Our first episode guests were Superintendent Mark Johnson of North Carolina, Superintendent James Lane of Virginia, Superintendent Molly Spearman of South Carolina, and Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP. They focused their discussion on what states are doing as they consider the learning that students are missing out on during this time off from school, and what can be done to address that once they return. Dan Weisberg pointed out that teachers, principals, and all staff are really stepping up right now. They have all shifted drastically to deliver high-quality instruction online as much as possible, and are learning how to cater to student needs in a new way. However, no one could be truly prepared for the scope of this challenge, and the reality is that most students are not getting the same services they would be if physically at school. Instruction and feedback are getting better by the week, but the learning experience is still not at the same level they would have in school. Dan outlined three steps that will be crucial for getting students back on track:
So what are these three states doing to meet those goals? Plenty. While it’s constantly changing and evolving work, state leaders are working to provide districts with the information and guidance they need to best serve their students. This begins with thinking about the existing equity gaps that have been exacerbated and brought to the forefront by the pandemic. As Superintendent Johnson pointed out, the first equity gaps that showed during this crisis already existed—the connectivity gap. Students’ learning experience right now depends heavily on internet and technological access, and this can be influenced by a number of factors, including socioeconomic status and geography. Many states have made significant, sweeping efforts to provide students and families with devices and hotspots at free or reduced rates, which is significant. However, many companies are now on backorder for hotspots, and one device only does so much in a family with multiple children and parents working remotely. Additionally, students, particularly younger students, cannot be expected to focus on screens for hours a day, meaning that there must be alternate learning opportunities available to serve them.
With this in mind, state superintendents are realizing that students are not receiving the same level of instruction they were receiving before schools closed. So now, as Superintendent Lane pointed out, states and districts are thinking about how to use summer and fall 2020 to help students catch up. Some of the questions that arise from this include: what are schools doing to document instruction students miss? Where can we adjust school calendars to make up for lost time? How can districts use summer months to help student learning? And how do we do all of this while prioritizing the health and safety of students and their families?
One tool that all three states are using is the creation of targeted task forces that will work to create a vision for education in both the short- and long-term. These task forces will focus on developing plans for remote learning as well as how schools should respond once students return to school buildings. These task forces can take many forms, even within individual states. Virginia, for example has task forces for current learning, recovery learning, accreditation, and social and emotional learning. These task forces are crucial moving forward—one point that all four panelists stressed is that planning over the summer will be crucial, even more so than usual. In addition to extensive, thoughtful, and organized planning at the state level, educators need to be given as many opportunities as possible to develop material and collaborate during the summer planning period. School and district leaders also need to take this opportunity to think about the logistics of returning to school. When we think about students entering new buildings, such as kindergarteners, sixth graders, and ninth graders, as well as highly-mobile student populations, how do districts plan for how many students will be in a classroom, how effective social distancing can occur in these classrooms, and will strong remote learning be an option if social distancing is not feasible?
Another key consideration is the education of certain groups of students, such as students with disabilities and English language learners. In addition to concerns of technology, internet access, and instructional quality, these groups of students typically need more targeted, direct instruction that is much more difficult to deliver remotely. Districts are working tirelessly to provide these students with the tools they need. For example, Virginia has partnered with a Spanish-speaking radio station to offer Spanish language instruction over the radio for the remainder of the school year—the feed can be accessed via a call-in number or over the internet. In the words of Superintendent Lane, “we need to ensure students and teachers are connected and we also need to use available funding to provide devices and supports necessary for student success.” Superintendent Spearman also discussed South Carolina’s efforts to give districts flexibility when it comes to educating students with disabilities. South Carolina is allowing one-on-one or small group instruction for students with disabilities so long as social distancing is practiced. Many of these students would not be able to learn efficiently if these flexibilities weren’t allowed.
One commonality between all four panelists was their optimism about the future. All acknowledged that while we are going through an event that is unprecedented, and the health and safety of students and their families is a constant, pressing concern, we have also been presented with an opportunity that we have never had before. If states are able to take a step back and begin asking themselves what is next, we can work to develop meaningful systems that set our students up for success through critical thinking, collaboration, and skill development.
All of our panelists—Dan Weisberg of TNTP, Superintendent Mark Johnson of North Carolina, Superintendent James Lane of Virginia, and Superintendent Molly Spearman of South Carolina—had great insights into what their states are doing and plan to do to support student learning throughout and following school closures. We are grateful for their partnership, and we are grateful for the work that everyone in the education community is putting into responding to these rapidly evolving measures.
Watch the complete webinar here: