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School districts use a variety of tactics to keep learning on track

Educators say districts should seize the opportunity to create a new, better system for students and families.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In Los Angeles, the plan is to offer summer courses to any student who wants to sign up.

In Austin, more than 100 school buses with WiFi capabilities were deployed to apartment complexes and neighborhoods with clusters of families lacking internet access.

Charlotte-Mecklesburg and San Francisco, among other districts, opted to keep learning nondigital for children in the early grades, instead sending home printed materials.

And multiple districts began partnering with local television stations to offer educational programming.

In recent weeks, urban districts responding to the COVID-19 crisis scrambled to salvage the school year and at the same time began imagining how to serve students across typically dormant summer months and into the fall. Adaptability seemed to be the mantra as the spring semester limped to a close, and school leaders began mulling options for delivering instruction in – or out – of school come fall.

“We have to have a recovery plan for education,” Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, told the Washington Post. “I’m really worried that people think schools and colleges just flipped to digital and everything’s fine and we can just return to normal. That’s simply not the case.”

All districts were focused on keeping students engaged with their teachers, schools, and academics. But educators debated what should be expected of students and how to track their participation and evaluate the work they produced.

Multiple districts, including Philadelphia, adopted a “do no harm” approach to grading.

Los Angeles decided to record whatever the grades were when school closed in March, but added an incentive: grades could be improved by doing assignments and taking tests. Seattle, to much debate, opted to give all students an A.

In Long Beach, Calif., report cards were eliminated for elementary students for the second semester, students in grades 6-8 were to receive pass/fail final grades and students in grades 9-12 were to receive credit/no credit, with a chance to improve by doing work in June. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) polled districts and found about 40% of those responding were not grading this term.

CRPE researchers cautioned that this approach has its pros and cons. While “taking a more forgiving stance on grading now might alleviate stress for some students and administrators,” they wrote, “months of uneven expectations for student learning could create more inequitable outcomes in the long run.”

Some districts made it clear that they were looking to create a more accountable system for the fall.

“I anticipate a more robust and formalized attendance and participation accountability, as well as a reconsideration of the credit/no credit grading policy,” Long Beach Assistant Superintendent Pamela Seki said in an email to the Urban Educator publication.

The CPRE researchers suggested that educators go a step further. “School systems may want to use this time to consider innovative ways to track student progress, give feedback on student work, and refocus on deeper learning and mastery,” they wrote.

Fear of regression

A big concern was over regression – students losing the skills and knowledge they had accumulated. So-called “summer slide” is a known phenomenon, and particularly affects students in low-income communities.

The fears were that a slide after six months without traditional school would be more pronounced and serve to exacerbate inequity.

The Los Angeles school system, second largest in the country, announced plans to offer summer school online to all students, which “we’ve never done before,” as Austin Beutner, superintendent, told the LAist website. There will be three options: credit recovery and intervention for high-need students, instruction in core subjects in grades pre-K through 12, and enrichment opportunities.

Students might learn ukulele or guitar, in a partnership with Fender guitar company, or do virtual visits to zoos and libraries.

Summer offerings were limited in the past by budget constraints but not this year. “We are going to provide the funding because there’s a ton of research that shows that learning gaps are problematic for students,” Buetner said.

Buetner also expressed uncertainty whether the city’s schools would reopen or whether the fall term would continue as a remote-learning venture.

Solutions from abroad

Districts have examples from abroad as they consider options for reopening schools. Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera cited Israel, which resumed in-person instruction in the early grades by capping classes at 15 students, and issuing them masks and hand cleaners.

Austria’s plan has gained notice: students are split into two groups, with one attending school Monday to Wednesday and the other Thursday and Friday, then swapping the following week. Under this arrangement, all students get five days of in-class instruction over the two weeks.

In Taiwan, students have their temperatures taken, use hand sanitizer and step in a solution to sterilize shoes as they arrive. They wear masks all day except at lunch at their desks, where they are protected from infection by plastic barriers that separate one student from the next.

Denmark, among other countries, instituted social distancing, smaller classes and increased emphasis on hand washing and disinfecting of common places, including bathrooms.

One trend has been the creation of partnerships with local television stations to offer educational programming. The Fort Worth and Dallas districts joined with Univision to launch Unidos para Aprender (Together to Learn), 58 minutes of instruction in Spanish five days a week for students in grades pre-K through 5.

The plan was for teachers from both Texas districts to create content and host the programming including lessons in science, physical education, social studies, art, music, math, and social and emotional learning.

Other districts including San Diego, Memphis, Indianapolis, Chicago and Cleveland also were utilizing televised educational programming. New York announced a partnership with the WNET Group.

Providing meals and internet access

In numerous districts, bus drivers became key to delivering not only food, but instructional packets and even internet services. In Austin, the buses were dispatched to neighborhoods identified as lacking WiFi.

The Duval County, Fla., school system, which includes Jacksonville, dubbed its effort the “Big Yellow Lunch and Learn” program with drivers dispatched along regular routes. That district’s free-lunch program – like those in countless other districts – has expanded in scope this spring and now includes dinner. And a bonus: Many of the lunch and dinner options can be heated at home – including turkey meatball subs and make-your own chicken nachos.

The Dallas school system won kudos for its quick transition to remote learning. Students in 20 high schools were already taking devices home as part of the rollout of a year-old strategic plan and Chromebooks to all students in grades 6-12 were distributed in March. Also that month, the school board approved up to $2.5 million for mobile hotspots after a survey showed 30% of households lacked internet access.

Those twin issues – lack of laptops and lack of internet – have stymied remote learning plans in numerous districts.

Chicago distributed 100,000 devices and set up 12,000 hotspots. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the teachers’ union, noted collaboration by all stakeholders to make on-the-fly adjustments. But, she told the Chicago Sun-Times, “We need to start rethinking how school is done, period. Our priority in this moment is how do we begin to close these equity gaps.”

Gordon, the CEO in Cleveland, echoed Davis Gates’ view. About 40% of households in Cleveland lack reliable high-speed internet and two-thirds of households are without a computer suitable for education.

“My peers across the country are dealing with the same thing,” he said in an online forum on the issue. “But Cleveland is really ground zero.”

In the digital age, he argued, internet access should be treated like a utility, not a luxury.

Gordon is chair of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 76 urban systems, which has called on Congress to pass a relief package that would, among other concerns, result in a long-term solution to that inequity.

Rethinking selective admissions

The pandemic has also highlighted other policies that can drive inequity.

In New York City, among many issues raised by the crisis, one in particular may reverberate in Philadelphia. The question, not immediately resolved, was how to select incoming students for that city’s most competitive public schools, so-called “screened” middle and high schools, since three key indicators – attendance, state tests and grades – all have been eliminated from consideration this semester.

Advocates seeking more diversity in those schools who have lobbied for an overhaul of the selection process see this interruption as a chance for the city to do just that.

Student activists who have pushed for change were wary but hopeful. “It is incredibly frustrating that it took a pandemic,” Emma Rehac, a high school senior, told Chalkbeat. “Now people are looking at all these solutions that we’ve been organizing around. They are always urgent, not just now.”

Educators say they are considering all options. But, said Gordon, it is inevitable that school will look different “for the foreseeable future.” He mentioned solutions including online learning, staggered times or days, and letting students advance as they master concepts rather than proceed through school in lockstep grade by grade.

And he warned that policymakers should not rush to “put things back” to pre-coronavirus practices. “I’m worried,” he said, “that the opportunity to create something new and better for students and families is going to be lost.”