School district leaders from around the U.S. rethink education, emphasize online learning

May 29, 2020

Education leaders discuss challenges through the pandemic during a New Teacher Center Superintendents' Roundtable on May 28, 2020.

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As education leaders mull how to bring students back to schools safely, they are also wrestling with how to better educate children who were falling behind before the pandemic.

Access to computers and the internet, especially in so-called “digital deserts,” is key to the long-term success of students, said the leaders of five of the largest districts in the country. Mike Magee, CEO of the Chiefs for Change,network of 40 superintendents from diverse backgrounds, political perspectives and regions throughout the nation, said expanding access to devices and the internet to all students is a top priority for his organization.

The group discussed how they are serving students now and what they need going forward during a virtual Superintendents’ Roundtable hosted by the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization focused on improving teacher training.

In a matter of weeks after schools closed due to the coronavirus, the leaders of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the New York City Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, Oakland Unified and Stockton Unified got online education programs up and running, the districts’ respective superintendents said Thursday. While these efforts were largely successful, the education leaders said barriers included limited access for some students that exacerbated existing academic gaps and the need to quickly train teachers in a new way of delivering instruction, while also striving to meet students’ social and emotional needs.

Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of Oakland Unified, said her district is focusing on teacher training with the idea that everyone is learning right now, including veteran educators who may not be comfortable with technology or who have trouble building strong relationships with students. Teachers, she said, must be encouraged to innovate, make mistakes and keep trying in the face of adversity.

“Teaching is an art and a science,” she said. “We need to figure out how to take quality teaching practices and translate them to virtual settings.”

Although the district is looking at budget cuts next year, Johnson-Trammell said it must focus on “reductions with students first and equity in mind” while investing in “supporting teachers as learners.” It’s critical, she said, to view this as “a learning moment if we want to have a different system at the end of this.”

The leaders also agreed that it is important to forge partnerships with local organizations and businesses to fill funding gaps. Oakland Unified, for example, created an “Oakland Undivided” campaign to close the digital divide by supplying computers and internet access to 25,000 Oakland students and their families, which has already raised $12.5 million.

Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, said her staff is creating an online curriculum and has accelerated teacher training, “discarding things that don’t work because students can’t access them.”

The leaders agreed that schools cannot return to what was considered “normal” in the fall. Instead, they said school officials must seize this moment to rethink education with an eye toward creating a more equitable system that will meet the academic and social and emotional needs of all students, including those who are low-income, homeless and suffering from trauma in their homes and communities. Distance learning, they agreed, is likely to continue next year.

“There were a lot of kids in crisis before this most recent crisis,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “…It took a health crisis for some to recognize that we needed to address that.” 

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, speaks during a Superintendents’ Roundtable on May 28, 2020.

John Deasy, superintendent of Stockton Unified, said it’s important to find ways for students to connect with each other socially, as well as academically, during remote learning. The school closures, he said, have made him realize “how corrosive isolation could be,” especially in poor communities.

Academically, he said, students will need intensive tutoring to help make up for lost instruction, as well as to close the achievement gap. 

“My biggest worry is that there’s a rush to go back to normal,” he said. “And I think that is very worrisome because normal wasn’t serving all youth — not even close to it.”

McGee is lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to change a regulation that currently prohibits districts from distributing devices or internet connectivity purchased with federal E-Rate federal dollars to students for use in their homes. Currently, all E-Rate funding must be used to improve connectivity at schools and libraries.

“The FCC could change that overnight and it would make a big difference,” he said.

Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, who previously headed up school districts in Houston and San Francisco, said his greatest fear is that policymakers who control education budgets may not be concerned about equity and may “hatchet away our budget.” But Carranza said “we’re going to need all of it” to provide internet connectivity, teacher training in distance learning and supports for students who live in poverty and are experiencing an academic slide that “is really accelerating.”

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, participates in a virtual Superintendents’ Roundtable on May 28, 2020.

He is also concerned about how the coronavirus can affect children and how they could spread it even though they don’t have symptoms. Carranza said he and other school leaders across the nation are considering how the potential to spread the virus affects classroom configurations, transportation and the roles of each person in the district.

“We’re rethinking everything we do,” he said. “There are no sacred cows, because sacred cows make the best burgers in this kind of an environment. Everything’s on the table.”

Carvalho said his district plans to tackle learning loss “for kids who have been underwater for a long time” with virtual tutoring during the summer. “If we wait until August,” he said, “the depth of the cliff will be even greater.”

The leaders all warned that current budget constraints caused by the economic crisis will impede their ability to provide the kinds of resources schools will need to help students overcome the learning loss they have experienced over the last three months since the pandemic virtually shutdown most schools nationwide. Funding is also needed to make schools safe for students and staff to return to, they added.

It is important to make federal and state officials aware of inequities that have existed between students in affluent and poor communities for generations, creating “opportunity gaps” that require more money to solve, they said.

In addition, the leaders said “emergency” modifications to regulations that allowed schools to distribute food from the federal food program to all students no matter which school they attend should be made permanent because they give schools the flexibility they need to feed all students. 

Districts are also looking for flexibility in the number of days and hours of instruction required as they consider distance learning or a hybrid of blended learning options, said McGee, whose organization released a report earlier this month called “The Return,” which looked at how schools may restructure in new ways in the fall. Districts are considering how they can “accelerate learning” so students can catch up on what they’ve missed and “redefine the roles and responsibilities of every adult in their system” to provide more technical support, as well as academic, social and emotional support, he said. 

The leaders stressed the importance of building teams of adults who can support students’ diverse needs, instead of relying heavily on one classroom teacher. These teams could include lead teachers with curriculum expertise, along with those who could work with small groups, tutors, social workers, counselors, technology experts, nurses and other support staff, as well as after-school program and community organization staff, they said. 

Besides supporting the emotional needs of students, Chicago’s Jackson and other leaders said they are also focusing on supporting their employees, who may experience fear and trauma related to the coronavirus. 

“I think there are things we can’t even anticipate that we will be faced with,” Jackson said, adding that her district is committed to training staff in responding to student behaviors triggered by trauma. “This is a crisis like none other. We can’t discount what our educators are going to be feeling and experiencing coming back into space they may not feel is safe, after being isolated for months… We have to take care of the adults so they can take care of the children. That’s the place we’re leaning in on because we think that’s going to give us the biggest bang for our buck to deal with this.”

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