The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders Webinar Recap: Student Transitions

August 20, 2020

“The hearts of educators lie in helping their students. Superintendents, teachers, bus drivers, food service employees, have all stepped up. I marvel at the creativity we’ve seen from educators across the country as they address COVID-19 challenges.”
– Laura Fornash, Senior Vice President, McGuireWoods Consulting

COVID-19 has revealed the severe inequities Americans see in several aspects of life, and many of those topics have dominated national public discourse, particularly over the past six weeks. Among those topics is the question around student transitions amid a pandemic. With students across the continuum being away from the classroom for several months and, in that period, likely suffering great learning loss, what comes next? How can we support students as they transition from one grade to the next, or from one part of the continuum to the next? In that transition, how can we ensure that students will be equipped to advance their education, despite severe disruption coming from the pandemic? Questions regarding student transitions were the key themes of the latest installment of Homeroom with Education Leaders, as The Hunt Institute sat down with Laura Fornash of McGuireWoods Consulting and former Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia, State Superintendent Carey Wright of Mississippi (Dr. Wright), and State Superintendent Eric Mackey of Alabama (Dr. Mackey) to discuss ways to ensure smooth transitions for students in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.

Inequities Revealed in Transitions

“We are worried about students that don’t have supports at home or are in bad situations at home and don’t have the teacher that generally serves as a support system.”
– Dr. Eric Mackey, State Superintendent of Education, Alabama

Soon after states mostly shut down their economies in response to the pandemic, state education agencies were forced to pivot quickly from in-person to online instruction and had to also consider whether to close school buildings for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year. Little time passed before states began making calls to close their physical classrooms for the remainder of the year, and Kansas, Virginia, and Alabama were among the first states to make that difficult call. As mentioned by Dr. Mackey, some districts in Alabama were well-equipped for this dramatic transition; each well-equipped district possessed strong broadband networks and had rich supplies of technology to complement remote learning. Some districts, however, did not have the resources to prepare for this transition, and with supply chains under stress following the shutdown in the U.S., they entered a period of uncertainty regarding what comes next.

The inequities in broadband and technological access are not unique to Alabama. In Mississippi, the legislature responded quickly to these inequities through the passage of bills that provided funding to increase technological access, expand the state’s broadband infrastructure, and expand tele-health and tele-therapy services. In Virginia, state leadership acted quickly in response to these inequities in broadband and technological access, working with public radio and television stations to provide instructional supports to students lacking adequate broadband in their communities.

Creating Solutions to Address Challenges Regarding Transitions

“We need to start with grade-level standards, focusing on accelerating learning, not remediating learning. If you pick up last year’s standards, you’ll be behind forever – you’ll never catch up.”
– Dr. Carey Wright, State Superintendent of Education, Mississippi

A key point of agreement was that focusing on preventing negative long-term consequences is a priority. Dr. Carey Wright built on this point by emphasizing the need to keep pushing kids forward and prevent remedial education when possible, citing research indicating that oftentimes, the remedial approach does not help.

Additionally, Laura Fornash, who has had an extensive career in K-12 and higher education policy and governance, stressed the need to engage families on student transitions, point students to different postsecondary pathways, like dual enrollment, that can help them prepare and transition to the next steps in their educational journeys, and push students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), citing trends revealing that states that increase their FAFSA completion rates experience greater higher education enrollment rates.

Also discussed was the need to meet the social-emotional needs of students. In Alabama, the legislature has provided funding for each school in the state to have at least one school counselor. This work, as noted by Dr. Mackey, is a small step in addressing the social-emotional stresses rooted in the fear from the pandemic, food insecurity, and other difficulties.

Panelists additionally stressed the need to have the voices of those on the ground at the table. In Mississippi, Dr. Wright has convened a Superintendent’s Advisory Council and a Student’s Advisory Council, listening to a wide variety of voices so she can understand how the Mississippi Department of Education can best serve all stakeholders.

Looking Ahead: Preparing for a Difficult Academic Year

“Communicating with parents is important – opportunities to Zoom with teachers, principals – so they can really understand what it is their children will be doing in schools.”
– Laura Fornash, Senior Vice President, McGuireWoods Consulting

What the 2020-2021 academic year will look like is still unknown, but policymakers and stakeholders understand that preparing for this coming academic year will require the need to adapt to ever-changing conditions and guidance. No matter what happens beginning this fall, schools will need significant funding, resources, and supports so that students can advance in their work and their needs will be met.

As stated by Fornash, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Mackey, funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) have been critical in helping states and districts stay afloat during the pandemic, but as calls for new rounds of federal funding are amplified, Congress will need to respond by helping states and districts support their personnel with the resources needed to serve their students and schools. Additionally, policymakers and stakeholders will need to think about the solutions, like broadband expansion, that will help states and districts both during the pandemic and in the long-term.

The COVID-19 pandemic creates immense challenges for students in transition; the pandemic also brings opportunities for policymakers to create much-needed solutions that are urgent in the present and necessary in the long-term. If those solutions are developed and implemented on a grand scale, students, families, and educators may see improvements in the transition process unlike anything seen in the past, improvements of which will hopefully enhance the educational journeys of all students in the long-term.

View the complete webinar below:

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