Briefly Stated: August 25, 2021

August 24, 2021 8 min read
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Biden Administration To Treat School Masks As Civil Rights Issue

The gloves have come off when it comes to masking schoolchildren.

The Biden administration stands ready to investigate civil rights complaints from families concerned that restrictions on masking in schools violate their children’s rights to a free and appropriate public education, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said last week.

The statement came the same day that President Joe Biden directed the U.S. Department of Education to “use all available tools to ensure that governors and other officials are providing a safe return to in-person learning for the nation’s children.”

“This isn’t about politics,” Biden said in a White House address. “It’s about keeping our children safe. It’s about taking on the virus together, united. I’ve made it clear that I will stand with those who are trying to do the right thing.”

The Education Department’s office for civil rights may take action if state policies mean that children with medical vulnerabilities such as respiratory illnesses or weakened immune systems cannot safely attend school during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cardona said.

“The Department will also receive and respond as appropriate to complaints from the public, including parents, guardians, and others about students who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus-transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures,” he wrote.

The assertion comes as the administration takes an increasingly aggressive posture toward states that have prohibited districts from setting universal mask mandates. Many of the nine states that ban such requirements also have surging virus cases and hospitalizations as a result of low vaccination rates and the spread of the more-contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.

Cardona wrote to Republican governors and education commissioners in Florida and Texas last week, warning them that federal officials would bypass the states and work directly with districts to implement mask requirements. He said districts that face financial penalties for requiring masks could backfill those financial losses with federal COVID-19 aid if it was necessary to keep students safe.

Analysis Finds Many States Have Left Schools Dangling About How They Can Reopen Safely

You’re on your own, folks, except when state officials want to play their political hands in the COVID-19 theater.

That’s the conclusion—though not in those words—drawn by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which reviewed all states’ guidance between July 29 and Aug. 6 on reopening schools.

They found a patchwork of varying, and sometimes incomplete, directives on issues like universal mask requirements, plans for remote learning, and tracking teacher vaccinations. That has left many schools with big questions about how to start the school year and even bigger concerns about maintaining public trust, especially as virus rates climb.

“They have not positioned districts to prepare for all that might confront local school systems over the next year,” said Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at CRPE, a research center based at the University of Washington, Bothell.

Even as some regions across the country with low vaccination rates see climbing case counts and hospitalizations, few states have provided guidance about when and if schools should suspend in-person learning.

Just five states—Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, and Rhode Island—provided specific health indicators or benchmarks to guide reopening decisions.

Even without official policies about returning to full-time remote learning, schools in some areas have experienced de facto closures as hundreds or even thousands of students have been forced to quarantine a week or two into the school year.

Many states have provided even less guidance on creating remote learning plans than they did last year, the analysis found. Eight states—Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia—have restricted what types of virtual learning districts can offer. And seven states provided no recommendations at all for how schools should structure remote learning options.

Perhaps the most attention-getting state moves have related to requiring—or prohibiting masks in schools.

CRPE counts nine states that have banned such mandates and 10 that have mandated them.

Many Feared a COVID-Fueled Educator Exodus; It Doesn’t Seemed to Have Happened—as of Yet

It looks like the great educator exodus that many had predicted because of COVID-19 hasn’t occurred. At least not yet, finds a survey of district leaders released last week by the RAND Corp.

Superintendents surveyed in June and early July estimated that only 6 percent of their principals and teachers retired or resigned at the end of the 2020-21 school year, a proportion those superintendents said was in line with prepandemic years.

Those findings run counter to surveys conducted last year during the first wave of the pandemic indicating that teachers and principals may quit in large numbers amid health and safety concerns, job-related stress, and uncertainty tied to the pandemic.

In an August 2020 survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, for example, 45 percent of school leaders who responded said they were considering leaving the profession earlier than planned because of the pandemic.

RAND suggests the Big Quit could still happen due to stress and other pandemic-related issues.

The survey results were not uniform. While superintendents reported teacher and principal retirements and resignations akin to prior years, most districts that reported higher teacher attrition were majority-white and rural.

Principal turnover was significantly higher in rural districts. But RAND cautioned against assigning too much weight to those results because of the small number of rural schools in the sample size.

Teacher attrition, meanwhile, was lower in districts serving larger numbers of students from low-income families.

What made those who stayed stick around? Some teachers may be hesitant to leave a stable job during an economically uncertain time. That could change once the economy rebounds, RAND suggested.

And RAND also warns that the reasons why teachers said they were thinking about leaving—including stress—should still worry district leaders as the pandemic continues.

Among superintendents surveyed, 46 percent said they planned to quit over the next two to five years. Three percent said they planned to leave at the end of the last school year, and 8 percent intended to exit during the current academic year.

D.C.’s Education Overhaul Helped Black Students

Over the past decade, the District of Columbia school system has seen many major changes, from open enrollment and a burgeoning charter sector to overhauled teacher evaluation and pay systems.

A new Mathematica study suggests no single change, but all of them together, spurred public schools in the nation’s capital to improve faster than states and county districts that didn’t use so-called market-based education reforms since the 1990s.

“We really focus on the overall picture rather than trying to break it into individual components,” said Duncan Chaplin, a senior researcher at Mathematica, who co-authored the study with researchers Dallas Dotter and Maria Bartlett. “The improvements in grade 4 were very impressive, and they didn’t fade out by grade 8.” Nor did they “fade out over years,” of implementing the policies.

Chaplin said the study provides evidence in favor of market-based education reforms that have gained traction in many urban districts. Still, the results also highlight potential pitfalls for less high-profile districts attempting to copy the capital city’s formula. Also, the study did not examine some reforms, such as the Common Core State Standards, that overlapped with the market-based changes.

The study spans close to 20 years: five waves of 4th and 8th graders before reforms began in 2007 and three waves of students afterward. Researchers used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to compare the achievement of students in the District of Columbia to that of two separate groups—one of states and one of counties.

During that time, the District of Columbia also saw an influx of more white and higher-income students. Nonetheless, the researchers found D.C. students—and Black students in particular—made much faster academic progress compared to states and counties that did not implement the same collection of education changes.

Latino students, as well as white students also fared better.

Groups Pushing Cardona to Refuse Testing Waivers

Civil rights and other groups make no bones about it. Don’t hand out any more testing waivers, they’re telling the U.S. Department of Education.

In a letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona last week, the 15 civil rights, business, and education groups said they want him to detail his plans for testing for the 2021-22 school year.

“It is more important than ever to collect valid, reliable, comparable, statewide data on student achievement and use that information to help improve low-performing schools and close achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic,” the letter says.

The push—from organizations including the Center for American Progress, Chiefs for Change, the National Parents Union, the Education Trust, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation—follows two years of disruption in school assessment and accountability as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to test specific grades annually and to use those results, along with indicators like graduation rates, to identify and support low-performing schools.

The Education Department gave states a blanket waiver from those requirements in 2020 after schools around the country rapidly switched to remote learning in the early months of the pandemic.

Cardona required states to conduct tests in 2020-21, citing the need for data on student achievement, but he allowed for such targeted waivers as delaying testing and allowing fewer students to take the tests. As a result, supporters of assessment said they were concerned about the reliability and consistency of the 2021 results.

The letter asks for assurances that no ESSA waivers would be granted this year.

“Our fear is that the loss of equity guardrails provided by transparent student-testing data may result in a return to the days when inequitable outcomes for students of color, English-learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income backgrounds were easily swept under the rug,” the letter says.

Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; and Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed


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