful about now?

I’m not sure I’m totally hopeful yet. But we have seen districts jump in and be nimble in a way that we never thought districts could be nimble before. We didn’t really ask them to be. People always say, “Turning a district around is like turning an aircraft carrier around.” I’m like, an aircraft carrier turns around in a day. Why is everybody using that as something that’s slow? I was in the military. Aircraft carriers are pretty maneuverable. There are a lot of people, thousands and thousands of people on an aircraft carrier, and that thing could spin around. It changed direction with the wind. 

What did you do in the military?

I was in the Navy. I taught at the Navy Nuclear Power School for people who went out and operated the nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers and submarines. 

I do think we thought districts couldn’t adjust and many of them did. Especially this fall. We don’t have enough bus drivers? Quick, let’s pay the parents. We did see a lot of district leaders being nimble, like walking out of the central office and coming to schools to take air quality readings, greet kids, jump into classrooms when people were out sick, and change the way they do hiring bonuses and targeted pay for special ed teachers. I think [there are] a whole family of new compensation strategies and a whole bunch of other activities that show that even humans in large school districts can be nimble and dynamic and responsive. We’ve started to think about how to incorporate families in our strategies for learning in a way that we hadn’t before, and I’m not sure we’ve fully tapped into that.

Part of parents’ desperation is they’ve exhausted all their sick days, and they’re worried about their kids not learning. Some of them don’t have another alternative and some are still really desperate. Sometimes that desperation comes out as an attack and in something that doesn’t feel very healthy. 

What would you tell yourself 700 days ago, if you could go back in time, given what we know now? 

We all would have approached the time out of school differently if we’d known how long it was going to take. I think everybody would have gone further to set up some sort of alternative. Everybody was talking about pods and whether your kid is going to go to one of these learning groups. Some people I know would have switched schools earlier on or changed their jobs so that they could be around their kids more or enroll them in an online course because chemistry ended up being a complete waste in the virtual model. Seattle was locked down longer. It was really hard to watch other parts of the country opening up and serving kids and then not having that. That was part of that desperation. 

If we could go back — this is just me personally and probably the opposite from what some of the other people said to you —  but I’m a data person. I really study the numbers, and I didn’t understand how a lot of people were driven by fear and couldn’t recognize what I was seeing in the numbers. [They were saying], “Your child could die,” and I’d respond, “Well, not really. The numbers here say, really, your child’s not going to die. I promise you, driving to grandma’s is more dangerous for your kid than this thing.” This panic. When people are so emotionally rooted in fear, you’re having two different conversations if you’re talking about numbers and you’re talking about fear. The fear was so dominant that the numbers people probably felt like, out of respect, we should step back and be quiet because I don’t want to tell somebody having a panic attack, “You’re overreacting.”

Looking back on it, I think that I probably kept my real views about the data quieter than I should have. I thought people were going to bounce out of it. I don’t know that it would have done anything, but I had lots of conversations with people where they went on and on and on about the panic and the fear and that closing schools was the right thing to do. For fear of being accused of saying COVID is a hoax — you didn’t want to be lumped in with that — you didn’t say, “Well, that doesn’t feel right.” It’s been a very hard year for those of us who are data, numbers people.

I actually remember talking to a friend of mine and saying, “You know, the kids generally don’t die,” and she’s like, “You’re misinformed.” I [said], “No, I downloaded the data from the federal site. I have it all down on my laptop, I looked at it.” She said,”Well, not in my area. They’re dying here right and left. I read about it yesterday in the paper.” I said, “Well, let’s go look up your county and let’s see if they break it up by age and let me show you.” No kids in her county had died, but these non-data people weren’t downloading the spreadsheets and looking at them.

How long will we be talking about pandemic learning loss?

I heard Mike [Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute] the other day talk about “recession kids” from 10 years ago, so I was thinking as long as there are kindergarteners during the pandemic, until the time they graduate from high school, we’re probably going to be talking about how they were the “pandemic kids.” That’s why they don’t learn as fast or read as well. It will be a thing. For a good 10 years, we’ll be looking at the data.

I’m less interested in the data for accountability or sort of a “gotcha” — you did this wrong or you ranked low — and more into the data for how we can use it to make progress. I almost would rather say, fine, I’ll trade away the annual [assessments] if you could do something quarterly that just shows progress on a couple of measures. I would even narrow the outcomes to things that that we know kids need to get to the next level, just the basic necessities. I’d be OK if we measured them in some other ways tied to the tools they’re already using to learn, whether it’s Zearn [a math app] or other online tools.

But if we don’t try to work towards something, we may not work toward anything. The once-a-year test, the accountability, the lists —  I can understand why schools and leaders are anxious about them. I would be too. Different schools had different impacts. Some parents were at home and read to their kids or made them still get up and do their homework. A teacher who just let everything be open book and a school that gave out all A’s because we had some of that around [is going to be different than those] that said, “No, you need to turn in this composition and I’m gonna work with you to improve your writing.” 

Do we understand what works in virtual learning better than we did two years ago? Why or why not?

Everybody needs structure in their life, especially kids. Teenagers need structure and their own sort of personal accountability to people, which is the best kind of accountability. We could set an alternative to schooling — I’m not going to say it’s virtual learning, but an alternative to schooling that accomplishes some of the public health goals, but still incorporates other human elements that people need to be productive and successful and healthy. Some teenagers — socializing is like oxygen to them, and somehow we thought you could just cut off their oxygen and it’ll be just fine. That was really lopsided. We did some harm to humans in that process, and I’m still scarred from that.

We had, for over a year, a padlock on the fence around the elementary school playground and a sign with a line through that said “COVID-19.” A year after the pandemic started, in March of 2021, they finally got around to having their cross country season outside. And they banned all parents from coming. They run three miles. They’re outside. I mean it just got to the point where it was like eye roll upon eye roll. A lot of parents showed up anyway, because how are you going to keep parents off of a 3-mile course? We’re popping out of the bushes, waving at each other.  It was a year and we knew better, and that’s sort of like when I should have marched out like, “The evidence suggests we’re fine here. Stop this.” But they were going to ban you and ban your team and everything else if you weren’t cooperating. 

How do you think the pandemic has changed the direction of your work?

We’re an education finance shop, and the money that has come out has been a game changer. First, the pandemic started with financial turmoil. The stock market dropped and state budgets were imploding. Then we got three waves of new money, with the third being so big that we’ve never seen anything like it. So we’re really for the first time ever, having a conversation about how to use a whole bunch of money that’s not spoken for. But we’re not just doing it in a normal year; we’re also doing it in a crazy year where people are saying, “I want better ventilation,” and “Why can’t we do this?” And there’s a labor shortage and all these other things. So our work has been an absolute financial frenzy from the beginning, and I think it’s reminded me that we don’t really prepare people to be financially nimble and figure this stuff out on the fly. It’s a lot of work, but it’s been invigorating to jump in and help with something that people needed help on.

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