Updated: September 14, 2020
As schools across the country begin to reopen after the spread of COVID-19, there are f valid concerns about how to transition students into this school year. This includes the entire education continuum and every grade, but there is particular concern around students moving from one institution to another, such as from pre-K to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to postsecondary. Among the questions that need to be quickly answered in the days to come are:
Academic Requirements and Determining Promotion
Kansas, the first state to announce they would be closing schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, assembled the Continuous Learning Task Force to determine guidelines for districts moving forward as they attempt to deliver academic material to students from afar. The Task Force determined that students will have weekly assignments, projects, and video check-ins. The recommended guidelines for maximum daily student commitment are:
Regarding graduation requirements, seniors were still required to earn a minimum of 21 credits to graduate. However, this is the minimum requirement set by the Kansas State Board of Education, and many districts require more than the state requirement. The State Board of Education has recommended districts revert to the minimum credit requirement for last year’s students.
However, some states and districts did not grade students at all, and discouraged online learning in an attempt to prevent exacerbating inequities. Districts are choosing to label their online learning as enrichment, because if all students can’t access it, then they cannot require it. As a result, students will be advanced to the next grade regardless of what they have learned, an issue that administrators are just beginning to address. In addition to the typical “summer slide,” the learning loss students experience over summer vacation, there are now weeks of learning that students were never exposed to in the first place.
Michigan is one of the states that is not counting public schools’ online learning towards annual instructional hours, although private schools were able to do so. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction urged the legislature to change state law to allow public schools to count days out of school as instructional days in order to prevent schools from being required to extend their school year; this issue is still unresolved.
Many state assessments were canceled, with the U.S. Department of Education and President Trump announcing that states can apply for testing waivers that will exempt them from last year’s assessments. States that receive this waiver could also receive permission not to use standardized testing data in future school accountability ratings.
With the cancellation of STAAR Testing, Texas has allowed school districts to determine if students in grades five and eight are eligible for promotion based on teacher recommendations, student grades, and any other necessary academic information, as defined by the district. Similarly, districts will have the flexibility to determine if high school seniors have met the requirements for graduation under Texas Education Code §28.025(c), regardless of how many End of Course (EOC) assessments they have passed. Students taking one of the five courses with a corresponding STAAR EOC assessment that did not graduate e last year would not be responsible for meeting that EOC assessment graduation requirement if they earned course credit last school year.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has specified that the state will operate as if the cancelled assessments did not exist. K-12 school performance grades will not be calculated for 2019-20, and schools in turnaround will continue their current status for 2020-2021 school year. Graduating seniors that have not met the math and English testing requirements to graduate will receive a waiver for those tests. Students who are not seniors will still be responsible for receiving credit for that exam, or another higher-level assessment within that discipline, in order to graduate. In the younger grades, parents will have the option to hold their kids back a year if they so choose.
In Virginia, where all schools were closed for the remainder of the last academic year, students who were on track to advance to the next grade will be able to do so, regardless of their online work for the remainder of the school year. Guidance from the Virginia Department of Education recommends against grading any work students complete while schools are closed. Grade promotion decisions will be made at the local level, and local systems can waive graduation requirements so seniors who were on track to graduate can still do so. The guidance also recommends districts offer distance learning and summer school to students who could not receive teaching during the closure, adjust the 2020-21 school calendar, or incorporate curriculum from last year into this year’s schedule.
Supporting Students through Bridge Programs
With minimal online learning, no assessments, and students being promoted regardless of achievement or growth, many students will return to school this year performing significantly behind where they would normally be. This is concerning for all ages, but particularly for students going through institutional transitions such as pre-K to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, and high school to postsecondary. These students will need significant support in order to bring themselves to the level of academic preparedness needed to achieve on grade-level.
One solution is the mass implementation of bridge programs. Typically used to support students transitioning from high school to college who need some more academic support than their peers, bridge programs are two-to-four-week summer programs that offer accelerated academic coursework, academic advising, in-depth orientation to academic resources and expectations, and training in academic management and study skills.
States can consider advising that districts and postsecondary institutions return to school two-to-four weeks ahead of the typical academic calendar at all levels in order to support students through this transition. While the supports would look different for each level, it would typically include academic content – both review and new material – and orientation and training for the new level that students are in.
While it may be difficult to mandate these programs, states and districts can open the program to all while targeting students who may need more help than others. In addition to providing academic materials, bridge programs will provide students a return to the daily structure of school, something on which many students thrive. Effective programs would focus on building student confidence, core curriculum materials, and establishing crucial routines and learning skills.
If schools and districts implement these bridge programs, they can postpone their assessments until this school year in order to gauge student learning adequately and in the timeliest manner possible. This will not only allow schools to assess student learning, but will also do so in a more equitable manner, While some may prefer that testing be canceled altogether, a decent sampling of test scores will allow states and policymakers to have a mostly adequate set of data from which to base their decisions. These formative assessments will also allow teachers to more adequately prepare for the level at which their students are performing and respond accordingly.
One of the most important yet difficult challenges during these times will be attempting to minimize the inequities exacerbated by students being out of school. Students with special needs, food insecurities, lack of access to technology and internet, minimal support at home, and access to adequate nutrition will be disproportionately affected during this disruption.
Bridge programs will be one way to minimize these inequities. Districts can target the recruitment of students who fall into these categories, as well as students who have historically been identified as in need of targeted academic support. Students will earn credits towards their graduation as added incentive for their participation in these programs.