As White House Strikes Stronger Tone on Reopening Schools, First Lady and Ed Secretary Cardona Tour Districts Where Most Students Attend in Person
Less than 24 hours after being sworn in, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona leaned into the Biden administration’s push to reopen schools, joining first lady Jill Biden Wednesday in two districts where the majority of students attend in person — including in his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut.
“Schools are more than just places where students learn to read and write. They’re communities. They’re safe communities for children,” Cardona said at Meriden’s Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. “Safely reopening schools quickly means we’re creating those communities. We’re giving them back to our students, who deserve them.”
Joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Biden and Cardona talked to teachers, greeted colleagues in the hallways and toured a “sensory room” for students with special needs.
Referring to “being at home,” Cardona noted that “being on the computer doesn’t match this.”
The timing of the visits demonstrate the importance the Biden administration has placed on reopening schools as well as the controversy the push has generated in many communities. The events come a day after President Joe Biden said that he wants all states to prioritize teachers, school staff members and child care providers for vaccines. But even though Weingarten has acknowledged schools can reopen without vaccines, some local affiliates say their teachers won’t return to the classroom without them.
“Our goal is to do everything we can to help every educator receive a shot this month, the month of March,” Biden said Tuesday, promising to use the federal pharmacy program to reach as many educators as possible.
Cardona penned an op-ed in USA Today announcing a national summit on reopening later this month, promising to share successful approaches and continuing to collect data on schools’ reopening status. In addition, he wrote a letter to students and parents. “Brighter days are ahead. We are making progress,” he wrote.
The administration’s coordinated message about reopening and vaccines follow earlier mixed signals from the White House about reopening. Some wonder what effect efforts to accelerate reopening schools will have on western states, where few have fully reopened and battles between district leaders, parents and teachers unions continue to be heated.
“The fight feels very, very local. No amount of exhortation from the feds is likely to break through that vitriol,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. She added that while most districts are open to some extent, “it’s the big urban holdouts that are the problem. Changing that will likely require direct intervention and mediation.”
The school visits on Wednesday highlight districts where teachers returned in the fall, before vaccines were available.
In Meriden, elementary and middle school students in the district attend every day. Middle school teachers move from class to class while students stay in one place, a practice many experts recommend to minimize spread of COVID-19. High school students attend every other day.
The hybrid model “has presented some challenges, but has also offered surprising opportunities,” said Matthew Banas, a social studies teacher at Maloney High School who now teaches two smaller groups of students instead of one large class.
“I have found that I know my students better than ever before,” he said. “I am able to have more in-depth conversations with my classes as classroom management issues have largely disappeared, so I feel that I have a better handle on who they are as learners and people.”
Following their stop at Franklin Elementary, Cardona and the first lady were set to travel to Fort LeBoeuf Middle School, in Waterford, Pennsylvania, where about 80 percent of students have been back in class five days a week since September. The administration chose the school based on a recommendation from the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said Rick Emerick, the district’s superintendent. NEA President Becky Pringle was expected to attend.
Last summer, when the 2,100-student district northeast of Cleveland, Ohio, surveyed families, only about 20 percent opted to remain in virtual learning.
“We can’t turn our backs on the fact that our parents have got to work,” Emerick said.
But in terms of social distancing, the response created logistical challenges.
“We have creatively used just about every space that we possibly can,” he said. That includes holding classes in the gym and what used to be a wrestling room at the middle school. “We just really … tried desperately to get all the mitigation strategies in place — and those are endless.”
Since the fall, the district has had 115 cases of COVID-19, a tally that includes those who were exposed but might not have tested positive. All but one of the district’s five schools have temporarily returned to distance learning at least once, sometimes due to a lack of substitute teachers. Teachers in the state are not yet eligible for a vaccine, but state officials have indicated they might be moved up soon.
Some students that weren’t doing well learning virtually have returned to the classroom, Emerick said. “There’s no better education than face-to-face instruction with folks who care about kids.”
The Senate voted 64-33 Monday to confirm Miguel Cardona as education secretary — the final hurdle before the former Connecticut state chief is sworn in to lead the U.S. Department of Education.
Speeches ahead of the vote focused on Cardona’s strengths as a former teacher, principal and state leader.
“President Biden couldn’t have made a better choice,” said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from his home state. “[Cardona’s] climb looks meteoric and miraculous, but it was based on hard work and a dedication and passion to education for others.”
And Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the education committee, called Cardona “a proven leader.”
Sixteen Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for Cardona, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking member on the education committee. But the vote generated more opposition than expected, with GOP members voting against him including Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. During Cardona’s initial hearing before the Senate education committee, Paul challenged him on his support for transgender students competing against girls in sports.
The first elementary educator to serve as secretary, Cardona will take over after a hectic six weeks for the Biden administration that included mixed messages over reopening schools, executive orders related to students’ civil rights and a decision not to pause standardized testing for a second year.
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Later this week, first lady Jill Biden is scheduled to visit Cardona’s hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, where he began his education career and served as a central office leader before being appointed commissioner in 2019. The White House has not yet released details on the visit, but Biden is expected to visit classrooms while she’s there.
There’s “so much on his plate as he enters the doors on Maryland Ave,” the street in the nation’s capital where the U.S. Department of Education is located, said Deborah Delisle, CEO and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former assistant education secretary during the Obama administration. “I think he will work to re-engage internal staff and begin developing partnerships externally — meeting with as many folks as he can.”
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With less than two months to go before Biden hits his first 100 days in office — the deadline he set for himself to have most K-8 students back in school — Cardona will also likely “attack” the school reopening issue, Delisle said.
But the administration’s next relief package, which includes almost $130 billion for K-12, still needs Senate approval. The Senate will consider the bill this week, but if Democrats succeed in adding a minimum wage increase, the package would go back to the House. In the meantime, Cardona will have to find other ways to convince both teachers and some parents, particularly those in many large, metro areas, that it’s safe to return to the classroom.
Dale Chu, a senior visiting fellow with the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, agreed that Cardona’s first priority should be getting students back into school.
“Normalcy as a nation depends on reopening schools,” he said, adding that while education secretaries have limited power, “he does have three key levers — rulemaking authority, convening authority and the bully pulpit. I can see him using the latter to push, pull, and otherwise cajole states and districts on school reopening.”
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While several political appointees are now in place at the department, the Senate education committee has not yet considered the nomination of Cindy Marten, Biden’s choice for the number two position. With some controversy surrounding her nomination, Marten might face tougher questioning than Cardona did last month.
Some characterize Marten, the current superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District in California, as a successful and innovative district leader. But others say she’s too closely aligned with the unions on the issue of charter schools and has a mixed track record on equity and reducing racial disparities in discipline.
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Sen. Richard Burr, ranking Republican on the education committee, has not yet expressed an opinion on Marten’s nomination. He has, however, made positive comments about Cardona, and said during his confirmation hearing that “we should be able to find places where we can agree.” The committee voted 17-5 in favor of his confirmation.
The administration will also highlight its popular choice for secretary when Jill Biden visits Meriden, where the Cardona family has deep roots.
“I suspect that she will reiterate her support for educators, especially given the pandemic issues and returning to school,” Delisle said. “I am sure she will give him a rousing ‘Welcome to D.C.’ hug — well, actually, a round of applause and an elbow bump given social distancing.”
After Year of ‘Peril’ for Democracy, Scholars Release New Framework for History and Civics in Schools
2020 was the year that U.S. history, and clashing perspectives on it from left and right, became a campaign issue.
First, President Trump and his fellow Republicans attacked the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, accusing its authors of dishonestly tearing down American ideals in a history curriculum that has been adopted in thousands of K-12 classrooms. That dispute gave way to a chaotic election whose aftermath exposed not only fierce partisan enmity between Trump’s supporters and critics, but also grave doubts on both sides about the credibility of our democracy and its leadership.
Now a group of educators has unveiled a teaching tool that they hope will help lower the temperature. Through a collaboration funded by grants from the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a group of civics and educational institutions spent the last 18 months drafting a new strategy to revamp instruction in American history and civics — and hopefully drain some of the vitriol from our national discourse. The results, released as a report and pedagogical “roadmap” under the title “Educating for American Democracy,” were made available Monday.
When it commenced in 2019, the project’s creators were already concerned about the state of American civic engagement, measured both through dismal performance on knowledge tests of history and government as well as the substantial decline in social and governmental trust that surveys have detected for over 50 years. In a media call laying out the aims of the project last week, scholar Paul Carrese said that the events of the last year illustrated more vividly the need to “rebuild our civic strength.”
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“Now we are all pretty convinced that our constitutional democracy is in peril,” said Carrese, the director of Arizona State University’s School of Economic & Civic Thought and Leadership. “We can’t wait. America, we think, is in this bad place, in part because the American education system — not only in schools, but in higher education — has neglected the teaching of civics and of American history.”
The roadmap, the effort’s main pedagogical offering, offers a blueprint of integrated civics and history instruction from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Designed as a model for states and districts to follow rather than a strict set of standards or curricula, the document resulted from the contributions of over300 teachers and academics who participated in a design process convened by civic learning bodies at Arizona State, Harvard, Tufts, and the nonprofit iCivics.
Central to the approach is a reorientation of teaching from breadth to depth. Rather than focusing primarily on discrete events and personalities throughout the American story, the document centers on key themes and inquiries that recur over time: What gives societies their identities? How and why has the U.S. acquired its power and influence in the world? How have the ideologies of American political parties changed over time?
Danielle Allen, a political scientist and director of Harvard’s Edward J. Safra Center for Ethics, said in an interview that by transitioning from the “provision of answers to the asking of questions,” the project was able to draw upon a wide range of authorities to aid in its formation. The roadmap has won the bipartisan approval of six former U.S. secretaries of education, and groups ranging from the right-leaning Bill of Rights Institute to the fervently liberal American Federation of Teachers have helped oversee its creation.
“We have…a broad community of practice that is going to say, ‘Yes, we share some aspirations here; we do think we have to find a way to be honest about the good and the bad in our history simultaneously,’” Allen said. “It’s that fundamental commitment to honesty about the good and the bad that we’re asking for, and I believe that the nation’s community of educators is ready to make a commitment to that. And we will learn through experimentation what it takes to realize that commitment.”
Some level of cross-ideological cooperation may prove necessary if Educating for American Democracy is to find any success. Previous attempts to tweak American history instruction, even when offered as voluntary resources to states, have been dragged into a familiar cycle of hopeful unveiling followed by political backlash. A set of National History Standards, also initiated partly through the assistance of the National Endowment for the Humanities, were met with outrage in the 1990s for their supposedly unpatriotic implications. Just a few years ago, after the College Board revised its AP U.S. History framework, several red states moved to ban its use in classrooms.
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The most recent battle in what the media has occasionally dubbed the “history wars” involved the 1619 Project, which earned criticism for suggesting that the American Revolution was fought primarily to preserve the institution of slavery. Allen, one of the principal investigators for Educating for American Democracy, reportedly urged the 1619 team to walk that language back after a prominent group of historians publicly called it into question.
Details in the roadmap’s accompanying report give a picture into the contentious ground that U.S. history education sits on in 2020, with detailed explanations of why previously certain words and phrases — the various uses of the term “citizen,” for example, or describing the country’s political system as that of a “constitutional democracy” — were chosen.
The authors provide a set of recommendations to state and local authorities around implementation. Along with developing curricula and standards aligned to the roadmap’s teaching strategy, they advise that districts develop “civic learning plans” identifying goals and performance metrics for schools. Data from those plans would be added as school performance indicators in existing state accountability regimes, though Allen said the group did not favor new federal mandates around civics or history testing. Instead, federal policymakers should focus on funding research and gathering data on nationwide civics learning, among other responsibilities.
The project sets ambitious goals, aiming to have 100,000 schools equipped with civic learning plans by the end of the decade, along with providing civics-related professional development to a million pre-service and in-service teachers. But along with those specific targets, Allen said that the heart of the project lay in fostering healthy disagreement about our shared history and government, and teaching students how to carry those disagreements into their lives as adult citizens.
“We…have a lot of work to do to reconnect ourselves to each other and to a sense that our constitutional democracy can deliver some good for us. The project of what we need to do to rebuild civic strength goes beyond simple knowledge of facts or how the institutions operate, and is as much about how we engage with each other in the debates that characterize our democratic life as much as anything else.”
Twenty percent fewer kindergartners are on track to learn how to read than their peers were at this time last year, and most haven’t made much progress since the fall, according to new assessment data released Wednesday.
Thirty-seven percent of this year’s kindergartners are on-track in early reading skills, compared to 55 percent during the 2019-20 school year, just prior to the pandemic. Among first graders, 43 percent are on target, compared to 58 percent last year.
“Teachers are working hard. They’re doing what they can,” said Paul Gazzerro, director of data analysis at Amplify, a K-8 curriculum provider that collected the data from about 400,000 students across 1,400 schools in 41 states. “We’re just not seeing the bounce back that we’re hoping for.”
While all students are performing worse than they would have in a normal year, the gaps are especially pronounced for Black and Hispanic students. Compared to the prior year, 13 percent more white kindergarteners are considered at-risk, while for Black and Hispanic kindergarteners, the increases are 27 percent and 25 percent, respectively.”
The results provide further evidence of the crushing effect school closures have had on young children’s early reading development — to the point they might not catch up, Gazzerro said. Amplify’s experts, however, said that while teachers tend to resort to lower-level instruction when children fall behind, it’s important to “double down” with grade-level material and that K-1 provides a key window to close the gap.
“We have a sort of once-in-a-generation chance to catch up these students,” said Susan Lambert, Amplify’s chief academic officer for elementary humanities. She added that providing additional literacy instruction on top of what schools normally schedule could also address “persistent gaps” for students who were already struggling before the pandemic.
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Leaders of the Kyrene School District, near Phoenix, Arizona, shared their results on Wednesday’s call with reporters, noting that their results mirror the national data, with more students in the “well below benchmark” category than there would have been in a normal year.
“One of my concerns is budgeting and how we’re going to fill in all these gaps,” said Sharyn Weinheimer, the district’s academic intervention coordinator.
Teachers used the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — or DIBELS — assessment to directly measure students’ reading, either in person or virtually, which eliminates the chance that students taking an assessment at home might cheat by looking up the answers or getting outside help.
Gazzerro said that they saw little difference between students who took the assessment remotely and those who took it in school, adding further confidence in the results.
This is the second time Amplify has released data showing the impact of the pandemic and school closures on students’ early reading development. In the fall, the company released data from the beginning of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, showing that first graders experienced the greatest drop in scores beyond a normal “summer slide.” The percentage of first graders considered “well-below benchmark” increased from 27 percent in fall 2019 to 40 percent in fall 2020.
Reading expert Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago,said one advantage of using DIBELS is that it allows educators to examine the impact of the pandemic on an age group other assessments typically miss.
DIBELS, based at the University of Oregon, also has a large database for making comparisons between students tested in a normal year and those learning to read during the pandemic.
The schools in the study were more urban and served almost twice as many Hispanic and half as many white students than schools nationally.
DIBELS has come in for criticism from some reading experts because it focuses on a narrow aspect of learning to read. In the lower grades, for example, the assessment asks students to read and identify the sounds in nonsense wordslike “kex” or “lat.” The method determines fluency — how quickly a student can identify a word.
Students, especially those with more advanced skills, sometimes struggle to make sense of the nonsense words, said Rachael Gabriel, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. They might turn them into the next closest real word and end up with lower scores, she said. The newest edition of the assessment includes revisions to prevent that confusion.
In the context of school closures, Gabriel said it’s likely that many“beginning readers missed a lot of beginning reading instruction along with opportunities for one-on-one feedback on their practice.” But it’s also possible some students gained more skills than they would have in a normal year because of being exposed to more vocabulary at home with adults or having more time to read on their own more than they did in school, she said.
Michael Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, said he’s encouraged by Tennessee’s recent passage of a $160 million package that includes a phonics-based literacy law requiring schools to better identify and provide interventions for students lacking “foundational” skills.
“One of the things that I think is clear a year into the pandemic is that teaching young children is very, very difficult online,” he said, adding that the Tennessee legislation “combines real dollars and a clear point of view on how to teach reading with a practical understanding that this has been done virtually.”
When schools don’t consistently enforce precautions such as social distancing and mask wearing, teachers can play a “central” role in COVID-19 transmission, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released this week.
Over an eight-week period that included 24 in-person school days, educator-to-educator and educator-to-student transmission in one district contributed to half of the 31 cases of the virus linked to schools, researchers found. Of 69 additional family members of the teachers and students, 18 tested positive. The study was conducted in six elementary sites in the Marietta City Schools, outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
While schools employed plastic dividers between desks, students were less than 3 feet apart in the classroom. And even though the district mandated mask use, students ate lunch in their classrooms, which might have contributed to the spread, according to the study. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said earlier this month that “breaches in mask wearing” can increase spread.
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“These findings suggest that educators can play an important role in in-school transmission and that in-school transmission can occur when physical distancing and mask compliance are not optimal,” the authors wrote. They added that previous studies have shown that even when community rates are high, transmission within schools can be prevented when staff and students implement all of the safety precautions.
The study strengthens local teacher unions’ argument that educators should be vaccinated before in-person learning resumes and it serves as a warning to districts considering a return to school in areas where case rates remain high. The researchers found that “small group instruction” for students and teachers having meetings or eating lunch together may have contributed to the spread.
“School buildings can be safe for teachers and kids, but the layered mitigation and testing and tracing must be implemented to curb the risk of transmission, with vaccine availability as another layer of protection,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “We hope school districts examine it closely.”
Marietta schools Superintendent Grant Rivera was a co-author of the study and the district has already taken additional steps in response to its findings. Teachers are now discouraged from eating together and hold more of their meetings virtually. Staff members relocated large equipment like copiers and moved furniture that took up space in workrooms and classrooms and prevented physical distancing.
“Masks are required in our district and we remind our students every day to ensure that they are worn properly,” said Jen Brock, a spokeswoman for the district.
But so far, Georgia is not vaccinating teachers under age 65. Gov. Brian Kemp said last week that teachers may soon be added to the priority list.
“We continue to hope that all Georgia educators will soon be eligible as the study showed the higher occurrence of adult-to-adult transmission and the vaccine will help reduce this risk,” Brock said.
According to CNN, 28 states now include teachers among those eligible for vaccines.
While the study’s authors echoed Walensky’s statements that schools can reopen without teachers being vaccinated, they called vaccination a “critical component” in preventing spread of the disease. They added that even after teachers are vaccinated, schools should continue to follow recommended safety measures because most children are not yet eligible for vaccines and there’s still limited evidence on transmission of the virus after vaccination.
New Pew Research Polling on School Reopening Shows Concerns Shifting From Virus Spread to Learning Loss
As the pandemic’s havoc on K-12 education reaches the one-year mark and the death toll tops 500,000, a growing share of Americans believe that learning loss due to prolonged campus closures should be a top consideration in reopening decisions, according to the results of a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday.
In total, 61 percent of respondents said that education leaders should give “a lot” of consideration to potential learning loss as they weigh whether to reopen campuses for in-person learning. The data represent a sharp increase from July 2020, when just 48 percent of adults said that learning loss should be a top consideration in school reopening plans and a far larger number of respondents said that the threat of teachers and students getting and spreading the virus should be a major concern.
What has not changed since the summer is that white adults are still far more likely than Black adults to say that schools should reopen sooner rather than later.
But even while learning loss emerged as a stronger imperative in the latest polling, that doesn’t mean the bulk of U.S. adults are insisting that schools reopen for in-person learning immediately. While 40 percent of survey respondents said that schools should reopen as soon as possible, a majority — 59 percent — said that if campuses are currently closed, they should stay that way until all teachers are offered the vaccine.
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“It’s not that people are not concerned about health risks and it’s not that people are just saying ‘Let’s just open all schools right now,’” said report author Juliana Horowitz, an associate director of research at Pew. “I think these results, taken together, highlight the complexity of this issue and that people have a lot to consider.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic’s health risks to teachers and students has become less of a priority. In July, 60 percent of adults said officials should give “a lot” of consideration to teachers getting or spreading the coronavirus, and 61 percent said the same about students. By this month, those figures dropped to 48 percent and 45 percent, respectively. That could reflect more recent understanding that schools, particularly at the elementary level, have not turned out to be vectors for COVID-19 transmission.
In fact, adults put a larger emphasis on students’ emotional well-being than they did on the risks that students or teachers could become infected if schools reopen — a reality that mirrors growing evidence that prolonged education disruptions have led to a surge in depression and anxiety among young people. In total, 54 percent of adults said that students’ emotional well-being should be a top consideration in reopening decisions, and a similar share said the same about parents’ ability to work if their children are learning from home. Just one-third of adults said that school districts’ financial burden to follow public health guidelines should be a top factor in reopening decisions.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance on how to safely reopen campuses, advising that K-12 students can return to classrooms full time in communities with low to moderate spread of COVID-19. Schools that reopen should enforce mask rules and ensure social distancing among other recommendations, according to the CDC, but providing vaccines to teachers shouldn’t be a prerequisite.
Across Pew’s questions, responses didn’t differ between adults with children and those without them. But partisan divisions were stark, similar to views on other pandemic mitigation measures like mask mandates. While 65 percent of Republicans said that schools should reopen as soon as possible regardless of whether teachers have been offered the vaccine, just 20 percent of Democrats agreed. At the same time, 79 percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Republicans said schools that are currently closed for in-person learning should remain shuttered until teachers are given the vaccine.
Despite the partisan divisions, both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to say learning loss should be a major factor in reopening decisions than they were last July. The same is true with regard to health considerations. Across the political spectrum, respondents were less likely to say health risks should be given a lot of consideration in reopening decisions.
“They’re moving in similar directions but the patterns that we see in terms of the differences” between Republicans and Democrats remain the same, Horowitz said.
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color and those from low-income households — a reality that appears to be influencing adults’ opinions on school reopening decisions. Similar to trends from last summer, Pew found that Black, Hispanic and Asian adults were more likely than white respondents to believe that the potential health risks to teachers and students should be a top consideration in school reopening debates. Just 19 percent of Black adults said that schools should reopen as soon as possible compared with 48 percent of whites. While two-thirds of lower-income adults believe that schools should wait to reopen, the issue was more divisive among their more affluent neighbors.
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The Pew survey is one in a slew of parent polls in the last year about schooling during the pandemic, a topic that’s brought emotions to the boiling point and has become highly politicized. But poll results on the topic, as FiveThirtyEight notes, can differ widely depending on how the questions are asked. For example, public opinion polls have reached different conclusions about the popularity of distance learning and the degree to which the pandemic is having a detrimental effect on childrens’ mental and emotional health.
Taken as a whole, the polls — including the one by Pew — highlight how parents are being forced to weigh complex and competing factors before reaching conclusions.
Pew administered its online survey between Feb. 16 and 21 and included a nationally representative sample of 10,121 U.S. adults. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.
Corrected March 3
As the state approaches the one-year anniversary of its first COVID-related school closures, lawmakers in North Carolina have taken the dramatic step of passing legislation this month that would require districts to offer some version of in-person learning.
The proposal now sits on the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has found fault with its language but not yet announced whether he will sign it. The episode is the latest public health dispute between a popular governor, reelected only last November, and a Republican legislature that has sought to curb his authority since he first took office.
It is also part of a fast-spreading trend of statutory attempts to open schools from state capitals, even as declining coronavirus cases and the accelerating deployment of vaccines present better conditions for districts to initiate the reopening process themselves. In late January, Iowa passed its own law pushing all schools to offer families at least the option of full-time, in-person education. A bipartisan group of Virginia legislators is advancing a proposal to mandate an in-person option for all students by July 1. And in California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and his Democratic allies in Sacramento are at odds over how quickly, and under what conditions, to bring students back to their classrooms.
Under North Carolina’s reopening proposal, school districts would have to reopen fully for special needs students whose families sought that service, while offering either full-time or hybrid instruction for all other students. Teachers in the state are prioritized to receive vaccinations beginning Feb. 24.
For the moment, schools have been ordered to open in just a handful of Republican-controlled states: Iowa, Texas, Florida, and (for elementary and middle school students only) West Virginia. But with the GOP giddily attacking Democrats across the country over the slow-burning frustration of shuttered schools, there is building pressure to lift restrictions even on bluer terrain.
Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University, said that the various strategies adopted by states were a reflection of partisan differences as much as the threat posed by COVID. While President Biden has gingerly nudged both education officials and teachers’ unions to speed the return from remote instruction, she told The 74, states have been left to figure things out for themselves for most of the year-long crisis.
“We started with the Trump administration not being proactive on this issue in a useful way,” Reckhow said. “We never really had a national approach, and so now we have 50 states, 13,000 school districts,” each developing their own processes.
Along with several Michigan State co-authors, Reckhow recently released a working paper that illustrates the powerful political dimensions shaping those decisions. As other researchers have found, decisions about how quickly to reopen schools after the first pandemic wave have been much more influenced by politics than safety concerns. Consequently, a given county’s respective preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election has been a more accurate guide to whether it reopened in-person last fall than COVID incidence rates.
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But Reckhow’s study further observes that the devolution of authority to local school boards was embraced by Democratic and Republican governors alike, partially as a form of “blame avoidance” — essentially leaving tough calls for someone other than the governor to sort out.
Concerns over local autonomy
Debates over public health measures have been a feature of North Carolina political discourse since last spring. Gov. Cooper’s opponent for reelection, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, even filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to strip him of emergency powers to mandate face coverings and limit public gatherings. Now the positions are somewhat reversed, with Republicans in the state house eager to compel local districts to offer live instruction and the governor warning that such a mandate would “hamper” their flexibility in responding to emergencies.
Ferrel Guillory, a veteran journalist and the vice chairman of the news nonprofit EducationNC, said that the state’s 115 school districts make up a “patchwork of different systems making different judgments” across an education landscape that spans both growing cities like Charlotte and Raleigh as well as rural Appalachian towns to the west. The reopening bill was a sweeping measure in that context, he argued.
“It’s closer to a state mandate to schools rather than a package that works with local school systems to get schools open,” Guillory said. “The Democrats who oppose this bill have opposed it, in part, on the notion that it takes away some local autonomy … And that’s been part of the governor’s concern too.”
The legislation passed both chambers of the legislature with enough votes to override any resistance from Cooper, though it is not clear whether the handful of Democrats who crossed party lines to help it advance would still support it if he chose to veto. Regardless of whether it ever takes effect, families have already begun to feel its effects: In Durham, one of the more progressive areas of the resolutely purple state, district leaders announced they would reconsider their existing strategy of continuing with remote instruction through the end of the school year.
Such changes not only impact families and educators; they also carry obvious weight in the political arena. Last year, many credited Cooper’s well-received COVID response with his relatively handy victory in November. Guillory compared his public profile with that of a “less combative” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, consistently appearing on television to deliver public updates on the situation. Republicans, he added, would only be happy to make a dent in his reelection honeymoon by forcing his hand on reopening.
“Cooper’s approval ratings remain relatively high,” he said. “I don’t dispute that they have some policy reasons and governance reasons for wanting the schools reopened, but [Republicans] are not unmindful that there’s a political dimension to this. And if they can score a victory over Cooper, they would celebrate it, at least quietly.”
Partisan divides play into other state-level reopening debates as well. Last week, Republicans in the Minnesota state Senate passed a measure stripping Democratic Gov. Tim Walz of his emergency powers to close schools — a toothless provision, since it can’t pass in the state’s Democratic House, but one nonetheless reflective of the weariness that has accompanied a glacial reopening process in some parts of the state.
Inside the Fight to Reopen Minneapolis Classrooms: ‘Labor’ Governor Fights to Deliver on $745 Million Wishlist to Teachers as Unions Push Against Returning to School
Even in Virginia, where Democrats took unified control over state government in 2019, the party is evidently feeling some heat. Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic majorities in Richmond are currently moving on a bill that would require districts to offer the option of in-person instruction, five days a week, beginning this summer. Republicans in the state have been glad to push the issue in a year when multiple statewide offices, as well as all the seats in the state House of Delegates, are up for grabs. One Republican gubernatorial candidate has already released an ad calling for classrooms to reopen faster.
The legislation would also mandate that school staff be provided access to a COVID vaccine — evidence that political actors are willing to use both carrots and sticks, Reckhow said. But much more than Democrats at the local level, they are increasingly animated by an imperative of both policy and politics: “You need to get kids back.”
“How they go about doing that varies — whether they have a bully pulpit role versus being able to actually attach funding strings — but that’s generally what I’m seeing,” she said. “It’s really only when you get in the specific, special-purpose governance of schools that you see political leaders stick to the idea that you should be only remote and not plan for any type of in-person at all.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Minnesota Governor Tim Walz
A Pre-COVID Education Study With Big Implications for Remote Learning During the Pandemic: When Parents Take Over, Children Give Up Easier
* One lace loops to make the trunk. A squirrel runs around the tree, jumps into a hole at the bottom, and comes out the other side. Pull it though and… huzzah! *
Teaching a child to tie their shoes isn’t always easy. If you’ve embarked on this painstaking task, watching as little fingers fumble with floppy laces, chances are you’ve fought the urge to jump in and finish the job.
However, new research out of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that parents may want to think twice before taking over — advice that likely comes as no surprise to mothers and fathers, but goes far beyond shoe-tying.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, finds that jumping in and completing a task that a child is working on can stifle perseverance and cause them to persist less in the future.
“If your kid is working on something and you step in and do it for them,” Allyson Mackey, a study co-author and professor of psychology at UPenn, explained to The 74, “then they will learn that you didn’t think they could do it. And they might try less hard in the future.”
WATCH — Mackey talks about the new research showing kids give up easier if parents step in:
The experiment, carried out pre-pandemic at a children’s museum in Philadelphia, randomly assigned 90 4- and 5-year olds to one of three groups. One group received patient teaching from a lab technician on how to solve a preliminary puzzle. Another group struggled for just a short time with the puzzle before the experimenter jumped in to solve it. The third was the control group, which received no pre-experiment assignment or instruction.
All children were then given an impossible task: open a box, secretly glued shut, that had an object rattling inside. If they succeeded, the experimenters told the children, they would be able to play with an exciting toy. The researchers measured how long the kids worked at the task, and compared across groups.
The results were stark. Kids whose lab technicians took over and solved their puzzles persisted at the box task for an average of 50 seconds — about half as long as children who had received the teaching treatment or no treatment at all.
The behavior of “trying,” it turns out, is a learned skill. When parents make a habit of jumping in and completing the tasks that their children are working on, it can discourage kids from persisting.
“If [children] learn from their parents that they shouldn’t try, either because they’re likely to fail, or because someone else will do it for them, then they won’t practice trying,” said Mackey. “That will have long-term implications for reward and motivation circuitry in the brain.”
Famed Marshmallow Test Yields Fresh Surprises: Kids Today Have More Self-Control, but Test’s Predictive Power Hard to Replicate
During a pandemic, the lessons from child psychology take on a whole new level of significance. Many parents — including Mackey — increasingly find themselves under the same roof as their kids as they struggle to complete school assignments. And in such cases, resisting the urge to take over becomes all the more important.
In remote learning, the psychologist mother-of-two tries to help make school work fun. She runs races through the house with her kids and uses games to learn spelling.
“What brings joy into our house?” Mackey asks. “Because when [my daughter] is feeling happier, she gets less frustrated. Persisting through reading is easier, persisting through math is more fun.”
The Pennsylvania professor says that she now constantly ponders the messages she might be sending.
“I think about it all the time,” Mackey said, admitting that sometimes it can be difficult not to jump in. “I try to do it less, but it is just really hard. It is really hard to watch a child struggle.”
Though it can be a test of patience, giving young children the time to learn new tasks on their own can yield strong benefits, the researcher says. In her own home, budgeting more time for tasks has been key.
“Building more time into our schedule for practicing, sort of low-stakes tasks, I think has helped quite a lot,” Mackey said.
She cautioned against taking this tactic too far, however. Parents should avoid the example of “bean dad,” who went viral on Twitter in January for refusing to feed his hungry daughter. The stubborn parent opted instead to let the 9-year-old learn to use a can opener through hours of fruitless experimentation.
“That is not the right way to motivate kids,” Mackey said. “As soon as children, especially young children, are frustrated, you really can’t bring them back.”
Her rule of thumb? “Do not step in until your child asks for help,” she advises parents.
If her daughter is working on a task, say a puzzle or her homework, Mackey will often visibly busy herself with something she knows her daughter will understand — reading a book or washing dishes, for instance. It can make her daughter be less quick to interrupt by asking for help, and can encourage her to persist longer.
Cultivating persistence, however, is just one piece of healthy childhood development, Mackey explained. Her UPenn colleague Angela Duckworth, a much-lauded researcher, has championed the concept of “grit,” which Mackey said includes not only perseverance, but also a spark of “passionate interest” that compels youth to work toward their goals.
74 Interview: Researcher Angela Duckworth on Psychology, Parenting and Great Teachers — and Why ‘It’s More Important to Be Honest than To Be Gritty’
Parents can support their children in many ways: By modeling effort themselves, by cheering on their kids through difficult tasks, by documenting their kids’ progress, and by praising effort instead of ability. One out-of-the-box tactic, tested by research, suggests parents can even encourage healthy decision-making by dressing their kids up as a favorite superhero, Batman for example, and then asking, “What would Batman do in this situation?”
But beyond any one “do” or “don’t” for parenting, balance is key. Raising happy kids, Mackey says, is the first step to raising kids who persevere.
“I really believe that general brain health, general well-being is essential for any kind of learning, for any kind of motivation or persistence,” she said.
Survey: Pandemic-Related Stress Tops Teachers’ Reasons for Quitting, But Vaccines, COVID Testing Could Lure Some of Them Back
Almost half the teachers who left the field early over the past year blame the pandemic, a new survey shows. But many say they would be willing to return when their schools begin frequent coronavirus testing or when teachers and students have been vaccinated.
Those who stepped away because of COVID-19 cite stress, child care responsibilities and health concerns as their top reasons for leaving, according to data released Monday from the RAND Corp. In fact, teachers were almost twice as likely to blame their departures on stress (43 percent) than inadequate pay (24 percent).
“High stress on the job is a marker of teachers who left the profession, and it’s unlikely to go away once COVID fades,” said Heather Schwartz, a co-author of the study.
Teachers who have left since March reported working longer hours and sleeping less than those who left the profession over a year ago. But Schwartz noted that exhaustion contributed to teachers’ decisions to leave the field before the pandemic, so there wasn’t “much room to grow.”
While the survey sample is relatively small — about 431 pandemic and 527 pre-pandemic teachers responded — the results underscore challenges states face as they rebuild a workforce that was already experiencing shortages before the pandemic, especially in math, science and special education. Michigan, Arizona and Kansas are among states reporting a pandemic-related drop in the workforce. Policymakers are responding by creating incentives to lure back retired teachers, recruiting college students and proposing pay raises to avoid losing more educators. But some former teachers have already moved into new professions where they enjoy more flexible schedules.
RAND researchers didn’t explore the actual number of teachers who have left during the past year. A November survey, however, showed that 27 percent of teachers were considering leaving due to the pandemic.
The RAND survey shows educators under 40 were slightly more likely than older teachers to leave because someone in their household had a high-risk health condition. Those over 40, however, were far more likely to leave because of their own health concerns.
Technology challenges contributed to some departures, especially among older teachers. They noted frustrations over remote instruction, including inadequate training, lack of high-speed internet and outdated computers.
Teachers in southern states were more likely to leave before retirement than their counterparts in other regions, a trend continued over the past year.
“We already knew there was a big shortage,” said Stephen Pruitt, a former Kentucky education commissioner who now serves as president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit focusing on improving education in 16 states. Megan Boren, a program specialist at the organization, added that states are coping by increasing their use of long-term substitutes and allowing teachers to work with emergency certifications.
Pruitt said it’s important to understand what’s causing teachers to leave the field so policymakers can improve working conditions. For now, that means putting a premium on ensuring safe classrooms when teachers return to in-person teaching, he said.
‘It was exhausting’
RAND researchers noted a few differences between those who left before and after the pandemic. Black teachers represented a higher proportion of those who left the profession during the pandemic than before — 11 percent compared to 7 percent.
But early-career teachers were less likely to be among those who left since March — 3 percent compared with 6 percent of those who left before the pandemic.
Jeanne Maurand, who taught high school chemistry at a private school in Massachusetts, grew accustomed to teaching on Zoom last year and performing experiments involving acid and base reactions on her dining room table. She had planned on teaching at least five more years.
But when her school initiated a hybrid attendance plan in the fall, the stress of managing cameras, microphones and multiple websites grew overwhelming. She struggled to engage with students on Zoom, including a group dialing in from other countries, while simultaneously managing an in-person classroom where she and students communicated through masks. With windows open for ventilation, the temperature got down to 58 degrees.
“There were so many things you had to be good at,” she said. “It was exhausting, plus, you’re dealing with the mental health issues of the students. Their whole world was turned upside down.”
When a couple teachers at her school got the virus, she was further convinced that “the most important thing is to stay alive.”
More flexibility, less pay
Those who left education altogether said they now enjoy more flexibility and higher pay. But about half of those who became teachers in small group pods or microschools said they don’t plan to return this fall, even if they’re earning less.
The survey also found that “more-highly paid teachers are now willing to leave earlier than would otherwise be the case.”
Educators who took positions at private schools or are working as tutors, for example, cited less standardized testing and fewer work hours as additional perks.
The authors noted the findings reveal “persistent structural problems that likely will outlast the pandemic unless there are changes to the teaching profession.” They recommend involving teachers in efforts to reduce stress, building more flexibility into the job, and ramping up COVID-19 testing until everyone is vaccinated.
A third of teachers who left the field early because of COVID-19 said they are “definitely willing” to return when staff and students are vaccinated. Another 27 percent said they would be “somewhat willing” to return. Routine testing would “definitely” draw back 13 percent of those who left early, while 42 percent said they would be “somewhat willing” with testing in place.
Teachers Unions Say They Need More COVID Tests Before Reopening Classrooms. But Experts Are Warning About the Limitations, Expense and Tradeoffs in Focusing on Swabs
Pruitt, with the Southern Regional Education Board, said the findings reinforce the notion that job satisfaction rests on more than pay. “I wish people would stop thinking just in terms of salary,” he said.
But Boren noted some positive signs that states will be able to increase salaries as well after several pay-hike proposals died in state legislatures last year. Some states aren’t seeing the budget shortfalls they expected. In the South, five states have recently proposed teacher pay increases and one, Tennessee, passed a 2 percent hike in a special session.
While fewer college students have pursued teaching in recent years, “there’s some evidence that trend may reverse,” Boren said, noting there are teacher preparation programs in the South reporting enrollment growth. That could be the result of the economic downturn, she said. “The teaching profession is viewed as a stable career with some job security.”
Raw Video: California School Board Resigns After Accidentally Streaming Meeting Where They Mocked and Derided District Parents
The YouTube video was uploaded anonymously last Thursday, with a simple description: “This video was taken of the February 17, 2021 meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Oakley Union Elementary School District … I do not wish to conduct any interviews. I only wish for our local public school to be run by better people.”
The students of Oakley, located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, have been learning via virtual classes since last March due to the ongoing pandemic. The comments captured in last week’s video showed school board members mocking and decrying parents pushing for a resumption of in-person classes.
Board president Lisa Brizendine can be heard saying parents “forget that there’s real people on the other side of those letters that they’re writing … It’s very unfortunate that they want to pick on us because they want their babysitters back.” Watch the full video:
Some 24 hours later, as the video began capturing the attention of such local media outlets as KPIX TV as well as national reporters at CNN, HuffPost and the New York Times, Brizendine and three of her board colleagues announced their resignation. Superintendent Greg Hetrick announced the moves in a letter sent directly to district families, which included a direct statement from those resigning which said, in part, “we deeply regret the comments that were made in the meeting of the Board of Education earlier this week … We love our students, our teachers and our community, and we want to be part of the remedy to help the District move forward, returning its full focus to students’ needs. To help facilitate the healing process, we will be resigning our positions.”
Below, some of the additional coverage that captured the livestreamed remarks, the Oakley fallout, and what is to come next for the district following the resignations:
—New York Times: Entire school board resigns after members are caught mocking parents on livestream (Read the full story)
—The 74: Why parents are worried — Survey finds more than half of parents see negative effects in how remote learning is affecting their children (Read the full story)
—KPIX: Oakley school board resigns after president steps down over ‘hot hic’ Remarks (Read the full story)
—CNN: An entire school board resigned after they criticized parents during a public virtual meeting (Read the full story)
—Erika Sanzi: Parent-shaming is nothing new (Read the full story)
—The 74: Antonucci — Biden set a goal of returning students to classrooms in 100 days, but it’s not the president who holds the real power to reopen schools (Read the full story)
Your Thursday Virtual Science Class, Courtesy of NASA, Mars & the First Martian Helicopter: Livestream Today’s Perseverance Rover Landing Right Here, 2:30 p.m. ET
Amid the chaos of remote learning, child care, shoveling and freezing temperatures, I had absolutely no idea that NASA was returning to Mars today until l saw a headline last night. And when I stumbled upon the news it became the one glimmer of fun I could point to, for my science-obsessed first-grader.
We know what we’ll be doing for our virtual science class today — and it’s a scientific feat that should have more than its fair share of drama, thrills and historical firsts.
From NASA’s preview of the proceedings: “During landing, the rover will plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph. A parachute and powered descent will slow the rover down to about 2 mph. During what is known as the sky crane maneuver, the descent stage will lower the rover on three cables to land softly on six wheels at Jezero Crater. Perseverance also is carrying a technology experiment – the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
“Among the many firsts with this mission is the agency’s first-ever Spanish-language show for a planetary landing. On Thursday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 p.m., NASA will air Juntos perseveramos, a show that will give viewers an overview of the mission to Mars and highlight the role Hispanic NASA professionals have had in its success.” (Juntos perseveramos will stream at NASA en Español’s YouTube channel)
The Great STEM Debate: States Can’t Agree on What Those Four Letters Mean, and That’s a Problem
Livestream begins at 2:15 p.m. ET, with landing expected for 3:55 p.m. My 6-year-old and I will be watching from Brooklyn, and we hope you’ll join us:
More NASA artist renderings of what we’re expecting today:
COVID-19 is changing what students plan to do after high school, with those more affected by the pandemic more likely to have altered their post-graduation expectations, a new student survey reveals.
One in four high school seniors said their postsecondary plans had changed since the start of the pandemic, an increase from 18 percent of seniors during a previous survey in spring 2020. Thirty percent of non-white students said their plans had changed, compared to 18 percent of white students, according to the survey conducted in fall 2020 by the nonprofit YouthTruth. Those who said they were personally affected by the pandemic and who report receiving free and reduced-price lunch were more likely to report alerting their plans when compared to their peers.
The share of students surveyed who said they plan to attend a four-year college or university was 51 percent, which is about the same as in pre-pandemic YouthTruth surveys. However, bigger gaps emerge for other options. The latest results show a significant decline in students expecting to attend a two-year college, 16 percent, compared to 22 percent before COVID-19. The share of students who are unsure about their plans after high school graduation also increased, and there was a slight rise in those expecting to work full time.
Other data back up the YouthTruth findings. Completion of the federal financial aid application — which is correlated to college enrollment — is down more than 9 percent compared to this time last year, according to a tracker maintained by the National College Attainment Network. Meanwhile, enrollment for low-income high school students declined by nearly 30 percent in fall 2020, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports.
Mental health is also a challenge. Students reported feeling depressed, stressed or anxious as the top obstacle to learning, with 46 percent of students saying it’s affecting them.
The findings on mental health and changing postsecondary plans are “heartbreaking but maybe not surprising” given what’s already known about how the pandemic is affecting kids, said Jen Wilka, YouthTruth’s executive director.
“Not all students are experiencing this time equally, and students are going to need different kinds of supports now and in the coming months and year,” she added.
YouthTruth surveyed about 85,000 students in grades 3 through 12 from 14 states in the fall and used previous results to compare responses. The survey was conducted online in English and Spanish.
The report revealed some bright spots, too. While just 39 percent of students said they were learning “a lot almost every day” in the spring, 61 percent now say that is the case, slightly more than before the pandemic. Students who earn high grades are more likely to say they’re learning a lot, and slightly more students learning in person agreed with the statement, compared to those who are in remote and hybrid environments. Of note, hybrid ranked last, behind in-person and fully remote, in the percentage of students reporting they were learning a lot.
Additionally, students’ sense of belonging in their schools has rebounded, with 49 percent saying they “feel like part of [their] school’s community,” compared to 30 percent last spring and 43 percent pre-pandemic.
Analysis: Survey Finds More Than Half of Parents Say Their Kids Are Learning Remote — and the Negative Effects Are Hitting Hard
Some other findings from the most recent YouthTruth report:
- Male students reported better health and well-being than female students and students who identify in another way. About a third of boys said “feeling depressed, stressed or anxious” is an obstacle to learning, compared to 57 percent of girls and 79 percent who identify in another day.
- The second most commonly cited obstacle to learning was “distractions at home and family responsibilities,” affecting 44 percent of students.
- Forty-one percent of remote learners said their “virtual classes are interesting” and 35 percent said “someone usually notices if I’m not paying attention.” Nearly half said they can take breaks as needed during online classes.
- Sixty-six percent of students agreed with the statement “Most of my teachers are willing to give extra help on schoolwork if I need it,” compared with 58 percent before the pandemic.
Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to YouthTruth and The 74.
Report: New Summer Learning Initiative, Launched Last Year as a 5-Week Pilot for Nearly 12,000 Students, Shows Promise For Improving Online Instruction
An ambitious pilot aimed at improving virtual learning last summer has earned high marks from participants, according to a new report. The program, which has since been reconstituted as an ongoing nonprofit enterprise, was rated in surveys as both engaging to students and beneficial in improving teacher performance. Evidence of its academic impact is still to be collected.
The findings are being weighed at a moment when policymakers are still considering how educators should handle the summer of 2021. In a CNN town hall Tuesday, President Biden suggested that some schools would remain open throughout the season to catch up on lost learning time from pandemic-related closures.
Released through the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, the report provides the earliest qualitative evidence related to the National Summer School Initiative (NSSI), which was swiftly designed by a coalition of actors from the education reform world as COVID-19 triggered nationwide school closures. The effort was backed by prominent philanthropies like the Walton Family Foundation and earned a spate of summer headlines in both the national and local press.
Analysis: COVID Learning & Earning Losses Could Be Huge. But There Are Remedies Inside and Outside Our Schools. Here are 7 of Them
NSSI was rolled out as a five-week summer offering by 50 schools and school networks, eventually reaching about 11,800 predominantly non-white and low-income students enrolled in grades 3-8. Pupils took part in live, remote math and reading instruction five days per week, mixed with supplemental literacy classes and self-directed mindfulness sessions incorporating activities like dance and yoga.
To carry out the coursework, 513 “partner” instructors were paired with 15 mentor teachers, many selected from high-performing charter networks like KIPP and Uncommon Schools. Working from the same curricula, mentors provided daily instructional videos for participating teachers to emulate, critique, or simply allow students to watch directly. They also worked with partner teachers to guide their adaptation to remote pedagogy, giving advice on what methods and activities worked or fell flat in their own classrooms.
Early assessments, gathered both through NSSI surveys and subsequent interviews with partner teachers and mentors, were resoundingly positive. The vast majority of partner teachers reported that students improved their academic abilities over the course of the program and gained greater interest in school and learning. Eighty-six percent of partner and mentor teachers said that participating in NSSI bolstered their view of online instruction.
Students also rated the experience highly, with 81 percent of survey respondents agreeing that they had grown as readers and 75 percent saying the same for their skills as mathematicians. Three-quarters of parent respondents said that their children had gained confidence in their academic abilities, while nearly two-thirds said that they had discovered a new interest as a direct result of participating in NSSI.
Perhaps the most heartening finding — especially as school districts have struggled to maintain student interest and attendance in online classes — was that NSSI students generally felt engaged by their virtual lessons. By the final week of the program, 88 percent reported attending the voluntary classes either every day or almost every day, while 65 percent said they were happy to be participating in summer school.
Analysis: What Does ‘Attendance’ Mean for Remote Learners in a Pandemic? How 106 Districts Are Dealing With Absenteeism, Student Engagement & Grades
In both survey responses and interviews, instructors expressed high levels of satisfaction with the collaborative aspects of the program. Seventy-nine percent of partner teachers agreed with the statement, “I am learning from my mentor teacher,” including 53 percent who strongly agreed; fully 87 percent believed they would be better teachers in the 2020-21 school year because of their experience at NSSI. For their own part, mentor teachers unanimously agreed that the initiative increased their enthusiasm for teaching.
Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia and one of the paper’s co-authors, said that the program’s design held some promise as a means of professional coaching and curriculum development. America’s year-long experiment with online learning has largely been seen as a disastrous setback for students, but teachers could stand to benefit from being connected with some of their top-performing fellow practitioners from around the country, she argued.
“The thing that [partner teachers] really appreciated was that they were just handed all these materials without having to do a ton of lesson planning,” said Schueler. “They could spend the time instead internalizing those materials, getting student feedback, and connecting with students, which seems particularly important right now.”
Partner teachers extolled the quality of the videos they received from mentors, with one noting that they had never before watched a fellow instructor complete a full, 45-minute lesson. Another, who said they worked in an area with a shortage of math teachers, said they appreciated being able to consult video lessons taught by a mentor who fully grasped the intricacies of Common Core-aligned instruction.
The enthusiasm for the program from teachers and families stands in marked contrast to the public’s general reception of virtual learning during the pandemic. Polling indicates that large numbers of parents across demographic groups suspect that their children are learning less in online classes and are at risk of falling behind, an impression that is substantiated by early evidence of widening achievement gaps in test scores. Surveys have also shown that teacher morale suffered greatly during the transition away from in-person classes.
After its initial summer launch, NSSI has been rebranded as the nonprofit Cadence Learning, with the aim of extending its reach to new schools. Beginning last fall, the initiative was made available free of charge to districts and networks enrolling fewer than 5,000 students. Districts like Providence and Tulsa, whose enrollments far exceed that number, have been willing to pay up to $50 per student for access to the service, Cadence CEO Steven Wilson told The 74 in an interview. After a substantial round of early philanthropic financing, Wilson added, the organization is “nearly entirely funded from earned revenues.”
Schueler noted that it would take further quantitative studies to determine whether participation in the summer school actually led to academic growth. In the meantime, she argued, it offered preliminary indications that virtual classes could be used as more than an emergency stop-gap.
“Obviously, there are a lot of downsides to virtual learning. But I think this is the rare case where you have an organization that was trying to innovate and do something high-quality in the virtual space, and what we’re finding here is that the folks who participated felt like this was a really engaging and positive kind of virtual experience. So engaging virtual learning is possible.”
Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to Cadence Learning and The 74.
WATCH — Biden Recalibrates Education Goals at Town Hall: Aims to Return K-8 Students to Classrooms in 100 Days, Supports Expanded Summer School, Wary of ‘Cancelling’ Too Much Student Debt
Tuesday’s town hall in Wisconsin offered President Biden the chance to bring clarity to what had been a confusing series of statements over the past week about the scope of his 100-day pledge to reopen schools, as well as his views on relief spending, teacher vaccinations and student debt.
In five noteworthy answers Tuesday, Biden clarified and broadened his views on key education issues:
—What Does ‘Reopening’ Schools Mean?: Biden said it was a “mistake in the communication” when his press secretary said that school reopenings would be measured by in-classroom instruction “at least one day a week.” Tuesday night, Biden “the goal will be five days a week”
—Prioritizing K-8 Students: “What I am talking about is…opening the majority of schools in K-8th grade, because they are the easiest to open, the most needed to be open because of the impact on children and families having to stay home.”
—Teacher Vaccinations: Biden said states should be prioritizing educators in the hierarchy of who receives vaccines first.
—Summer School: Biden predicted that many schools will continue providing instruction through the summer to combat learning losses. While some initial federal relief proposals have included funds that could be used for additional summer instruction, particularly for the most vulnerable students, summer school has not yet been a focus of the conversation.
—Student Debt: “I understand the impact of the debt and how it can be debilitating,” Biden said, but he rejected the notion of cancelling $50,000 in student debt as some of his Democractic allies in Congress have advocated. Instead, he said he would support relieving $10,000 in student debt and eliminating interest.
Watch the full town hall via CNN.com:
Growing Backlash to CDC School Guidelines as Los Angeles Teachers Demand Vaccines Before Reopening Classrooms and Florida’s Governor Decries Guidance as a ‘Disgrace’
Shortly after the Centers for Disease Control unveiled new federal guidance surrounding reopening schools for in-person learning — guidance that prioritizes masking and social distancing as key strategies and outlines a new color-coded system for measuring surrounding community spread — the union representing more than 35,000 Los Angeles teachers pushed back against the suggestion that vaccinations for educators need not be a prerequisite for resuming classroom instruction.
“We applaud the CDC’s efforts for a national strategy to return to in-person instruction, but the new guidelines released on February 12 do not do enough to address the specific challenges of large urban school districts like LAUSD,” United Teachers Los Angeles said in a statement Friday. “And most troubling is that it does not require vaccinations for school staff, six-foot distancing in all schools, nor improved ventilation as a key mitigation measure.
“We reiterate that the path to a safe reopening must include: vaccines for all educators and school staff, multi-tiered mitigation strategies (such as COVID testing, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation/quarantine procedures) and lowered community transmission rates — LA County must be out of the purple tier.”
California’s “purple tier” refers to regions where the risk of transmission is “widespread.” The CDC guidance would create new categories and color-coded benchmarks, with the top tier being red for areas where there are more than 100 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents during a 7-day period. (Some critics of the new guidelines have also warned of greater confusion among citizens who live in states with existing color-coded guidelines)
In its statement, UTLA challenged those “who are pushing to reopen in the purple tier and without lowered community transmission rates [to answer]: How many infections and deaths are considered ‘safe?’ While LA educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms, the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County is still too high.”
Just as the CDC guidance was being labeled too risky in California, it was being blasted as too conservative in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis made it clear that the state’s schools would remain open despite the federal government’s new guidance and color-coded directives.
“What the CDC put out at five on a Friday afternoon — I wonder why they would do it then? — was quite frankly a disgrace,” DeSantis said at a Monday press conference. “It would require, if you actually follow that, closing 90% of schools in the United States.”
Florida schools, he said, “are open, we remain open, and we are not turning back.”
Click on the below PDF to scan the full CDC guidance. Here’s more of our recent coverage of the science and politics surrounding reopening classrooms:
- Inside the CDC Guidance: New guidelines for reopening classrooms prioritizes masks, social distancing; vaccines not a precondition (Read the full story)
- Campus Testing: Teachers unions say they need more COVID tests before reopening classrooms — but experts are warning about the limitations, expense and tradeoffs in focusing on swabs (Read the full story)
- Student Vaccines: Superintendents call for “faster rollout” of vaccines but object to delaying school reopenings until children get shots (Read the full story)
- Flashback — Election Year Politics: Research suggests it’s not science but politics that are driving school reopening decisions to a “really dangerous degree” (Read the full story)
- Go Deeper: Scan the full CDC guidance below:
Lead Poisoning Hurts Kids. A New Study Shows How Exposure from an Unexpected Source — NASCAR Racetracks — Lowered Test Scores
The Flint water crisis was, until the arrival of COVID-19, the most frightening recent instance of a public health emergency spilling over into K-12 education.
Beginning in 2014, thousands of children in the former manufacturing hub drank and bathed in water with dangerously high levels of lead, a substance known to inhibit intellectual development and increase impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and aggression. The aftermath saw hugely deleterious consequences for learning, as parents began reporting strange new behaviors from their children and demanding resources to deal with them. Five years after the catastrophe began, the city’s population of special-needs students had nearly doubled, all before a pandemic year that is still keeping them out of classrooms.
Remediation efforts, along with legal settlements and lost economic activity, will cost Michigan untold billions, to say nothing of the young lives permanently harmed by the months of poisoning. And those costs may ultimately result in criminal penalties, as nine current or former officials in Michigan’s state government, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, were indicted on charges in January relating to their roles in the Flint disaster. Two could be charged with manslaughter.
Even if they haven’t always been widely appreciated, the dangers of lead have increasingly been shown in both dramatic news accounts and a host of scientific studies. But while much of the existing research on the subject focuses on confirmed levels of blood lead — as measured in affected students like those in Flint — CDC data indicates that millions of young children and expectant mothers are never screened, and testing plummeted during the early months of the pandemic. Now a new study demonstrates the risks to health and brain function posed by unexpected sources of environmental contamination.
In a working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of economists found that elementary students exposed to airborne lead simply by attending schools near NASCAR racetracks scored significantly lower on standardized tests than similar children who were not. Those effects were found to be larger in predominantly nonwhite and lower-income communities. But according to study co-author Ivan Rudik, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell, proximity to the tracks was shown to harm learning for students of varying backgrounds.
“We can see the effect on test scores change…as you get further and further away from the racetracks,” Rudik said. “It’s really strong for the schools that are within two or three miles, and then as you get out a few [more] miles, that’s when it hits zero.”
The study takes advantage of a natural experiment triggered when NASCAR switched from leaded to unleaded fuel. Along with some other major emitters, including commercial airlines, the multi-billion-dollar racing association was exempted from provisions in the Clean Air Act that banned the use of heavy metals in fuel. The switch wasn’t made until 2007, after pleas from the EPA and the publication of research proving that participants in the company’s premier racing series had elevated blood lead levels.
Using data from Florida, the researchers examined reading and math scores of elementary-aged children enrolled in schools near NASCAR tracks between 2003 and 2014. They also estimated the amount of lead released annually from races at those tracks — including the racing association’s flagship Daytona International Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway — by incorporating the length of the tracks, the number of drivers competing, and the number of laps completed by each.
The amount of pollution emitted during that time was significant: In 2006, the average child attending school within 50 miles of a NASCAR track was exposed to 15 kilograms of lead by age nine, decreasing to a still-concerning 5 kilograms by 2014.
By the authors’ calculations, contamination with as much as 10 kilograms of lead is roughly the equivalent of growing up near an airport — previous research has demonstrated that living within one kilometer of an airport is associated with elevated blood lead levels — and removing that contamination could yield meaningful improvements in student performance: as much as reducing class sizes by 10 students, according to previous economic studies, or replacing a novice teacher with a more experienced one.
Notably, the impact of lead exposure on test scores was particularly strong in counties with higher poverty rates and higher percentages of African American students. Rudik argued that while families of comparatively higher socioeconomic status were also likely to live near NASCAR tracks, they had greater means to compensate.
“If parents see their kids are starting to do worse because of the lead exposure — even if they don’t know it’s because of the lead exposure — they can hire tutors and do a bunch of other things to help mitigate these negative effects,” he said. “Maybe they’re more likely to have their kids tested for blood lead, and they’re able to observe that their kid has been exposed, and they can take steps to mitigate it.”
A further nutritional wrinkle related to dietary choices. The negative testing effects, the researchers found, were largely kept in check in counties that saw rates of milk consumption above the median. That data came from Nielsen Homescan, a wide-ranging panel tracking consumer behavior, and fits with a well-known scientific finding that the presence of calcium decreases lead absorption in the body.
If nutritional interventions like greater milk consumption can be proven effective at scale, it would provide policy makers another weapon in combating the damage inflicted by lead poisoning. For the last few years, public commentatorshave called for a federal effort to clean up pollutants like lead, mercury, and smog from the vicinity of schools, often the legacy of nearby highways or long-closed industrial sites. While campaigning for the White House, Joe Biden proposed new spending to advance environmental justice by eliminating lead paint and pipes around the country.
Rudik said his study offered more evidence to an already strong case for the “unbelievable benefits” of a broad-based campaign to strengthen environmental protection.
“If you look at the recent literature, it basically says that the de-leading of gasoline in the 1900s is one of the most important things we could have done for public health. The nice thing about thinking about these pollution reductions is that it doesn’t just matter for education. It matters for a whole host of outcomes we care about — health, or even enjoying the outdoors — because pollution impacts all aspects of our life.”
Inside the New CDC Guidance on Reopening Classrooms: Masks and Social Distancing Key Safety Strategies, Vaccinations Not a Precondition for In-Person Learning
Students — even those in high school — can return to classrooms full time in communities with low to moderate spread of COVID-19 as long as schools enforce universal mask wearing and 6 feet of distance between students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday in updated school reopening guidance.
The agency also recommends handwashing, cleaning and contact tracing for all schools. But vaccinations for teachers, routine coronavirus testing and upgraded ventilation are “extra layers of support” that don’t have to be in place before schools reopen, said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
“The science has demonstrated that schools can reopen safely prior to all teachers being vaccinated,” she said, calling the new document a “long-needed roadmap” that was based on a thorough review of the science as well as input from parents, teachers and school leaders. “There’s more science to rely on, and we’ve learned a lot from that science.”
For example, while she recommends some cleaning of surfaces, “full fumigation” of classrooms isn’t necessary, she said: “I don’t believe the data suggests there is a lot of transmission that comes from surfaces to people.”
Grouping students into pods that stay together, using cafeterias and other common areas as classrooms and seating one child per row on a school bus are other highlighted strategies. The U.S. Department of Education released a companion handbook with additional examples.
“We need to get kids back in the classroom, and to do that, schools and educators need help,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, senior adviser for policy and planning at the department.
Education organizations, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, reacted positively to the guidance.
“With the new year, new Congress and new administration, we are greatly appreciative of the deliberate, coordinated and focused federal leadership on both prioritizing the physical reopening of schools and supporting schools in their work to do so,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
The guidance, which Walensky said was “free from political meddling,” comes after a week of mixed messages from the administration related to reopening schools and questions over whether President Joe Biden would side with teachers unions holding out for vaccines. In addition, the CDC guidance goes beyond Biden’s pre-inauguration pledge of reopening a majority of K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office by outlining guidelines that include in-person attendance for high school students.
“Infection, hospitalization and test positivity are down sharply. Vaccine distribution is ramping up,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The science shows that schools are not a significant source of contagion, and the devastating effects of closure have become increasingly clear.”
Hess was among those this week suggesting the administration had lowered the bar when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “open” means having at least 50 percent of teachers in classrooms “at least one day a week.”
He called Psaki’s statement “unconscionable” and described the administration’s position as “anti-science foot shuffling.”
On Wednesday, Psaki elaborated on the issue, noting that the administration was “not planning to celebrate at 100 days” if schools were open only one day a week.
“That is not the ceiling,” she said. “That is the bar we’re trying to leap over and exceed.”
According to Walensky, few counties across the U.S. — only about 5 percent — have transmission rates low enough to relax the 6-foot social distancing requirement.
A new color-coded system organizes schools into zones, ranging from blue for low risk of transmission — where there are nine or fewer cases among 100,000 people in a seven-day period — to red, where there are 100 or more positive cases per 100,000. The agency recommends full in-person learning for schools in blue and yellow zones and hybrid schedules for those in orange zones, where spread is substantial.
Red zone schools would fall into two groups. Those that regularly test students and staff for the coronavirus could have hybrid learning for all grade levels, but those that don’t should limit hybrid to the elementary grades and have middle and high school students learning remotely full time.
John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, tweeted that the categories could confuse people who are used to their own state’s colored tiers. In California’s blueprint, for example, counties where the risk of transmission is “widespread” are coded purple.
Teachers Unions Say They Need More COVID Tests Before Reopening Classrooms. But Experts Are Warning About the Limitations, Expense and Tradeoffs in Focusing on Swabs
Some districts have already announced that they don’t expect to reopen before the end of the school year. And Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, expects more to join the list “unless parents revolt.”
For months, parents across the country have lost patience with districts delaying the reopening of schools. Protests, lawsuits and angry outbursts at school board meetings have increased.
“Parents and families cannot operate in chaos,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a network of local parent advocacy organizations.
Biden, in a CBS interview last Sunday, described moms leaving the workforce because their children aren’t in school as “a national emergency.” But parents would need to continue to make child care arrangements or try to work from home if their children attend only school once or twice a week.
“Parents are looking for a plan, for stability and decision making based on science from public health officials,” Rodrigues said. “We can’t keep moving the goalposts and the metrics based on which way the political winds are blowing for the unions.”
Leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers say their members want to return to class, but demand testing and vaccines.
“We remain supportive of widespread testing — especially as mutant strains multiply in areas of uncontrolled community spread — and we urge the CDC to remain flexible as more data comes to light,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “The guidance is instructive for this moment in time, but this disease is not static.”
Scan the full guidance here:
Senate Committee Approves Miguel Cardona’s Nomination to Be the Next Education Secretary With 17-5 Vote
Miguel Cardona cleared a pivotal step toward becoming the next education secretary Thursday as the Senate’s education committee voted 17-5 to approve his nomination.
He is expected to receive a final Senate confirmation vote soon.
“Cardona has the background, qualification and temperament to serve as secretary of education,” said Sen. Richard Burr, the committee’s ranking Republican, in approving the nomination. “He’s stressed the need for students to be back in school, and that’s now, finally, a bipartisan mission.”
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray cited Cardona’s “clear qualifications” in advancing the nominee.
Vowing to “forge opportunity” out of the tragedy of the pandemic, Cardona faced mostly friendly questioning at last week’s confirmation hearing. (Read Linda Jacobson’s full recap of the hearing, which touched on issues of testing, reopening schools and transgender student rights). Click below to watch the full hearing:
See our rolling coverage of Cardona’s nomination and his previous work in Connecticut:
- December: Biden to tap Miguel Cardona as education secretary — a ‘big picture thinker’ popular with teachers who will lead 2021 push to reopen classrooms (Read the full report)
- A Rapid Ascent: For the second time In less than two years, Cardona is set to prove himself on a much larger stage. Is he ready for the ‘political headwinds’ he’d face as education secretary? (Read the full article)
- School Integration: Cardona’s role in Connecticut’s complex school desegregation efforts becomes focus: Will he give integration a national platform? (Read the full article)
- Higher Education: How Cardona could reverse college enrollment plunge for low-income kids — and help end the school culture wars (Read the full analysis)
- Student Voice: Dear Dr. Cardona — Student leaders demand a voice in Biden administration’s education policies as pandemic creates unprecedented disruptions (Read the full report)
Houston Schools to Vote on Dissolving Relationship With Youth Advocacy Group After Survey Shows Majority of Students Oppose Reopening
Strained relations between the Houston Independent School District and a six-year-old youth advocacy group have drawn attention to a constituency that some say has been neglected in recent debates over reopening schools — students.
When the district interviewed parents and teachers on school reopening issues, Student Congress — or StuCon — conducted its own survey. Roughly 3,000 students responded in the summer, when leaders were considering a plan to bring students back to the classroom in October. The results showed most students thought it was safer to continue the fall semester remotely.
The district is scheduled to vote this Thursday whether to sever its relationship with StuCon and establish a new district-sanctioned advisory council of students elected at each high school.
Students argue the district’s push to cut ties stems partly from the survey’s results running contrary to the district’s plan to reopen. The district maintains that participation in StuCon has dwindled and that its members don’t represent all of the district’s high schools.
“We have shed tears over this,” Kristian Salas, a senior at Eastwood Academy, said about the board’s proposal. “I was really surprised, and I was deeply saddened and disappointed that this came up at a time when the safety and mental health of students was very compromised.”
The future of the group’s relationship with the district comes as students across the country are seeking a greater voice in decisions about returning to school, particularly in places where the debate has pitted teachers against district leaders and parents.
In Montclair, New Jersey, students addressed the school board last week, complaining they’ve been caught between teachers who say it’s not safe to teach in person and the district, which is suing the teachers union over their failure to return. Students in Oregon’s Bend-La Pine Schools used Instagram to post their own demands on COVID-19 safety and students’ virtual access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. And at a rally in Berkeley, California, Saturday, students were among those protesting continued closures.
In Colorado’s Douglas County School District — where an effort is underway to recall four school board members over shifting reopening plans — a youth advisory group didn’t poll students on the issue until after the board had already made its decision to begin a hybrid schedule. The district held two town hall meetings for students but didn’t conduct its own student survey.
“The district seems to be paying no real attention to the largest stakeholders — students and teachers — and way too much attention to the opinions of parents,” said Castle View High senior Leigh Walden, who picked up 620 signatures on her own letter to the district in favor of sticking with remote learning.
Merrit Jones, senior adviser at StudentVoice, a nonprofit group devoted to inclusion of students in school policy, said that like adults, students are split over the issue. But she said it’s important to keep communication with students flowing, whether school is virtual or not.
“For some students, this is the first time they’ve attended a board meeting or gotten involved,” she said.
‘Saddened and disappointed’
StuCon’s involvement in education policy began six years ago. The group made headlines in 2015 when it submitted a brief to the Texas Supreme Court advocating for more school funding. It has also pushed for improved internet access for students and helped organize youth mental health workshops. But over time, the relationship between the administration and StuCon deteriorated.
The more recent state of affairs between StuCon and the district, where students now have the option of attending school in person, reflects a series of missed connections and unanswered emails, said Amy Fan, a 2016 district graduate and an alumni adviser to StuCon.
Fan said students reached out to district officials for help with recruitment, but staff members didn’t follow through. She said it wasn’t until the group released the survey that an administrator, in a post on the group’s Facebook page, asked for “a discussion and collaboration on communications and surveys that go out to the public.” Students were caught off guard by the district’s proposal to dissolve their relationship.
“They want to restrict what student voice can look like,” Fan said.
District leaders, for their part, said they’ve done their best and are ready to move on.
“This recommendation is not to silence our students but to ensure that all of our students across every trustee district and across all of our high schools have an opportunity for their voices to be heard,” Grenita Lathan, the district’s interim superintendent, said last week during a board meeting to review the upcoming agenda.
Fan conceded, however, that student participation is tilted more toward the district’s popular magnet schools, calling it “a problem that we don’t like and are working to fix.”
At the meeting last week, it was clear board members remain divided on reaching a compromise between StuCon and students interested in joining the new district-sanctioned council. While some members questioned whether the district had done all it could to support StuCon, others saw the resolution as an opportunity for broader input.
“At the core is how do we ensure authentic student voice in our district,” Trustee Sue Deigaard said in an interview. “It’s the kids’ lives that are impacted by our education system. Theirs is a very important perspective that we should be hearing in our work.”
Feb. 12 Update: The relationship between the Houston, Texas, school district and Student Congress — a youth advocacy organization — hasn’t ended yet. The school board voted 7-1 Thursday night to delay action on a resolution to sever the district’s relationship with the six-year-old group. The district proposed replacing StuCon with a new structure in which students would be elected at each of the district’s 45 high schools.
Several board members argued it would be a “learning experience” to work with StuCon and a separate group of students to organize a new system for student participation. “We’ve got two very vocal, engaged groups of students,” said Trustee Sue Deigaard The board approved Deigaard’s motion to table the matter until no later than August.
“We are pleased that they are willing to listen and gather more details,” senior Kristian Salas said, but added that he hopes the board members will “stick to their word as far as them wanting to work this issue out to advocate in the interest of the students.”
Digital Stories of Empathy, Entrepreneurial Tips Over Zoom and Beyoncé: Dispatches from 2021’s Black Lives Matter at School Week
After a summer in which millions of Americans took to the streets to protest racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd, students and teachers across the country this week took to their classrooms — whether virtual or in-person — to affirm that Black lives matter in school.
The national Week of Action, now in its fifth year, coincides with the first week of Black History Month. Organized by a national coalition of educators, the movement, according to its website, encourages teachers, students, parents, unions, and community organizations to engage in activities that address structural racism and affirm the identities of Black students.
“It is necessary to discuss, celebrate and center Black youth, always but now more than ever,” said Shalisa Gladney, coordinator of the Afro-American Cultural Center at the University of Iowa, in a press release published by Black Lives Matter at School-Iowa. “The Week of Action is a start.”
The national coalition shares an extensive archive of lesson plans and poster art for public use. Teachers can peruse an open-access Google Drive folder for math problems examining racial disparities in “Stop and Frisk” policing tactics, history lessons recounting reconstruction, or art projects creating afrofuturist worlds like “Wakanda” from the Black Panther movie.
After modest beginnings as an effort by Seattle educators to raise awareness of racial justice issues, the movement has gone national. This year, after the Black Lives Matter movement saw unprecedented levels of support, events, actions and and lessons took place all across the country, even as many educators were forced to get creative within the constraints of online learning.
Gladney’s local chapter of the BLM at School movement organized their own slate of virtual gatherings. Conversations ranged from Black mental health to a community discussion of young people’s most pressing needs, according to the organization’s schedule.
In the evening of Feb. 4, participants logged into a remote career day, and shared, via Zoom chat, their reasons for joining the session. Some had come for tips on the professional world. Others were there simply for the community.
Panelists included the co-founder of the “Black Enlightenment” app, the owner of a local boxing club, and a professor of gender and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada. As the conversation got underway, one student asked what factors the speakers took into consideration when they applied to college.
“Go away — wherever you are,” said Professor Valerie Taylor, who vouched for historically Black institutions like her alma mater, Howard University, but also advised students to consider far away options like Bates College in Maine. Those schools’ need for geographic diversity might give Iowa students an advantage when it comes to scholarship offers, she said. “You will grow…. You will meet people who are not from your world,” said Taylor.
As she spoke, another panelist shot a scholarship link into the meeting chat.
Howard University is a Center of Black Excellence: Here’s Why I Almost Didn’t Get the Chance to Attend
Another student on the call asked panelists for tips on how to navigate predominantly white areas and retain their sense of self-image. Iowa City, where the chapter is based, is about 75 percent white. Black students have used social media sites like the “Black at ICCSD” (Iowa City Community School District) Instagram page to document the harassment they endure daily at school.
A local teacher recalled her experience at a majority-white college where she would look around and think “I don’t see anybody that looks like me.” She persevered, and encouraged students that they could do the same.
“Just know that it is possible,” she told them.
New York City
In the nation’s largest school district, where 25 percent of students are Black, educators documented their planned events on social media, from “Black Superhero Movie Night” to a “‘You Matter’ Kids Summit.”
Some teachers, over Zoom, read picture books written by Black authors, such as Jake Makes a World, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, to their classes. Others streamed performances by Black musical artists — one class watched Jamila Woods on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series — on YouTube. One teacher even helped her students use a programming software to build interactive digital stories about empathy and inclusion.
At Middle School 35 in Brooklyn, students reflected on what education that affirms Black students might look like.
“We have to come together as a community and stand up against the racial issues that are in school,” said a student who signed as Holiday W.
Lessons From a Global Reckoning: Students’ Racial Backgrounds Largely Misrepresented on NYC Summer Reading Lists, Exclusive Analysis Reveals
In Providence schools, the student union set up an event schedule based on the list that the BLM at School national organization suggested. Michellet Brand, a high school senior and student union leader, appreciates that the sessions raise awareness about racial justice issues.
“It’s this really important time where we highlight Black Lives Matter,” she said. For youth who may not be familiar with concepts like structural racism, the sessions can “really open their eyes to see this perspective and these issues so that they can be a part of the change.”
In one memorable discussion on “diversity and globalism,” facilitators prompted students to reflect on the forces at play in social groupings. “What does diversity in school look like?” they asked. “Do you mostly spend your time in segregated places?”
That line of questions was enlightening for many students, said Brand, who is Hispanic.
“Not a lot of youth realize that, specifically with schools, segregation by law may be illegal, but it still happens,” she said. “It’s still a problem to this day.”
On top of thought-provoking conversations, PSU has included other events in their programming. They hosted a Feb. 4 watch party for the movie Miss Virginia, a 2019 film about an impoverished single Black mother whose struggle to help her son succeed in school leads her into the world of education activism, and plan to host another watch party for Beyoncé’s Black Is King visual album Feb. 5.
The group has harnessed social media to stay in touch with students. Via Instagram story, the young organizers remind youth about the film screenings. They also spur dialogue. On Friday, their story asked followers to respond by “describ[ing] one or more Black women you are connected to,” Brand said.
As important as all the “aha” moments may be, for Brand, the connections she makes with other students of color are the best part of the events, despite the fact that they’re on Zoom.
“Coming together as a community feels really great,” she Brand.
The rest of the year
Amid calls for schools serving majority-Black and Latino student populations to invest in “counselors not cops” in light of research showing unsettling racial gaps in the way campus officers perceive threats, the Week of Action also lined up with National School Counselors Week. Some staff, such as 2019 national school counselor of the year Brian Coleman, of Jones College Prep high school in Chicago, took to social media repping both.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, teachers across the country have mulled how to best navigate politically charged issues in the classroom. And despite the U.S. Office of Special Counsel having declared in July that support for the national ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is not partisan or political, a Fox News story on the BLM in School week emphasized the website’s inclusion of quotes from social activist Assata Shakur, who the outlet labels an “FBI most wanted terrorist.” After years working in the civil rights movement, Shakur was convicted of murder in 1977 then escaped prison two years later and remains a fugitive. Many observers, including activist icon Angela Davis, believe Shakur to be innocent and consider her case to be an example of the police brutality and racism many Black women suffer.
On the Black Lives Matter at School movement’s website, the quote from Shakur reads, “We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Alongside the passage, the organization emphasizes values such as “empathy,” “diversity,” and “fostering a queer‐affirming network” in its list of 13 guiding principles for the Week of Action.
Lessons from an Insurrection: A Day After D.C. Rampage, How 15 Educators From Across U.S. Helped Students Make Sense of the Chaos
And while Saturday marks the end of 2021’s national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, the organization makes it clear that the work does not end. “A week of action. A year of purpose. A lifetime of practice,” the website’s homepage declares as the movement’s motto.
Brand, in Providence, agrees: “Black Lives Matter should be 24/7/365.”