Amidst COVID-19, what will fall look like for public schools?

As we mentioned last week, the coronavirus has caused everyone in education to adjust to what learning looks like for millions of students around the nation, and a huge part of that everyone are state and district elected and appointed officials who oversee the K-12 education system. 

At first questions for them focused on what this spring would look like: will schools administer exams? will students return to the classroom in April or May? will seniors get to walk across the stage? However, now questions loom over the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the 2020-2021 academic school year that begins in the fall. 

If we look at the state-by-state map of school building closures provided by Education Week, we notice that 23 states and territories have been ordered or recommended to remain closed through the academic school year and a vast majority of states that hope to return to the classroom will not do so until near the end of April. What might these closures mean for the fall?

Firstly, school closures and the enforcement of public health guidelines have persuaded all 50 states and other U.S. territories to cancel, suspend, or postpone statewide assessments that would normally take place in the spring. This could potentially translate into not only a missed opportunity for students to flex their brain muscles but also a missed season of valuable performance measures and data which would be utilized to better evaluate student learning, curriculum effectiveness, and education leadership and provide informed recommendations for the 2020-2021 school year. As stakeholders of a Hispanic community that values education, the availability of these data and measurements help us become even better engaged stakeholders. 

Secondly, we know that the COVID-19 response measures have led to discussions by state and district leaders to extend educational opportunities into the summer, which may prove a worthwhile benefit to vulnerable student groups, but now new discussions have emerged from which some are suggesting that students, particularly low-income, low-performing Title I elementary students, should remain in their current grade and, ideally, return to the familiarity of their current teacher when school reopens in the fall. There is no question that this suggestion from Mr. Petrilli is bold and uncomfortable for most (me included), but his suggestion caused me to reflect on certain areas that we as the Hispanic evangelical community often overlook when we think about education. For example, we often forget that educational achievement is more than just “pass” or “fail,” more than just making it to the next grade, but it is about entering into the next grade prepared for the next level and stages of academic rigor. Additionally, education involves more than just a child being physically present in the classroom; he or she must also be there emotionally and mentally. As we think about our students returning to the classroom this fall, as we consider the emotional, financial, and relational stresses that students and their families have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also think about the capacity of schools in underserved communities to extend resources that meet the social, emotional and mental health needs of their children.

Finally, school closures and public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic have tested the education system’s capacity to implement and manage distance and on-line learning.  This week, to best meet the needs of students and educators during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced a new streamlined process for providing states funding flexibilities, authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to allow schools to repurpose existing K-12 education funds for technology infrastructure and teacher training on distance learning, as well as move resources to areas of highest need. Technological infrastructure and training are a must for our schools, for as one Politico Pro (behind paywall) story notes, the “rollout of remote learning has been a disaster in many spots in the U.S., as school districts scramble to train teachers in unfamiliar technology, wrestle with federal regulations and find computers to hand out to kids who don’t have them at home.” While some schools in the U.S. might be struggling, I have no doubt that by the end of this spring and into the summer months, schools all around the nation will have built up a greater capacity for remote learning. What does that mean for the fall? Will there be continued use of virtual-learning resources by some districts to support at-home learning? Will Hispanic parents who have enjoyed spending more time with their kids continue with remote-learning at home? Will new types of “public schools” and “public school teachers” emerge that become experts in remote learning? Who is to know?

Although we know that the current health and safety guidelines and the COVID-19 pandemic can’t last forever, there is no telling how much longer we will be forced to cope with and respond to their effects on the education system. Nonetheless, I take confidence in the fact that we serve a mighty God who equips leaders with wisdom and vision for such a time as this, and also for the forthcoming academic year.

Forward and higher in Christ, 

Rev. Girien R. Salazar
Executive Director, FE Coalition