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  • Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Over 90% Effective at Preventing COVID in Children Ages 5-11

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | 1 day ago

    The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is 91 percent effective at preventing COVID infection in youth ages 5 to 11, the pharmaceutical companies’ data released Friday reveal.

    The protection provided by the shots, the companies say, supports authorization of the vaccine for the 28 million U.S. children in that age group. The Food and Drug Administration has a hearing scheduled Tuesday with expert advisors to review the case for authorization. 

    Two weeks ago, Pfizer and BioNTech submitted their formal request to the FDA for the green light to deliver doses to 5- to 11-year olds. 

    If the review timeline spans a similar length as that of vaccines for 12- to 15-year olds, the agency could grant authorization ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday — meaning that the vast majority of K-12 students may soon be eligible for immunizations.

    The vaccine efficacy numbers come from a briefing document Pfizer and BioNTech provided to the FDA, released Friday morning by the federal agency. In their trial, the companies tested a 10 microgram dose of the vaccine, one-third the size of the shot for teenagers and adults, and found that it produced a “robust” antibody response. Immunity and side effects, they said, were comparable to those produced by the larger dose in 16- to 25-year-old patients. 

    No new safety problems or cases of heart inflammation were observed in the trial, which tested 2,268 participants. Israeli studies have found myocarditis to occur in less than 1 in 5,000 vaccinated teenage males, so it’s possible the condition would have been too rare to have been detected in the main study. 

    Related

    COVID Vaccine Authorization for Children Ages 5-11 Possible Within Weeks After Pfizer Trials Find Shots Produce ‘Robust’ Immune Response

    The news comes as children make up over 130,000 weekly coronavirus cases, amounting to about a quarter of all reported infections per week nationwide, according to mid-October data published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Over 2,250 schools in 580 districts have closed so far this year due to outbreaks of the virus, according to Burbio, an organization that has tracked schools through the pandemic, though COVID-related school closures have slowed considerably in recent weeks as cases fall nationally and schools hone their protocols to curb spread.

    Related

    White House Unveils Plans for Mass Vaccination Effort of 5- to 11-Year Olds, Will Launch Campaign to ‘Increase Vaccine Confidence’

    The White House has made it clear that immunizing children will be a priority once shots are authorized for 5- to 11-year olds. The Biden administration will match schools with COVID-19 vaccine providers, the White House announced Wednesday. The Department of Health and Human Services will also enlist community-based clinics, doctor’s offices, hospitals and faith-based organizations in rapidly distributing vaccines.

    Two-thirds of parents of children aged 5 to 11 years say they will immunize their children against COVID-19 once shots are authorized for the age group, according to a recent survey by the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project.

    “While we’re encouraged to see that a majority of parents intend to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 once they are eligible, there is clearly more work to be done to help address parents’ questions and ease concerns about the vaccines,” Beth Battaglino, CEO of the nonprofit HealthyWomen, one of the partner organizations behind the polling, said in a statement.

    Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations have been fully approved by the FDA for individuals ages 16 and above, and have emergency use authorization for teenagers ages 12 to 15. Shots for kids younger than five may arrive early next year.

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  • Vice President Harris Casts Tie-Breaking Vote to Confirm Lhamon as Education Department’s Top Civil Rights Official

    By Mark Keierleber | 2 days ago

    Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote Wednesday to confirm Catherine Lhamon assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, a position she held during the Obama administration. 

    Lhamon, who faced steep opposition from Republicans, will lead the Education Department office in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws in schools, including rules that prohibit discrimination based on race and sex. She secured the post after a combative confirmation hearing in July, followed by a partisan 11-11 vote a month later in which members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee deadlocked on her nomination. Lawmakers voted earlier this month to discharge her nomination from committee and bring it before the full Senate. 


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    Harris’s vote, which broke a 50-50 tie, followed an effort by Republican lawmakers to block her return to a position she held from 2013 to 2017. She was unanimously confirmed in 2013, but became a lightning rod in several key education debates, including one that looked to hold K-12 schools and universities more accountable for sexual misconduct on campus. 

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    Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that Lhamon’s confirmation will help ensure that schools are “fairer and more just.”

    “She will lead the Department’s vital efforts to ensure our schools and college campuses are free from discrimination on the basis of race, sex and disability and to protect all students’ rights in education,” Cardona said in a media release. “Catherine is one of the strongest civil rights leaders in America and has a robust record of fighting for communities that are historically and presently underserved.” 

    In 2011, before Lhamon became assistant secretary, the Obama administration released a “Dear Colleague” letter that instructed educators to investigate sexual misconduct allegations “regardless of where the conduct occurred,” and to use a less-strict “preponderance of the evidence” standard when determining guilt. Eight months into her tenure under former President Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation was secured by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, rescinded the guidance and replaced it with new Title IX regulations in 2020. The Biden administration has already pledged to “restore” the Obama-era guidance.

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    Deja Vu as Ed Department Once Again Revisits the Contentious Landscape of Title IX

    Civil rights groups have praised Lhamon as a champion for student equity, but her conservative critics have accused her of being an overzealous bureaucrat who went beyond her legal authority during her previous stint on the job. 

    In 2014, the civil rights office used a “Dear Colleague” letter to warn school districts that discipline policies could constitute “unlawful discrimination” if they didn’t mention race but had a “disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.” In June, the Biden administration announced plans to revisit how the Education Department can ensure racial equity in school discipline. 

    While Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, Lhamon will be taking up her job at a time when battles over race and gender in schools have become even more divisive, as seen in several states recently moving to bar transgender students from playing sports. 

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  • New Study Shows Reading Remediation in Middle School Led More Students to Attend College and Earn Degrees

    By Kevin Mahnken | 2 days ago

    College remediation has earned a bad reputation over the past few years. Hopeful students spend billions of dollars annually to review material they should have mastered in high school, and a huge number never complete the coursework they are assigned. The fact that many undergraduates pay to attend catch-up classes when they are actually capable of succeeding in college-level work has only heightened scrutiny of the practice.

    But while we tend to associate remediation with older students, it’s not just a feature of university campuses — and new research suggests that adolescents who take remedial classes are better prepared for academic success in high school and college.


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    The study, accepted for publication at the Journal of Public Economics, finds that Florida middle schoolers who were assigned to complete a year of remedial instruction in English earned higher scores in state testing; those effects diminished over time, but the same students saw an impressive range of benefits as time went on, including higher rates of college enrollment and degree attainment. 

    “Overall, I think the findings here suggest that middle school remediation could be an effective lever in improving college readiness,” said Umut Özek, the paper’s author and a researcher at the American Institutes for Research. 

    The research examines the effects of a Florida law passed in 2004 as part of the state’s dramatic acceleration of accountability-focused education reform under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Under the policy, middle school students scoring below proficiency levels in either math or English must complete two courses the next year — one grade-level class and one remedial class — in the same subject. 

    Related

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    The law ultimately applied to a significant portion of students across the state, but Ozek chose to study one anonymous, urban school district serving a racially diverse population of over 200,000 students. Many fewer students were assigned to supplementary coursework in math than reading, so he focused on English, gathering test scores for K-12 students between the 2005-06 and 2018-19 school years. He also examined course enrollment data, including both advanced and remedial classes, and linked it with records from the National Student Clearinghouse that showed trends in college enrollment and completion. 

    To capture the specific consequences of the policy, Ozek compared the academic performance of two broadly similar groups of students — those who scored just under the cutoff for remediation assignment and those who scored just over it.

    In all, he found that the effects of English remediation were strikingly positive in terms of immediate standardized test results. Students who experienced a year of the combined courseload saw their reading scores on subsequent state exams jump significantly, even as they were no more likely to be absent from school or be suspended following a disciplinary incident. As Ozek notes, the higher test scores faded over the two years following their experience with remediation.

    But there’s a long-term upside: Even given the diminution of testing improvements, students who completed remedial coursework alongside their grade-level English class enjoyed a variety of advantages over their otherwise comparable peers. As high schoolers, they were 21 percent more likely to take part in college credit-bearing material, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes (for advanced English classes, the figure was 38 percent). 

    The benefits stretched into post-secondary education as well. Former remedial readers were 5 percent more likely to enroll in college, 15 percent more likely to persist past their first year, 50 percent more likely to attend a highly competitive college, and 43 percent more likely to eventually attain a two- or four-year degree. 

    The explanation for their gains can likely be attributed to the way in which remediation reshaped their middle school experience. Given the double dose of coursework, it’s unsurprising that Ozek found remedial students receiving almost an hour of additional English instruction each day. But he also found that their average class size in English was reduced by about 2 students, and they were significantly more likely to be assigned to a highly effective teacher (as measured by their impact on student test scores). As a downside, they were less likely to take part in music and physical education classes during their time in remediation, and their likelihood of being assigned to advanced classes in other subjects was sharply reduced.

    Ozek observed that part of the reason the policy was feasible was that it applied to adolescents, who have few alternatives if they are alienated by the addition of a catch-up class; ample research shows that students in high school or college sometimes handle the frustration by simply giving up.

    “Being placed in remediation [in high school] may lead to student disengagement from schooling,” Ozek argued, adding that remediated high schoolers would be likely to miss out on potentially valuable and attractive career and technical courses. “At that level, because kids are able to leave school legally, it could increase rates of dropout,” he said.

    The research also offers a fresh example of the limitations of test scores as a measure of success in school interventions. In a few other cases, most famously the federal Head Start preschool program, initial boosts to test performance have faded over time — only for the later life chances of participating children to be improved in other ways. Ozek said that “more and more evidence” had recently emerged suggesting that while assessment gains might prove transient, they also don’t tell the whole story.

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    “I believe it’s safe to say that even if you find test score effects that fade out, especially for middle and high school interventions, it’s too soon to reach conclusions about efficacy unless you take a look at long-term outcomes as well. It could be because test scores in middle school and high school may have lower predictability on adult outcomes.”

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  • White House Unveils Plans for Mass Vaccination Effort of 5- to 11-Year Olds, Will Launch Campaign to ‘Increase Vaccine Confidence’

    By Linda Jacobson | 2 days ago

    The Biden administration will match schools with COVID-19 vaccine providers as part of its effort to roll out shots for 5- to 11-year-olds, the White House announced Wednesday. Expecting that tens of thousands of sites will be necessary to meet the demand, including hundreds of schools, the administration said it aims to make vaccines available “in settings that kids and their parents know and trust.”

    The Department of Health and Human Services will also enlist community-based clinics, doctor’s offices, hospitals and faith-based organizations in rapidly distributing vaccines through the end of the year, making enough available to immunize 28 million children. 


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    Considered a major milestone toward ending the pandemic, emergency use authorization of a vaccine for children could be announced any day. Pfizer-BioNTech sent data on the use of its vaccine among that age group to the Food and Drug Administration in late September. An FDA advisory committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 26, followed by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee the week after. The administration said it is “hosting operational readiness calls” with states, tribes and territories to ensure a smooth process once the FDA approves and the CDC recommends the vaccine. With thousands of schools still quarantining students because of outbreaks, families and schools have been anticipating this key step.

    “Superintendents have been very anxious for this to happen,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. But he added that some schools might consider the attitudes of their community before agreeing to serve as vaccination sites. “If they have a supportive community, they will do vaccines in the schools as they’ve done in the past.”

    With her daughter Ella Baindourov, 6, Nara Varderesyan leads parents in protest of a vaccine mandate in schools at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood on Monday, Oct. 18. (Sarah Reingewirtz / Getty Images)

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency will take charge of setting up sites, storing supplies — including smaller needles — and providing transportation to sites, if needed, according to the fact sheet. The White House said pediatrician’s offices and pharmacies will also be critical in providing the vaccine because they are already “trusted sources.” Roughly 25,000 pediatrician’s offices, tens of thousands of pharmacies and over 100 children’s hospitals are expected to be involved, offering vaccines during the evenings and weekends for convenience.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics applauded the announcement.

    “Parents trust us to care for their children, come to us with questions and concerns about how to keep them healthy and safe, and will turn to us during this next phase for reassurance and guidance about the COVID-19 vaccine,” AAP President Lee Savio Beers, said in a statement. “We are ready to do what we’ve always done: counsel our families and protect our patients.”

    But as Domenech said, the administration is expecting that not all parents will be eager to get their children vaccinated, considering less than 60 percent of adolescents are vaccinated, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. HHS will launch a nationwide education campaign to assure parents that the vaccine is safe, working with schools and community organizations to “increase vaccine confidence.”

    “A key focus of our efforts is raising vaccine awareness and getting parents the facts they need to make the right choice for their kids,” Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said during a briefing Wednesday.

    Schools have been used as vaccination sites for over 100 years, and Linda Mendonca, president of the National Association of School Nurses, said school nurses “have a trusted relationship with students and families.” But schools are facing a nursing shortage along with many other staff positions, which could impact the vaccination effort as it has school-based testing.

    An Ipsos poll conducted at the end of September showed that two-thirds of parents with children in the 5-11 range said they’re “likely” to get their children vaccinated, but 43 percent responded that they would be “very likely.” 

    Those who are unsure about vaccinating their children are more likely to be unvaccinated themselves and continue to note the speed of vaccine’s development and potential side effects as top reasons for their hesitancy. A quarter of parents of adolescents responding said a requirement that their child be vaccinated to attend school could make them change their minds.

    California is the only state so far to mandate the vaccine for students once it earns full FDA approval. But others are expected to follow. In Washington, the Seattle Public Schools is considering a resolution that would ask the state’s health department to issue a such mandate.

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  • Kids Left Schools Last Year Because of the Switch to Remote Classes; Early Numbers Suggest They May Not Be Coming Back Soon

    By Kevin Mahnken | 7 days ago

    With the release of new data in recent months, a clearer picture is emerging of how K-12 enrollment has responded to the pandemic. Studying figures from hundreds of school districts, researchers at Stanford have found that roughly one-quarter of the decrease in students is directly attributable to the move to all-virtual instruction, and that the trend mostly affected the very youngest students. And early indicators from states and school districts suggest that total enrollment won’t bounce back to the pre-COVID status quo this year.

    Thomas Dee, an economist and one of the Stanford co-authors, said that it wasn’t yet clear if or when the declines would be reversed, or how families might plan their re-entry into local schools. But a clear line connected remote schooling to fewer kids, he argued.


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    “Unsurprisingly, parents particularly didn’t want younger children — kindergarten or elementary-grade kids — sitting in front of a computer all day,” Dee said. “We’ve seen that in the enrollment declines, and what it implies is that some kids were missing out on those early developmental experiences, educational experiences we know can be really critical and have lifelong implications for them.”

    Related

    New Federal Data Confirms Pandemic’s Blow to K-12 Enrollment, With Drop of 1.5 Million Students; Pre-K Experiences 22 Percent Decline

    According to the study, released in August as a working paper through the National Bureau of Economic Research, kindergarten enrollment fell by 3-4 percent in districts that opted for all-virtual instruction last fall. Elementary school enrollment fell by about 1 percent, while middle and high school enrollment was mostly unchanged.

    To reach those conclusions, the research team painstakingly assembled data on student enrollment, as well as grade-level enrollment, from state departments of education, comparing 2020-21 figures with those of the preceding four school years. They also relied on data from Burbio.com, which tracks how school districts are offering instruction during the pandemic. The authors ultimately assembled a sample of 875 districts serving over one-third of all American K-12 students. While about half of those districts opened the 2020-21 school year in remote-only instruction, the other half was divided between those holding in-person classes and those using a hybrid model.

    All told, they found that offering all-remote classes led to an enrollment drop of 1.1 percentage points, or roughly 300,000 students. Notably, the scale of disenrollment resulting from all-remote school was greater in demographically identifiable areas, such as rural districts and those serving more Hispanic students. The effects were almost twice as large in districts with lower concentrations of African American students, a phenomenon that could reflect attitudes previously expressed in public polling: Black parents of school-aged children were more than twice as likely as white parents to say they favored online classes, according to a survey conducted before the 2020-21 school year began.

    The Stanford findings dovetail somewhat with those of other recent publications. A research brief released in September by scholars at the University of Michigan and Boston University also detected evidence of significant enrollment drops in Michigan public schools, with coinciding increases in private school enrollment and the rate of homeschooling. Another paper co-authored by Dee and University of Hawaii professor Mark Murphy showed a 4 percent decline among K-12 students in Massachusetts between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, with larger effects in smaller districts and those serving more white families. Finally, national data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools points to a huge increase in charter enrollment last year.

    Related

    As the Pandemic Set In, Charter Schools Saw Their Highest Enrollment Growth Since 2015, 42-State Analysis Shows

    Dee described the initial numbers coming out of states and districts as an imperfect tool, but one that currently offers the best guide to how families across the country have reacted to the unprecedented disruptions of COVID-19.

    “I view the enrollment data as a sort of canary in a coal mine: a leading indicator that doesn’t capture the nuance we want in understanding what’s going on with kids, but that has the virtue of being available relatively quickly and comprehensively, representing the whole universe of public schools.”

    ‘Counts aren’t rebounding’

    While education observers are still getting a sense of how many students left traditional public schools last fall, the first inklings about the current school year are already becoming available. And so far, they don’t foretell a mass return of students who sat out last year.

    Figures released this week by the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second-largest in the U.S. after New York City — show about 27,000 fewer students showed up for classes this September than last September. That represents a 6 percent decline in total enrollment, even as schools in L.A. have long since reopened for in-person classes.

    Disenrollment has also persisted in Hawaii which has already released student counts for this year. Total kindergarten enrollment on the islands — which operate as a single, statewide school district — saw one of the steepest declines in the country during the pandemic, falling from 13,074 in 2019 to 11,103 in 2020. But while some have predicted an early education “surge” this year as parents finally place their kids in kindergarten, it has so far been absent; kindergarten enrollment is up by about 350, but still remains about 12 percent below the pre-pandemic status quo.

    “What we’re seeing is that the fall 2021 counts are not rebounding to what we saw [before the pandemic],” said Mark Murphy, Dee’s co-author on the Massachusetts paper. “I think it’s starting to suggest that what we saw in fall 2020 may occur more commonly in fall 2021 than we originally thought.”

    Related

    Returning this Fall, By Popular Demand: Virtual School. For Communities of Color, it’s Largely a Matter of Trust

    Instead, Murphy noted, the number of first graders has grown — an indication that families who “red-shirted” their children last year may have opted to place them directly into first grade this September. Meanwhile, the two-year decline between 2019 and 2021 is still substantial in grades two, three, and four.

    Murphy did reflect that changing perceptions of the COVID threat may still be influencing the decisions of families. The emergence of the Delta variant in late summer resulted in a spike in both cases and hospitalizations in Hawaii, which likely preyed on the minds of concerned parents.

    “There may be some changes in the response to how families are thinking about enrolling their children given the changing dynamics, and the greater intensity of the Delta variant may impact individuals’ behavior.”

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  • Closing the Digital Divide: New Wi-Fi Towers Provide Access to Underserved Students in Fort Worth, Texas

    By Kristi Eaton | October 13, 2021

    Fort Worth Independent School District students most in need of internet access are now connected after the installation of several Wi-Fi towers. 

    The towers, which stand 60-to-80 feet tall, have been erected by the school district at  Dunbar High School, Morningside Middle School, Rosemont Middle School and Eastern Hills High School. 

    One-quarter of students most in need of internet access have been connected. The remaining 75% of students will get internet service when phase two of the project begins in December. Zip codes that are underserved will be targeted, according to the district. 


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    The pandemic and its effects, including the rise of virtual learning, exposed the digital divide, particularly in communities of color. Those students lack wifi access, exacerbating the already existing racial achievement gap in many schools across the country. 

    The towers are meant to help combat that problem in Fort Worth where an estimated 60,000 residents lack internet access. 

    “Our towers are up and functional,” said Chief Information Officer Marlon Shears in a statement. “We are continuing to deploy service by getting modems to students in need. We also have begun the process to put up more towers, extending service into additional areas.”

    Voters approved funding the project in November 2020 through the Tax Ratification Election (TRE).

    According to the 2019 Worst Connected Cities report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Fort Worth ranked No. 245 out of 625 cities in terms of connectivity. The report, based on data from the 2019 American Community Survey, found that 11% of  Fort Worth households did not have broadband and nearly 28% of households lacked a cable, fiber optic line or DSL. This was an improvement over 2018, when 31% of households did not have cable, fiber optic or DSL. 

    NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer said 36 million U.S. households don’t have a home broadband subscription. Of the 36 million, 26 million are in urban areas. 

    “So we know we have an infrastructure availability issue in rural areas,” she said. “And what we know in urban areas is even when the infrastructure is there, people don’t always subscribe. And why don’t people subscribe? It’s expensive, digital literacy issues, trust issues about getting stuck with large bills. 

    “So there needs to be alternative solutions,” Siefer continued. “And what some school districts are doing … is they’ve come up with an alternative solution, which is, you know what, we’re just going to build it ourselves.”

    That’s what Fort Worth is doing.  

    Clay Robison, spokesman for Texas State Teachers Association, noted that most students in Texas are no longer learning remotely, but are back in classrooms. 

    “The new Fort Worth towers should benefit students and teachers who are still involved in remote instruction,” he said, adding students learn best with a teacher in the classroom.  

    “If the Fort Worth district continues to provide wifi access. This will help students with their homework and studies at home and, we hope, help narrow the digital divide between low-income and more-fortunate students,” he said, later adding: “Most school districts were scrambling after the pandemic broke out to provide digital access to students who needed it. Some districts were more successful than others.”

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  • COVID Shots Required for School Staff in 36% of Top Districts

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | October 12, 2021

    Updated

    With the vast majority of U.S. students once again learning in classrooms, 180 of the largest 500 U.S. school districts have enacted requirements for their staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to an analysis published Monday by Burbio, an organization that has tracked school safety policies through the pandemic.

    It’s a safety measure that health experts say represents a key step toward improved coronavirus safety in school — especially as younger students remain ineligible for shots likely until November. Although children rarely fall seriously ill from the virus, young people still make up more than a quarter of new cases in the U.S. and school-based outbreaks have triggered some 2,265 closures across 580 districts already in 2021-22.


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    “Most pediatricians that I’ve spoken with … absolutely support vaccine mandates for teachers,” Kristina Deeter, professor of pediatric medicine at University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, told The 74. “It’s the right thing to do.”

    In 11 states, coronavirus vaccines are mandated for teachers statewide, the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education reports, meaning a considerable share of the 180 districts with staff mandates enacted such policies because state law required it.

    Still, vaccination rules vary from district to district, with some mandates having already kicked in and others not taking effect until next month.

    Some school systems have more lenient policies, such as Philadelphia, which acknowledged that unvaccinated teachers will not lose their jobs, though they will be subject to twice-weekly testing. Others impose stricter sanctions, like New York City, which is barring unvaccinated teachers from entering school buildings and putting them on unpaid leave until they get the shot.

    Even those districts where staff have a choice between vaccination or regular testing are included in the 36 percent tally, Burbio co-founder Dennis Roche confirmed to The 74.

    The New York City mandate, which took effect Oct. 4 after a brief legal challenge, applies to roughly 150,000 people who work in the nation’s largest school system, and compelled thousands of employees to receive their shots in the weeks before the rule took effect. Some 96 percent of teachers in the district have now been immunized against COVID-19, The New York Times reported.

    By contrast, Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school system, on Monday extended its deadline for employees to receive their shots from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15, fearing that strict enforcement would exacerbate staffing challenges and lead to major disruptions. Unlike the New York City mandate, the L.A. rule requires two doses before the deadline for educators receiving the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.

    While many teacher mandates are in deep blue states, the San Antonio Independent School District has an immunization requirement set to go into effect Oct. 15. Earlier this month, the district’s rule survived a legal challenge from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton when a county judge denied the state’s motion to secure a temporary injunction on the mandate. A ruling on the policy from a higher court is expected in days.

    Meanwhile, on Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning all COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the state, including for private employers.

    “We are reviewing the new executive order and consulting with our legal counsel and Board of Trustees to determine how the district will proceed with its employee vaccine mandate,” a San Antonio ISD spokesperson wrote in an email to The 74.

    In lieu of mandates, other Texas districts are providing cash incentives for teachers who roll up their sleeves. Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth each deliver $500 bonuses to fully vaccinated educators.

    Vaccine mandates for students remain much more rare, with only a select few districts having implemented such rules. California districts Los Angeles, Oakland and Culver City as well as Hoboken, New Jersey have each made immunization a requirement for in-person school for vaccine-eligible students, with deadlines in the coming months. Washington, D.C. is mulling a similar policy.

    In early October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that coronavirus vaccines will be required for all eligible students in the state, though the rule will likely not go into effect until July 2022.

    Burbio’s count that 36 percent of top districts require teachers to be immunized comes as the rush to embrace such policies has slowed considerably. After eight states moved to enact educator mandates in late August and early September, only one — Delaware — has added a similar rule since then, CRPE reports.

    But even as COVID case counts fall nationwide, Deeter, the pediatrics professor, warns that now is not time for the country to let down its guard.

    “As the surge goes down … now everybody’s like ‘Yay! [The pandemic] is over.’ It’s not over. It’s not even close to over. We are just prepping for the next wave,” she said. “We have to prepare.”

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  • Pfizer Asks FDA to Greenlight COVID Shots for Kids 5-11, Could Roll Out Pre-Thanksgiving

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | October 7, 2021

    Updated Oct. 8

    In a key step toward coronavirus vaccine access for over 28 million U.S. children, Pfizer-BioNTech announced Thursday morning that they have submitted their formal request to federal regulators for authorization to deliver shots to youth ages 5 to 11.

    The move comes after the pharmaceutical companies announced positive topline results among that age group in clinical trials in late September. The testing regimen delivered two reduced-potency doses to more than 2,000 youngsters, producing a “robust” antibody response, including immunity and side effects comparable to that produced by the larger dose in 16- to 25-year-old patients. 


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    “With new cases in children in the U.S. continuing to be at a high level, this submission is an important step in our ongoing effort against COVID-19,” Pfizer tweeted Thursday.

    Related

    COVID Vaccine Authorization for Children Ages 5-11 Possible Within Weeks After Pfizer Trials Find Shots Produce ‘Robust’ Immune Response

    The Food and Drug Administration has an Oct. 26 advisory committee meeting scheduled to review Pfizer-BioNTech’s request to expand authorization to younger children. 

    Pressed on what issues will be on the table during that meeting and how soon afterward authorization might be granted, a spokesperson responded to The 74 that the “FDA cannot comment on its interactions with manufacturers about their investigational products.”

    Should the review process follow a similar timeline as it did for 12- to 15-year olds, which stretched just over a month from an April 9 submission to a May 10 authorization, children ages 5 to 11 could receive the greenlight for COVID immunizations by early- to mid-November, sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

    Meanwhile, schools are facing a third straight school year disrupted by the virus, which as of last week had killed 700,000 Americans even as cases overall have begun to fall. As of Sunday, outbreaks had triggered some 2,238 school closures across 561 districts since buildings opened their doors for the 2021-22 school year, according to the website Burbio, which has tracked school policies and schedules through the pandemic.

    Although children rarely fall seriously ill from the virus, the Delta variant has driven up caseloads among unvaccinated Americans, including youth. Last week, over 173,000 pediatric cases were reported, accounting for over a quarter of new cases nationwide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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    Vaccines are currently authorized for youth ages 12 to 15, and fully approved for those 16 and up. As of Sept. 29, 56 percent of 12- to 17-year olds in the U.S. had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the pediatrics academy, while 68 percent of adults 18 and older are fully vaccinated.

    Youth immunization rates, however, vary greatly by locale. In 10 states, over two-thirds of children ages 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while in 21 states, the same is true for less than half of youth that age.

    Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that coronavirus vaccines will be required for all eligible students in the state, though the rule will likely not go into effect until July 2022.

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    Some districts have moved to implement more immediate mandates for children ages 12 and up including Los Angeles, Oakland and Culver City, all in California; and Hoboken, New Jersey. Washington D.C. is also mulling a bill that would require all students to be fully immunized against the virus by Dec. 15.

    Though it may prove a challenge to persuade the parents of K-12 students to receive vaccinations in some districts, COVID shots are the most effective way to defend children against the virus, Benjamin Linas, professor of medicine at Boston University, told The 74 last month.

    “With the vaccine, you’re very well protected from the bad outcomes.”

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  • Justice Department to Combat Spike in Intimidation, Violent Threats Against School Leaders As Culture War Rages

    By Mark Keierleber | October 5, 2021

    Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to combat what officials called a spike in harassment, intimidation and violent threats against education leaders as communities clash over schools’ pandemic response and lessons about systemic racism.

    “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland wrote in a media release Monday. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”


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    The move comes less than a week after the 90,000-member National School Boards Association urged the Biden administration to act swiftly to protect public school leaders who face “an immediate threat” of violence as school board meetings nationwide grow increasingly volatile. The group cited more than 20 instances of threats, harassment and intimidation during board meetings in recent months amid tension over mask mandates and classroom instruction on critical race theory. The school board group referred to the violent threats as “domestic terrorism.”

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    ‘An Immediate Threat’: National School Board Group Calls on Biden to Combat ‘Domestic Terrorism’ Toward Educators During Pandemic Turmoil

    In a memorandum, Garland called on the federal agencies to meet with local law enforcement in the next month to create a plan to combat the “disturbing spike.” The Justice Department also announced plans to create a new task force focused on prosecuting people who threaten school leaders. The task force will include the FBI and the Justice Department’s criminal, security and civil rights divisions.

    Officials also said they would create training resources that help school boards and administrators understand behaviors that constitute threats, how to report dangerous conduct to police and how to preserve relevant evidence.

    Chip Slavin, the school board group’s interim executive director, said in a media release that the Justice Department’s response sent “a strong message to individuals with violent intent who are focused on causing chaos, disrupting our public schools and driving wedges between school boards and the parents, students and communities they serve.”

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    In one recent incident, police arrested an Illinois man for allegedly hitting a school official as he was being escorted out of a board meeting and, in another, an Ohio school board member received a letter in the mail warning “we are coming after you,” threatening that she would “pay dearly” for requiring students to wear masks on campus. While some speakers have used board meetings to spread conspiracy theories and hate speech, other critics who frequently clash with their school boards offered sharp rebukes to the national association’s assertion that their actions constitute “domestic terrorism.” Among them is activist and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, who tweeted that the school board group should apologize to parents.

    Conservative lawmakers and activists, including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, were quick to accuse officials of trampling on the free speech rights of parents who speak up at school board meetings. On Twitter, Gaetz accused the Biden administration of using “federal law enforcement to punish dissent from the ruling class.”

    Read the Justice Department memo here:

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  • White House Memo: Debt Ceiling Debate Could Impact $50 Billion in K-12 Funding, including Title I and Special Ed

    By Linda Jacobson | October 5, 2021

    Updated October 7

    The Senate on Thursday passed a short-term, $480 billion increase in the debt ceiling that lasts through Dec. 3 — a move that prevents the U.S. government from failing to pay its financial obligations. 

    Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, after vowing not to help Democrats with the issue, rallied 11 Republicans to end debate and allow the measure to move to a floor vote. Then the bill passed 50-48, with only Democrats voting in favor. The bill now moves to the House.

    “Tonight’s votes are welcome steps forward in averting a default that would have been devastating for our economy and for working families. President Biden looks forward to signing this bill as soon as it passes the House and reaches his desk,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “As we move forward, there must be no question of whether America will pay its bills; Congress must address the debt limit in December and beyond – just as we’ve done almost 80 times over the last 60 years.” 

    Dec. 3 is the same day Congress must pass the fiscal year 2022 budget or another continuing resolution to keep the government open, setting up another possibility that the government will once again come close to default and a government shutdown.
     

    Federal funds that states depend on for low-income students, special education and school nutrition programs could be at risk if Congress doesn’t lift the government’s debt limit, the White House warned states last month.

    The U.S. could be in default by Oct. 18, which could disrupt global financial markets and trigger what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week called a “parade of horribles.” Democrats have been trying to get bipartisan support to raise the limit — the total amount the Treasury Department can borrow to meet its financial obligations. But Republicans have balked, leaving Democrats to deal with the politically unpopular issue.


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    “Raising the debt limit comes down to paying what we already owe,” President Joe Biden said Monday, stressing that the matter has nothing to do with his agenda for infrastructure or social programs.

    While most education funds — about 90 percent — come from state and local revenues, some programs rely more on federal sources, such as Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Head Start and child care. A mid-September memo from the White House to state and local governments estimated that up to $50 billion in K-12 education funding could be affected. The standoff over the debt limit adds to the list of major budget challenges currently facing Congress. Members still need to pass the fiscal year 2022 budget and Democrats disagree over a major social spending package that includes funding for schools and early-childhood programs.

    Default “would have reverberating effects for states and school districts, whose own finances would be thrown into uncertainty,” said Whitney Tucker, the deputy director of research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “Title I will have to stand in line with all the other federal obligations due.”

    Tucker wrote about the potential impacts last week, saying that if the issue isn’t resolved, states would have to turn to reserve funds to cover costs.

    The potential loss of funds creates headaches for district finance officials.

    “On top of everything else they’re managing right now, the last thing district leaders need is another layer of contingency planning,” said Jonathan Travers, a partner with Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit that advises districts on financial matters. “As a field, we don’t have the extra bandwidth available right now to respond to debt ceiling brinkmanship in any sort of proactive, planful way.”

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    A default would impact the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast programs as well as other federally funded nutrition efforts totaling $30 billion, according to the White House memo.

    School meal programs are “incurring costs and they rely on the federal government for reimbursement after the meals are served,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.

    Because of supply chain delays and shortages of typical menu items, school nutrition programs are already spending higher prices on food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week announced $1.5 billion in assistance to help them cover those costs.

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    Non-education programs that benefit children, such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, would be affected as well. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen noted that parents receiving monthly child tax credit payments, part of the American Rescue Plan, could see delays.

    But Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, cautioned that while a default would certainly impact the stock market, states shouldn’t be worrying about their account balances running low.

    “States are sitting on a lot of cash right now,” she said, referring to the American Rescue Plan, which included $122 billion for K-12. But most of those funds, she added, are still at the state level and haven’t reached districts.

    Tucker agreed that the relief funds could provide a cushion, but some states haven’t yet received all of the funds and others have already allocated them.

    Recent polling from Politico and Morning Consult shows that voters would hold both parties responsible if the government goes into default, but they’re more likely to blame Democrats than Republicans.

    In 2011, during the Obama-Biden administration, the U.S. came close to the brink of default, with Tea Party Republicans ultimately winning budget cuts in exchange for an increase in the limit. The debt limit became an issue again in 2014, but at that point, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to allow the measure to move forward to a vote. Democrats also helped Republicans increase the debt cap while President Donald Trump was in office.

    This time, Democrats wanted to lift the debt limit by adding language to a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running through Dec. 3. The Republicans didn’t go for that and President Joe Biden ended up signing a resolution Thursday night without the debt limit increase.

    The Democratic majority in the House on Wednesday passed a separate debt limit bill, but the Senate is not expected to pass it. Republicans want Democrats to lift the debt ceiling as part of Biden’s proposed social and education package. But that plan is on shaky ground, with Democrats divided on how much to spend and Biden already conceding that it will probably amount to much less than the $3.5 trillion he proposed.

    Democrats could also move a separate bill just to lift the debt ceiling using the budget reconciliation process, meaning they would only need a simple majority to pass. Biden asked Republicans to allow Democrats to do that.

    “Republicans just have to let us do our job. Just get out of the way,” he said. “Let us vote to end the mess.”

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  • ‘An Immediate Threat’: National School Board Group Calls on Biden to Combat ‘Domestic Terrorism’ Toward Educators During Pandemic Turmoil

    By Mark Keierleber | September 30, 2021

    The Biden administration must act to combat a surge in threats and violence toward education leaders amid volatile tensions over schools’ pandemic response and lessons on systemic racism, a 90,000-member national school board members’ group wrote in a letter Wednesday.


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    In the letter to President Joe Biden, the National School Boards Association said the country’s schools and educators are “under an immediate threat” and urged the federal government to “investigate, intercept and prevent the current threats and acts of violence against public school officials through existing statutes,” including the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the PATRIOT Act. The group called for a “joint collaboration” between local and federal law enforcement agencies to halt what it referred to as “domestic terrorism” carried out at school board meetings, through the U.S. Postal Service and on social media.

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    “As the threats grow and news of extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings is being reported, this is a critical time for a proactive approach to deal with this difficult time,” which includes tumult around mask mandates and classroom instruction on critical race theory. The group cited more than 20 instances of threats, harassment and intimidation during school board meetings that targeted education officials in recent months.

    “Coupled with attacks against school board members and educators for approving policies for masks to protect the health and safety of students and school employees, many public school officials are also facing physical threats because of propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula.”

    The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

    School board meetings have become ground zero for political unrest in recent months as conservative groups and former Trump administration officials have sought to capitalize on angst against school officials as a campaign strategy. Though news articles have highlighted outrage that include divisive and at times violent rhetoric, it’s unclear if any education leaders have been injured.

    In one incident, police arrested an Illinois man on aggravated battery and disorderly conduct charges for allegedly hitting a school official as he was being escorted out of a school board meeting. In Ohio, a school board member was mailed a letter that warned “we are coming after you” and threatened that the school official would “pay dearly” for requiring students to wear masks. In a recent story for The 74, school leaders discussed how they faced online threats and vandalized campuses. Candace Singh, who leads a school district near San Diego, said she was threatened with warnings like “You better watch out” and “Watch your back.” Such language, she said, has become “accepted in the public discourse, where it never would have been tolerated before.” Some districts, like the Rockwood School District in suburban St. Louis, resorted to hiring private security earlier this year to protect staff.

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    Earlier in the month, the National Association of Secondary School Principals called on federal officials to “do more to protect school leaders from rampant hostility and violence that disrupts our schools and threatens the safety of our educators and students.”

    In a joint statement last week, the school boards association and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, called on the public to stop using violent threats to express their opinions about pandemic-era school reopening decisions.

    “We oppose the increasingly aggressive tactics creeping into board and community meetings, and we cannot let frustrations and tensions evolve into name calling and intimidation,” Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director, said in the statement. “We will never back down from the importance of freedom of speech, but we cannot — and will not — tolerate aggression, intimidation, threats and violence toward superintendents, board members and educators.”

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  • New Report Gives Low Grades to Most Teacher Retirement Systems

    By Kevin Mahnken | September 29, 2021

    If you’re a mid-career teacher thinking about what to do when your career winds down — don’t move.

    Seriously, don’t relocate across state lines, K-12 finance experts warn. Along with changing careers, it’s one of the easiest ways to lose out on your retirement savings. In all, only about one out of five teachers receive their full pensions, while roughly 50 percent don’t remain in a single pension system long enough to qualify for minimum benefits at the end of their service.


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    Those dreary findings come from a report on teacher retirement systems released last month by Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit research and consulting group. Ranking each state retirement system on an A-F scale, the authors find that only a handful can claim to serve both teachers and taxpayers well: Twenty states received F grades, while none received an A.

    Andrew Rotherham, one of Bellwether’s founders and a co-author of the paper, noted that a wide variety of states earned spots near the top and bottom of the list, with both Democratic- and Republican-leaning political environments scattered throughout. But across the board, he observed, the status quo in too many states punishes a wide swathe of educators.

    “One of the ways this system is sustainable is that it creates millions of small losers and a much smaller number of big winners,” said Rotherham.

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    Chad Aldeman, a former Bellwether analyst who now serves as policy director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, said that there had been some “slow movement” in a few states to offer public employees more choice and portability in their retirement benefits, but that the intertwined issues of back-loaded pensions and colossal debts owed by states were generally going in the wrong direction.

    “I would say, in broad strokes, the financial problems keep getting worse,” said Aldeman, who worked on a previous version of Bellwether’s rankings and consulted on this publication. “And the related problem about the way the benefits are structured — it’s moving in fits and starts, but it’s also getting worse.”

    Bellwether’s newest report evaluates states on a “comprehensive” basis that rates how each system performs for four separate constituencies: short-term teachers (those who teach in the system for less than 10 years), medium-term teachers (those who remain within the system for 10 years but leave before retirement), long-term teachers (those who spend their entire careers in the system), and taxpayers within each state. Retirement systems in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were ranked in terms of their performance for each category, and they all received an overall score.

    Grades were determined through the use of 15 separate variables, including overall funding levels, the length of the vesting period, whether teachers in the state are eligible for Social Security, required teacher contribution rates, and investment returns averaged over 10 years.

    South Dakota earned the top score, 88.4 percent, while Tennessee and Washington were the only two other states to notch even B grades. Among the lowest-rated jurisdictions were a litany of red, blue, and purple enclaves: California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Louisiana, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts, and more than a dozen others.

    Those summative scores can conceal significant variation within systems, however. West Virginia, for instance, earns an overall grade of D, partly because it is one of the worst states in the country for short-term teachers (its 10-year vesting period means that huge numbers of educators won’t stay in the job long enough to earn benefits). But it lands just outside the top ten systems for taxpayers because it participates in Social Security, nets fairly high investment returns, and makes relatively high state contributions.

    Among all four constituencies, short-term teachers clearly make out the worst, with 33 states and the District of Columbia earning F grades in the category. Of the rest, only five (South Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Florida, and Michigan) even rated a C or higher.

    Aldeman said that the policy moves that have contributed to that reality — lengthening vesting periods, slashing benefits for newer teachers, and raising teacher contributions — can sometimes improve a given state’s budgetary picture, but they also tend to disadvantage younger employees and those who don’t stay their whole careers.

    ​​”When states historically have seen a big-budget bill for pension obligations, they have tended to cut benefits for new workers,” he said. “The cuts mean that newly hired workers have to stay longer to qualify for any benefit at all, have to contribute more of their own salary toward the benefits, and have to wait longer to retire and receive a lower benefit.”

    Citing a recent report from the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, which found that 39 percent of the education funding disbursed by Illinois for the coming school year will be used to pay down the state’s huge debt obligations, Aldeman professed himself “amazed.”

    “I mean, you can see the trend; it just keeps going up and up. At some point, will leaders say, ‘That’s enough, we need to do something else about this’?”

    ‘Life happens’

    Teachers in 36 states and the District of Columbia are enrolled in defined benefit pensions programs, through which they make regular contributions to their plan and receive guaranteed payments in retirement. Fourteen states have created “defined contribution” systems, often resembling 401(k) plans, which tend to vest over a shorter period of time and offer greater portability across state lines.

    Rotherham argued that education policymakers should not focus exclusively on plan type in debates over how to improve their systems. Defined benefit packages — often caricatured as “gold-plated” vestiges of the mid-20th century, when many employees could expect to retire early with enviable financial security — are not necessarily financially irresponsible for states, he said, and alternative systems can sometimes fail the test of adequacy for the retirees who depend on them.

    “This debate has often become very reductionist, and it’s become a debate over what should be the form of the plan — is it defined benefit or defined contribution? — rather than which elements would make it good or bad,” Rotherham said. “And that’s what we need to be talking about because for the plan participants, it’s those elements that affect their lives, not these ideological debates between 401(k)s and pensions.”

    Whatever specific structure a state commits to, he said, leaders can no longer condition their retirement benefits on career-long tenures within a given system; any expectation that employees will stay in place for decades is “not a match for our labor market,” Rotherham added.

    “If you know you’re going to teach in one place for 30 years, the pension plan works for you, and you should do that. The problem is that people decide they don’t like teaching. They get sick, they have to move, they fall in love with someone whose job requires relocation, they need to be a caregiver. Life happens, people make plans that don’t work out, so these structures have to have some flexibility.”

    Disclosure: Andrew Rotherham is co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners and serves on the board of directors of The 74.

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  • Watch: Education Experts Talk the Science of Reading, Pandemic Learning Loss and the Need to Close Literacy Gaps in a Post-COVID World

    By The 74 | September 29, 2021

    The headlines have been relentlessly bleak. Across the nation, standardized testing has found an alarming decline in reading proficiency because of the ongoing disruption from the pandemic. Now enterprising educators are trying to come up with ways to reverse these declines.

    Today at 1 p.m. Eastern, The 74 is honored to partner with the Progressive Policy Institute to present an online panel discussion: “The Science of Reading and Closing Literacy Gaps in a Post-COVID World.” Joining the conversation will be:

    • Dr. Kymyona Burk, early education policy director for ExcelinEd
    • Mary Clayman, director of the D.C. Reading Clinic
    • Cassandra Gentry, a parent leader with DC PAVE
    • Dr. Michael Durant, chief academic officer of Academy of Hope Adult Charter School
    • Rep. Allister Chang of the D.C. State Board of Education
    • Christina Grant, Acting State Superintendent of Education in Washington, D.C.

    You can register for free and get the Zoom viewing info here, or watch the Wednesday livestream by refreshing this page at 1 p.m.  You can also stream directly on The 74’s Facebook page.


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    See some recent coverage of literacy and equity from The 74:

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  • Pfizer Sends Vaccine Data for Kids Ages 5-11 to FDA, California Gov. Newsom Orders Shots for All Eligible K-12 Students

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | September 28, 2021

    Updated, Oct. 1

    Pfizer-BioNTech has submitted initial data to the Food and Drug Administration that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for 5- to 11-year olds, the pharmaceutical company announced Tuesday.

    The development represents another key step toward shots for young children, but Pfizer has yet to formally submit a request to the FDA for authorization to inoculate the roughly 28 million Americans under 12 years old, which it must do before the federal agency can fully begin the weeks-long review process.

    Though younger children are not yet cleared for the vaccine, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered COVID shots for all eligible K-12 students in the state, marking the first such statewide move in the nation. The mandate could take effect as early as January, but depends on when vaccines receive full FDA approval for young people ages 12 and up, the Los Angeles Times reports. Currently, Pfizer shots have full FDA approval for use in individuals 16 or older.

    “This is just another vaccine,” Newsom said. Coronavirus shots will be added to “a well-established list that currently includes 10 vaccines and well-established rules and regulations that have been advanced by the Legislature for decades.”


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    Pfizer’s submission for emergency use authorization among kids under 12 will come in a matter of days, CEO Albert Bourla told ABC News on Sunday.

    If Bourla’s company sticks to that timeline, young kids should have access to COVID shots before the end of next month, said Dr. Anthony Fauci.

    “I would imagine in the next few weeks [the FDA] will examine that data and hopefully give the OK so we can start vaccinating children hopefully by the end of October,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

    An anonymous source familiar with the authorization process, however, told The Wall Street Journal that if Pfizer delays its submission to the FDA, clearance for young children to receive shots may not come until mid-November.

    Dr. Jennifer Shu (Children’s Medical Group, P.C.)

    Either way, it’s big news for schools, says Atlanta-based pediatrician Jennifer Shu. Though classrooms have not proven to be the locus of viral spread through the pandemic, circulation of the highly contagious Delta variant this fall has spurred outbreaks forcing some 2,200 school closures already since buildings opened. In late September, minors made up more than a quarter of all new COVID cases, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports, though the risk of severe outcomes remains small, doctors say.

    “Once kids ages 5 to 11 are eligible for [the] vaccine, attending school during the pandemic will be safer,” Shu wrote in a message to The 74.

    The Pfizer data included 2,268 participants ages 5 to 11 who were each given a two-dose regimen of the vaccine 21 days apart. Children were given a 10 microgram dose, smaller than the 30 micrograms administered to older children and adults, which the drug company said was a carefully selected dosage for safety, tolerability and effectiveness.

    In an internal review of the results last week, Pfizer reported that one month after the second dose, the shots produced a “robust” antibody response, including immunity and side effects comparable to that delivered by the larger dose in 16- to 25-year-old patients.

    The FDA said that it will analyze those data as soon as possible, the New York Times reports.

    In the Atlanta pediatrician’s practice, patients are eager to have youngsters inoculated — though Shu’s clientele may be the exception, from a nationwide perspective.

    “I’m mostly seeing families that are all in,” she said. “​​Children are telling me they can’t wait until they can get the vaccine, since they are often the only ones in their family who haven’t even gotten one dose yet.”

    Youth ages 12 and up have been eligible for doses since May, but only 45 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to the AAP. By that measure, inoculating those under 12 years old may prove a challenge.

    A Kaiser Family Foundation national poll from mid-August found that only 26 percent of parents of 5- to 11-year olds would want their child to receive the COVID-19 shot right away after it’s cleared, while another 40 percent said they would “wait and see.” That attitude may be changing, however, as 55 percent of U.S. parents surveyed in a Gallup poll published Tuesday indicated that they would have their children inoculated against COVID-19 if shots were available.

    Getting children under 12 vaccinated “will be an uphill battle,” Rebecca Wurtz, professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota, told The 74. “I think parents are even more protective of their younger kids (than their older children).”

    In the Kaiser survey, an additional 9 percent of parents said they would get their youngsters vaccinated only if the shots were required. Meanwhile, momentum is building for schools to do just that.

    Last week, Oakland Unified School District in California joined Golden State counterparts Los Angeles and Culver City, as well as Hoboken, New Jersey, in requiring that all eligible students receive the COVID-19 vaccine in order to attend in-person school.

    Los Angeles Unified School District officials chose not to comment when asked by The 74 last week whether they would extend their student vaccine requirement to learners ages 5 to 11, should shots be approved for that age group.

    Whether or not student vaccination mandates continue to expand, Shu believes the real-world outcomes from COVID shots should encourage parents who may be on the fence.

    “More than 5.5 billion doses of COVID vaccine have been given worldwide,” she points out. “I hope that builds confidence for parents to give it to their children.”

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  • New Research: Security Report Finds Ed Tech Vulnerability That Could Have Exposed Millions of Students to Hacks During Remote Learning

    By Mark Keierleber | September 28, 2021

    Updated, Sept. 28

    A student monitoring company that thousands of schools used during remote and hybrid learning to ensure students were on task may have inadvertently exposed millions of kids to hackers online, according to a report released Monday by the security software company McAfee Enterprise.

    The research, conducted by the company’s Advanced Threat Research team, discovered the bug in the Netop Vision Pro Education software, which is used by some 3 million teachers and students across 9,000 school systems globally, including in the U.S. The software allows teachers to monitor and control how students use school-issued computers in real time, block websites and freeze their computer screens if they’re found to be off task.


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    This is the second time in less than a year that McAfee researchers have found vulnerabilities in Netop’s education software — glitches that hackers could exploit to gain control over students’ computers, including their webcams and microphones. It’s unclear whether the software had been breached by anyone other than the researchers. In a $4 billion deal over the summer, McAfee Corp. sold off the business-focused McAfee Enterprise to focus on consumer cybersecurity.

    “This speaks to the power of responsible disclosure and ‘beating the bad guys to the punch’ in terms of providing vendors insights to the flaws in their products and an appropriate time period to produce fixes,” Doug McKee, McAfee’s principal engineer and senior security researcher, and Steve Povolny, the company’s head of advanced threat research, said in an emailed statement.

    “We do believe this bug is highly likely to be exploitable, and a determined attacker may be able to leverage the attack” to breach the system.

    Netop, which bills its products as a way to “keep students on task, no matter where class is held,” did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

    While the research comes as many U.S. students return to classrooms for in-person learning, cyberattacks targeting K-12 school districts — already an issue before the pandemic — have worsened throughout it. In the last month, educational organizations were the target of more than 5.5 million malware attacks, according to Microsoft Security Intelligence. In fact, educational organizations accounted for nearly two-thirds of such attacks globally. Publicly disclosed computer attacks against schools hit a record in 2020.

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    To conduct the research, McAfee relied on a free trial of Netop to analyze the program’s underlying code using an automated testing technique called “fuzzing,” in which they provided the software with malformed data to cause a crash. As a result, they found a bug in the way the program transmits digital images of students’ screens to teachers that could be exploited to attack children with malware, ransomware, collect their personal information or to access the computers’ webcams.

    In March, McAfee researchers uncovered four “critical issues” in Netop’s monitoring software that allowed hackers to “gain full control over students’ computers.” Among the issues, researchers discovered that communications between teachers and students through the service were unencrypted, meaning they weren’t protected by a code that blocks unauthorized access.

    In a blog post, McAfee explained how the Netop vulnerabilities compromised student privacy, noting that while the company’s monitoring software “may seem like a viable option for holding students accountable in the virtual classroom, it could allow a hacker to spy on the contents of the students’ devices.”

    “If a hacker is able to gain full control over all target systems using the vulnerable software, they can equally bridge the gap from a virtual attack to the physical environment,” the blog post explained. “The hacker could enable webcams and microphones on the target system, allowing them to physically observe your child and their surrounding environment.”

    Multiple education technology companies have experienced hacks and other digital vulnerabilities during the pandemic. In July 2020, for example, hackers targeted the company ProctorU, which provides a live proctoring service to help prevent cheating, and published the personal information of more than 444,000 students to an online forum.

    Privacy and civil rights groups have raised concerns for years about the risks posed by student surveillance tools, including issues related to cybersecurity and privacy. Perhaps most famously, a suburban Philadelphia school district reached a $610,000 court settlement in 2010 after educators used computer webcams to surveil students at home without their knowledge.

    Earlier this month, The 74 published an in-depth investigation about how another student surveillance company, Gaggle, subjects children to relentless digital surveillance as it monitors students’ online activity — both in classrooms and at home — in search of keywords that could indicate problematicor potentially harmful behaviors. Among other concerns, privacy advocates argue that schools’ broad collection of student information could make youth vulnerable to data breaches.

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    McAfee says it notified Netop of its initial findings in December 2020 and the company rectified “many of the critical vulnerabilities” by February 2021. The security giant alerted Netop to the latest bug in June and the company has worked “towards effective mitigations,” according to McAfee, but has not yet announced a permanent fix.

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  • The Gifted Gap: Best and the Brightest among Black & Low-Income Students Fall Behind Their Whiter, More Affluent Peers, Study Finds

    By Kevin Mahnken | September 28, 2021

    Efforts to improve the quality of American education often focus, implicitly or explicitly, on students who are achieving at levels far below their peers. That emphasis is reflected in equity debates about kids who are tragically under-equipped to thrive as adults, as well as policy remedies that target “failing” schools for their low test scores and rates of high school graduation.

    But research released today suggests that access to educational opportunity is also unequally distributed among children at the top of the academic heap, and that even some of the brightest young students are at a high risk of being overlooked within their schools and districts.


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    The study, commissioned by the reform-oriented Thomas B. Fordham Institute, points to clear disparities in the prospects of high-achieving students along lines of race and class. Black and low-income elementary schoolers in Ohio who scored well on state exams were less likely to be classified as gifted and talented than comparable white and high-income children. Into middle and high school, they achieved at lower levels on standardized tests, Advanced Placement exams, and college entrance exams, and they were less likely to enroll in college.

    Scott Imberman, the report’s author and an economist at Michigan State University, said that it wasn’t certain whether the lower rates of gifted identification exacerbated the performance gaps between student populations. Beginning in 2017, Ohio mandated more comprehensive screening for gifted status in the early grades, but historically, even some students who received that status have gone without gifted services.

    “The main thing here is that there was, and probably still is, a problem with these gaps,” Imberman said. “These higher-achieving minority and disadvantaged students were not performing as well, over time, as high-achieving students who were advantaged, and they were also less likely to be enrolled in gifted programs.”

    To study the long-term trajectories of academically promising students, Imberman sought student-level records from the Ohio Longitudinal Data Archive, which included third-grade performance on Ohio’s state standardized test for over 900,000 participants between the 2005-06 and 2011-12 academic years. Imberman focused on students of all backgrounds who scored in the top 20 percent statewide — a sample of roughly 180,000 — and matched those results with scores on the ACT and SAT, as well as college enrollment figures from the National Student Clearinghouse.

    In terms of both short- and long-term academic performance, poor and African American students who scored in the top 20 percent fell behind their peers. Subsequent standardized test scores from grades 4-8 revealed that high-achieving students generally lost ground to their classmates in the bottom 80 percent, principally due to improvement among lower-performing students in late childhood and early adolescence. But in both reading and math, the relative performance of high-achievers who were white, Hispanic, Asian American, and higher-income held up significantly better than their economically disadvantaged and African American classmates.

    High school assessments showed evidence of the same persistent differences. Black and disadvantaged students who were high-achievers in the third grade were less likely to take the ACT test and AP tests, and scored lower than other high-achievers when they did. The average AP scores for more affluent students (3.2 on a five-point scale) and white students (3.1) were notably higher than less affluent students (2.6) and African Americans (2.3).

    Finally, 57 percent of white high-achievers later enrolled in a four-year college, compared with 53 percent of Asian Americans, 30 percent of Hispanics, and 26 percent of African Americans; among students who weren’t classified as economically disadvantaged, 58 percent later enrolled in a four-year college, compared with 35 percent of high-achievers who did receive that classification.

    In a separate set of conclusions that may offer a partial explanation for those sharp divergences, Imberman found that students from different demographics were identified for gifted and talented services at vastly different rates. Black and low-income high-achievers are less likely to be identified in the third grade than other student groups, and the gaps substantially grow by the time they’ve reached the eighth grade.

    In fact, the report finds that simply being identified as gifted may carry some achievement benefits: Receiving the gifted classification in math led to a modest increase in reading scores of .02 standard deviations and a boost to math scores of .03 standard deviations — equivalent to a performance boost of roughly one percentile annually. What’s more, those effects were relatively larger for African American and Hispanic students than white ones.

    The findings echo those of a 2016 paper published by economists David Card and Laura Giuliano, which found that when a large urban school district adopted universal gifted screening for second graders, it led to large increases in the number of minority and low-income students who were classified. A 2018 study from Fordham found that just 61.5 percent of K-12 schools in Ohio offered gifted programming, and less than 8 percent of students enrolled at those schools received access to them.

    Imberman called the effects on achievement “plausibly causal,” noting that social factors other than gifted identification might play some part in explaining the effects.

    “I’d say that this provides some prima facie, suggestive evidence that expanding access to gifted education among minorities, in particular, could be a way to help reduce these gaps among high-achievers,” he told The 74.

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  • CDC Director OKs Booster Shots for Teachers and Other Frontline Workers

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | September 24, 2021

    Updated, Sept. 27

    In a highly unusual move, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Friday overruled a recommendation delivered by an advisory panel of her agency — paving the way for teachers to receive booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.

    Teachers and other school workers inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine may now receive third doses at least six months after receiving their second shot. Those under 65 years old should make their decision based on the “individual benefits and risks,” the CDC said.


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    “If … you’re a frontline worker, like a health care worker or a teacher, you can get a free booster now,” said President Joe Biden in remarks on Friday.

    In addition to essential workers, senior citizens and adults with underlying health conditions are also eligible, meaning a total of some 60 million Americans will soon have access to third doses, including 20 million already eligible because six months have elapsed since their second Pfizer shot.

    Walensky’s decision comes as the final play in a days-long drama between the Food and Drug Administration, which on Wednesday included frontline workers in their list of groups recommended for boosters, and the CDC, whose Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted on Thursday to leave those in high-exposure occupations off the list.

    The CDC director then broke with her agency’s recommendation early Friday morning, endorsing third doses for those working in high-risk fields.

    “As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Walensky said in a statement. “I believe we can best serve the nation’s public health needs by providing booster doses for the elderly, those in long-term care facilities, people with underlying medical conditions, and for adults at high risk of disease from occupational and institutional exposures to COVID-19.”

    President Biden delivers remarks on booster shots and his administration’s COVID-19 response from the White House Sept. 24. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

    But while some educators may soon line up for third doses, others are resistant to even get their first or second shot.

    An Education Week survey from the summer found that 11 percent of teachers nationwide do not intend to get vaccinated, while 87 percent reported that they had already been immunized. More recently, a Sept. 24 poll from the American Federation of Teachers found that 90 percent of its members are vaccinated and that 67 percent favor a vaccine requirement for all school staff. The exact nationwide totals of vaccinated school personnel remain unclear.

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    In New York City, where teachers had been expected to provide proof of vaccination by Monday, Sept. 27, many schools have dozens of teachers who have not yet complied with the mandate, including some sites with up to 100 staff without proof of immunization, said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, in a Friday press conference.

    “Principals and superintendents have been reaching out consistently to tell us that they are concerned about not having enough staff come Tuesday morning, Sept. 28,” he said.

    A federal appeals court judge on Friday temporarily blocked New York City’s vaccine mandate for Department of Education staff, delaying its enforcement. But late Monday, the federal court lifted that injunction, Chalkbeat reported, clearing the way for the city to require staff to provide proof of vaccination or be placed on unpaid leave.

    Alongside New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, the second- and third-largest districts in the country, are also requiring teachers to be immunized without providing regular testing as an alternative. The same is true for Washington, Oregon and the District of Columbia. Seven other states require educators to choose between COVID vaccination or regularly undergoing testing for the virus, according to an EdWeek tracker.

    But even where mandates are supposedly in place, enforcement has been sluggish, meaning that many unvaccinated teachers remain in the classroom, often teaching students who themselves are not yet eligible for shots. Students aged 12 and up are authorized for COVID vaccines, and children aged 5 to 11 may gain access by Halloween.

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    Further still, data from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education show that the majority of school districts do not require teachers to be vaccinated, said Director Robin Lake.

    “That is a major unresolved problem,” she wrote in an email to The 74. “Why do we keep giving teachers priority access to the vaccine without requiring they all do their part to protect kids?”

    President Biden urged the more than 70 million Americans eligible for shots who have still not received immunizations to reconsider their choice.

    “We have the tools to beat COVID-19,” he said. “Get vaccinated.”

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  • Four-Day Work Weeks, Big Signing Bonuses and Paid Moving Expenses: See How Districts Across the U.S. Are Luring Subs, Special Ed Teachers

    By Marianna McMurdock | September 23, 2021

    Confronting classrooms without permanent teachers, school administrators across the country are turning to an assortment of incentives — many of them financial, some unprecedented — to fill widespread vacancies.

    Some districts are offering thousands in signing bonuses, others adapt to four-day work weeks and many are easing the way for college students or other would-be teaching candidates to get quickly certified.


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    In 2018, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 270,000 teachers would leave the profession annually through 2026 — a number that did not take into account the pandemic’s effects on teacher retention and retirement. A 2020 poll of educators revealed that almost a third nationwide would likely retire early or leave the profession because of the pandemic. Yet the bureau’s recent job data shows that actual teacher turnover levels are similar — and in some cases lower — than pre-pandemic levels. The estimated outcomes from alarming polls, suggesting that teachers everywhere would imminently leave the profession, have not necessarily come to fruition.

    Retirement and attrition do vary greatly by county or state — Arizona saw about 200 more teachers leave by the end August 2020 than in 2019 or 2018, while Minnesota experienced the opposite effect — and there’s still much to be understood about the full scope of how the pandemic has affected the teaching force. At the same time, we do know that fewer adults are heading into teacher residencies and degree programs.

    The lengths that some school and state leaders are going to to fill current vacancies, especially for special education and substitute teachers, does demonstrate that districts are seeing urgent staffing needs and are getting creative to meet them.

    Accelerated licensure programs and alternatives for state teaching exams are popping up across the country to urgently meet students’ needs. Houston, for instance, had over 400 teacher openings as of mid-August; some may be filled by candidates still earning certifications.

    Though places like metro Atlanta aren’t experiencing the same levels of staff scarcity, they are still offering a $5,000 sign-on incentive for special education teachers. Greater Atlanta’s DeKalb County Schools are also recruiting parents for full-time positions.

    Out West, a bill in Colorado aims to transform the educator pipeline by recruiting high school students into teacher programs, former military personnel and adjunct professors. Nevada’s Carson City Schools will hire retired public employees to fill special education vacancies, and others in California are adopting the strategy of recruiting teachers where they’ve grown up, incentivizing staying in-state for higher education or pursuing teaching residencies in their home districts.

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    One Texas superintendent framed staffing challenges as a human capital problem, not a financial one. To aid schools’ pandemic recovery, millions in unprecedented federal relief funds are on their way to states. Only a handful included teacher recruitment or retention strategies in their budget proposals; nationwide, priorities for the relief funds are expanding academic tutoring and mental health care.

    And critical shortages go beyond the classroom — hundreds of schools are hard-pressed to find bus drivers, after many have retired or decided to not risk COVID-19 exposure. Up to 250 National Guard service members will drive students to school in Massachusetts, and school leaders in Philadelphia are encouraging their governor to consider the same. Efforts to engage the National Guard in New York were rejected by Gov. Kathy Hochul; a spokesperson for her team said school transportation was “outside [their] current scope.”

    In Chicago, where drivers are leaving en masse after the district mandated staff vaccines, some families of students with disabilities were given two days to find alternative transportation for the first day of school.

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    Students and families across the country are feeling the impacts of missing critical staff as the 2021-22 school year and quarantines get underway.

    We’ve compiled some of the special education and substitute teacher recruitment efforts currently in effect:

    Special Education Teacher Recruitment

    All but six states reported teacher shortages in special education in the 2020-21 school year.

    “We beg, borrow and steal wherever we can to find some good quality special education teachers for our district,” said Carson City Schools Superintendent Jose Delfin. The schools chief spoke during a school board meeting where the district designated the labor shortage as critical, enabling the hiring of retired public employees.

    And while advocates have sounded the alarm on a declining special education force for years, states like Alaska have just established recruitment and retention task forces.

    Click here if you cannot access the interactive version of this map.

     

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    Substitute Teacher Recruitment

    Schools across the country employ between 500,000 and 600,000 subs annually, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. School administrators in central Massachusetts say substitute applications have trickled to a stop. For smaller districts in California with teachers heading into COVID-19 quarantines, declining substitute teacher pools could force school closures.

    In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little is encouraging workers statewide to fill shortages, “I urge Idahoans in a position to serve as a substitute teacher or other classroom support staff to contact your school district and get signed up. Idaho students and our communities need you.”

    Click here if you cannot access the interactive version of this map.

     

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  • ‘We Left Those Students Behind’: 1.9 Million Low-Income Youth Boxed Out of Afterschool Programs, Despite Surging Parent Interest in STEM Offerings

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | September 22, 2021

    Every year, millions of students nationwide participate in afterschool and summer programs that help them gain skills in science, technology, engineering and math — also known as STEM. But even as student interest surges and the programs continue to expand, financial and transportation barriers have boxed many young people out of these pivotal learning opportunities, particularly students from low-income families, a new report reveals.

    From 2014 to early 2020, just before the pandemic, the U.S. saw a 1.3 million-student drop in afterschool STEM participation, falling from 7 million learners to 5.7 million, according to the paper, which was published by the nonprofit organization Afterschool Alliance.


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    Those drops were starkest among poorer students, who were already underrepresented in STEM fields. In that timespan, the number of young people from low-income households participating in afterschool programs, STEM or otherwise, fell from 4.6 million to 2.7 million — meaning 79 percent of afterschool attrition came from less wealthy families despite such students making up only 38 percent of all participants in 2020.

    “We left those students behind,” said Nikole Collins-Puri, CEO of the California-based nonprofit Techbridge Girls.

    Simultaneously, however, the share of afterschool programs offering STEM opportunities grew. Nearly 3 in 4 young people learning outside of school hours have science and technology programming available to them. That’s up four percentage points from 69 percent in 2014.

    “The inequities are troubling and must not continue,” said Jodi Grant, Afterschool Alliance’s executive director, in a press release. “We need to increase access to afterschool overall, because even though parents report a greater percentage of programs are providing STEM, fewer children are in afterschool programs today than in years past.”

    Even as the share of afterschool programs offering STEM learning increased, overall participation has fallen precipitously since 2014. (Afterschool Alliance)

    Data for the report come from a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of U.S. families, including a total of more than 31,000 phone interviews, making the report the most comprehensive look at out-of-school learning to date.

    The interviews revealed that, even amid drops in afterschool program participation, more parents than ever before would like to see their children get involved in such opportunities. For every child in an out-of-school learning program, another three are waiting to get in, according to the study. The parents of some 24.6 million students said they would enroll their child in afterschool programming if the offerings were readily available to them.

    Cost and transportation appear to pose key barriers. Fifty-seven percent of parents said afterschool opportunities were too expensive and 53 percent said they weren’t sure how their kids would get to and from activities. STEM programs may be particularly pricey, with a $107 mean weekly reported price, compared to $74 per week for other offerings.

    Cost and transportation are key barriers to afterschool program participation, parents report. (Afterschool Alliance)

    Despite barriers, however, science and math opportunities are an increasing priority for parents. Some 72 percent of families, up from 53 percent in 2014, told researchers that STEM and computer science learning were important factors in their selection of afterschool and summer programs. Rates were especially high among Black, Hispanic and Asian families.

    STEM-related occupations tend to be more lucrative than non-STEM fields, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the former will grow by 8 percent in the next decade, while the latter will only grow 3.4 percent. STEM fields, however, tend to employ a more white and more male workforce than the general population.

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    Collins-Puri’s organization, Techbridge Girls, works to counter that trend by providing STEM learning opportunities to low-income girls of color and gender-expansive individuals.

    Widening access to STEM programs, she said in a briefing held on the Afterschool Alliance report, means eliminating potential barriers to participation for underrepresented groups. For example, young women more so than young men tend to shoulder caregiving responsibilities, the CEO pointed out — which for many families only increased during the pandemic.

    “When girls have the responsibility to take care of their younger sibling, to take care of their elderly family members, or even take on some of the economic responsibilities to support the household, that is a direct impact to their participation in afterschool programming,” said Collins-Puri.

    “You have to make your afterschool programming flexible,” she continued. Adults should encourage students to come to activities, regardless of their home responsibilities, by telling them, “Make sure you bring your younger sibling so they can be part of the learning experience,” the Oakland afterschool leader advised.

    CLICK TO WATCH: Experts, including Nikole Collins-Puri (above), comment on Afterschool Alliance report findings. (Afterschool Alliance via YouTube)

    Programs may soon have additional resources at their disposal, Grant, of the Afterschool Alliance, pointed out thanks to funds from the American Rescue Plan, which could allow some organizations to subsidize program costs, bolster transportation options or make other adjustments to meet families’ needs.

    Even amid persistent disparities in access to afterschool programming, gaps have never been due to any deficiencies among individuals who belong to underrepresented groups, Collins-Puri reminded viewers.

    “Our girls lack nothing. Our girls are capable. They’re ready and they’re willing to be in the STEM revolution.”

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  • As the Pandemic Set In, Charter Schools Saw Their Highest Enrollment Growth Since 2015, 42-State Analysis Shows

    By Linda Jacobson | September 22, 2021

    Charter schools experienced more growth in 2020-21 — the first full year of the pandemic— than they’ve seen in the past six years, according to preliminary data released Wednesday from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

    In contrast to traditional public schools, which saw a significant, 1.4 million drop in student enrollment during the tumultuous year, charter schools in 39 states saw an influx of 240,000 new students — a 7 percent increase over last year, the Alliance’s review showed.


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    Of the 42 states covered in the report, only Illinois, Iowa and Wyoming saw declines in the charter school population. While ​​Tennessee, Kansas, Puerto Rico and Guam also have charters, data was unavailable for those states and territories.

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    The analysis further confirms that a large segment of the nation’s students changed where they attended school last year, prompted by school closures, job loss and dissatisfaction with remote learning. Parents looking for in-person learning, however, weren’t the only ones driving the shift toward charters. In a few states, such as Oklahoma, enrollment increases in full-time virtual schools — those that operated remotely even before the pandemic — accounted for much of the nearly 78 percent growth.

    It’s too soon to know whether some families have returned to traditional public schools this year, but Nina Rees, president and CEO of the Alliance, predicted the trend is not a blip.

    “Families are sending a clear message. They want more public school options,” she said. “From the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South, the pandemic forced families to rethink where and how education could be delivered to their children. And now that they know what’s available, why would they go back to an option that never really worked for them in the first place?”

    Growth in the charter sector ranged from less than 1 percent in Washington, D.C. and Louisiana — cities that already have a strong charter presence — to the 78 percent jump in Oklahoma. Alabama saw a 65 percent jump in enrollment. The state only had five charter schools in the 2020-21 school year, one of which was new, enrolling 413 students and increasing charter enrollment from 1,115 students in 2019-20 to 1,841.

    The report, however, doesn’t offer further details on whether overall growth nationally was due to students leaving district schools or new schools opening. Some, such as Gem Prep in Idaho, added more grade levels, which contributed to a 24 percent increase in that state.

    The authors, who draw on data from state education agencies, also provided some additional context from a few states, such as Arizona, where 20 percent of public school students now attend charters, and California, which saw growth in charter enrollment among nearly all racial and ethnic groups.

    In 2019, the state passed a law — considered a compromise between charters and the teachers union — that gave local districts the authority to consider whether the opening of a new charter would negatively impact their own schools. Lawmakers attempted earlier this year to impose additional financial and enrollment restrictions on virtual charters in California — known as nonclassroom-based — but parents lobbied against the bill and the sponsor withdrew it. There is already a moratorium on new virtual charters in the state.

    Navigator Schools, with 1,405 students at three sites in central California, is among those that saw growth at the network’s newest campus in Watsonville last year. The others were already at capacity, with waiting lists. Kirsten Carr, director of engagement and partnerships, believes the on-site distance learning program — for families that didn’t have internet service and needed child care — was one feature contributing to the growth. The schools serve a large farmworker community.

    “Our families went back to work before a lot of other industries,” Carr said. “They had to have a place for their kids to go to school.”

    She added, however, that growth for charters can be a “double-edged sword.”

    “We do have pressure from our families to grow,” she said, but added that districts, which have lost enrollment, are increasing efforts to hold on to their students.

    Some charters might have experienced growth last year even without the pandemic. In the Seattle area, Rainier Valley Leadership Academy — formerly part of Green Dot Public Schools network — has done an “about-face” since 2020, said CEO Baionne Coleman. The school has gone from a predominantly white leadership team under Green Dot to having a mostly Black administration and a racially diverse teaching staff as an independent charter. Its target enrollment for 2020-21 was 125 students; they hit 159 and are now at 176.

    “Families were actually coming from all across Seattle, some as far as Olympia,” she said. “They were looking for teachers who looked like their kids, being able to learn their own histories along with the history of America.”

    ‘Didn’t have much choice’

    Parents have generally given charter schools — which are publicly funded, but independently run — higher marks than district schools during the pandemic. One analysis showed charters were quicker than district schools to set up a regular class schedule during school closures and stay in close contact with students and parents. A recent Education Next poll found that charter school parents were less likely to report negative effects of COVID-19 mitigation measures on their children’s education.

    Food service director Guy Koppe, left, of the Bridge Boston Charter School talks with a family last fall while delivering meals in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston. The school ran a food program last school year for over 300 families. (Craig F. Walker / Getty Images)

    Parent satisfaction, however, seems to contrast with data in that poll showing declining public support for charter schools — from 48 percent in 2019 to 41 percent now. Brian Gill, a senior fellow with Mathematica who has conducted research on charter schools, said both can be true.

    “The fact that [parents] have a more favorable impression is consistent with the well-known finding from polling that people give their own community’s schools better reviews than they give to schools nationwide,” he said, adding that school quality doesn’t necessarily influence opinions about charter schools. “Opposition to charter schools usually is motivated less by concerns about their quality than by concerns about whether their existence and growth might harm conventional public schools and the students and communities they serve.”

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    Some observers suggest that when given the choice between a virtual charter and a district school shifting to online teaching for the first time, many parents opted for schools with an established virtual program.

    “Parents looking for remote learning options didn’t have much choice in big chunks of the country,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Despite the low quality of a lot of virtual charter schools, at least they had experience in providing remote instruction and weren’t figuring it out on the fly.”

    Virtual charters, many of which operate as for-profits, have suffered from scandals over enrollment and financial practices in the past, with students faring worse academically than their counterparts in district schools. But one survey of over 10,000 parents published in January this year showed strong satisfaction with how virtual charters responded at the onset of the pandemic, and some charter school supporters argue states and local charter authorizers should support virtual charters instead of seeking to cap their number.

    Petrilli said he suspects many of the families who opted for virtual charter schools will find their way back to district schools — “once things return to ‘normal,’ whenever the heck that is.”

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