Education

Briefly Stated: February 7, 2024

February 06, 2024 8 min read
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200-Plus Districts Sue Social Media Companies

E More than 200 school districts have now sued major social media companies over the youth mental health crisis.

What started as a single lawsuit filed by Seattle public schools a year ago has morphed into an all-out offensive against the social media platforms that adolescents spend multiple hours a day using.

It is still the early stages of this legal saga, but experts say it could prove to be highly consequential for K-12 education—win, lose, or settle.

“Most of these [lawsuits] are as much about legal success as they are about shaping issues and winning in the court of public opinion,” said Chris Thomas, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida. “That is part of the strategy around the lawsuits, even if they have tough hills to climb legally.”

The plaintiffs represent a diverse swath of districts from California to Pennsylvania, united in what they say is a mental health crisis largely driven by social media.

In a nutshell, the lawsuits allege that social media companies have designed highly addictive products that are harmful to mental health and that they have marketed them to youth who are in a developmental stage that makes them uniquely susceptible to manipulation. Those practices, critics of social media companies argue, come at a time when school districts have been forced to devote substantial resources to addressing students’ deteriorating mental health. Many of the lawsuits are asking for money and for social media companies to change their practices—such as the design of their algorithms.

Social media is making students more anxious and depressed, and causing them to act out, said Nancy Magee, the San Mateo County superintendent of schools in California, which oversees 23 local school districts south of San Francisco. It’s been a significant drain on school resources, Magee said. The San Mateo County school board filed a lawsuit against the companies that own YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok in March 2023.

San Mateo schools have had to hire more staff and provide special training in addition to just having to devote more time during the school day to addressing behavioral problems.

“It can manifest as a student who is sleeping in class a lot—you may find that the kid is gaming all night along and in an addictive pattern for gaming—to conflicts that happen among students because there is bullying going on in social media platforms,” Magee said.

Here Are the Four Finalists For National Teacher of the Year

A science teacher in Alaska who encourages students to become stewards of natural resources. A music technology teacher in Georgia who teaches students how to create podcasts. An English-as-a-second-language teacher in Tennessee who builds bridges between cultures. A history teacher in New Jersey who guides his students to research and celebrate their own identities.

These are the finalists for the 2024 National Teacher of the Year, the top national honor for teaching.

The Council of Chief State Schools Officers last month announced these top contenders for the national award, which honors teachers for their work inside and outside the classroom. The four educators were selected from a pool of 55 state teachers of the year, representing states, territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The winner will be granted a yearlong sabbatical to represent the profession and advocate for an issue of choice. The finalists are:

  • Joe Nappi, a high school history teacher in Tinton Falls, N.J.;
  • Missy Testerman, an English-as-a-second-language specialist and program director in Rogersville, Tenn.;
  • Christy Todd, a middle school music technology teacher in Fayetteville, Ga.; and
  • Catherine Walker, a science and career and technical education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Teachers nationwide have met the moment by responding to students’ individual needs in the face of myriad challenges from recent years to ensure students succeed,” said CCSSO chief executive officer Carissa Moffat Miller. “From rural Appalachia to the glacial slope of Alaska, these finalists represent the best of infusing creative approaches and building excitement for learning by students of teachers across the country whom CCSSO is honored to celebrate through the National Teacher of the Year Program.”

A selection committee, made up of 16 representatives from education groups, chose the finalists based on their written applications, and will pick a national winner this spring based on interviews with each of the finalists. Typically, the national winner and the other state teachers of the year are honored in a White House ceremony in the spring.

White House to Principals: Talk About Gun Safety With Your Communities

Can principals play a larger role in the divisive debates over access to firearms and gun safety? The Biden administration thinks so.

“We cannot come to you with unrealistic expectations. But as a principal, you have the unique ability to communicate with the school community. You are the messenger,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said at a White House town hall event late last month. His remarks, delivered to a roomful of school principals, could have applied to any number of topics, like academic recovery, behavior management, or school improvement. But the focus was squarely on principals’ roles as guardians, and their sobering duty to keep kids safe.

Cardona, who was joined by first lady Jill Biden, urged principals to leverage their role as leaders in their communities to spark a conversation with parents about safe firearms storage. The White House also released resources to help principals, including a letter template addressed to parents with tips about storing ammunition and trigger locks.

Over a third of gun-owning parents don’t lock up their firearms, and another third store their firearms loaded, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Guns acquired from home or homes of relatives and friends, the officials said, make up 70 to 90 percent of the guns used in school shootings, unintentional shootings, and youth firearm suicides.

Greg Johnson, the principal of West Liberty-Salem High School in Champaign County, Ohio, has experienced a shooting in his school—a 2017 incident in which he and a colleague talked down a student shooter who’d already critically injured a fellow student. He said he supports the Biden administration’s efforts but acknowledged that any conversation involving guns can be a sensitive one.

“People in my own community have different opinions on gun reform,” he said. “But we have to find common ground to make kids safer. The topic of gun storage is a step in that direction. It can still be a divisive topic but I hope we don’t avoid it.”

Free School Meals for All Students Might Improve Discipline Rates. Here’s How

New research has found that providing free school meals to all students regardless of their families’ income lowers discipline rates.

But it’s not because free food for all keeps students from getting “hangry.” The researchers believe that eliminating the stigma of qualifying for free and reduced-priced meals was what drove down the number of discipline referrals. Here’s how they arrived at that conclusion.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the U.S. Census Bureau compared schools in Oregon that started offering universal free school meals through the federal school meals program’s community eligibility provision to those schools that did not. The researchers linked school data on free and reduced-price lunch enrollment and discipline referrals to data from the census and tax records to get a granular look at how the policy affected different students.

Sometimes, the way schools distribute free and reduced-price meals makes it easy to pick out which kids come from families without a lot of money, said Thurston Domina, a professor at UNC’s school of education and one of the authors of the study. For example, he said, students who don’t pay for their meals might have to stand in a special line in the cafeteria.

“We’ve got good research to suggest that students see that and that they associate school meals with poverty,” Domina said. “And we’ve got good research to suggest that stigma associated with poverty carries with students throughout the school day.”

There are some limitations to the study, said Domina. The study examined only Oregon schools and as a result, there are not many Black students in the sample. And, it’s not clear how the effects of universal free meals would translate to affluent schools—schools only qualify for the community eligibility provision of the federal school meals program when they serve large numbers of students who are living in poverty.

FEMA Will Pay Schools Affected by Disasters for Energy-Efficient Upgrades

School buildings that experience natural disasters are now eligible for federal funding to install solar panels and other energy-efficient systems when they rebuild, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last week.

Through the FEMA Public Assistance program, the federal government commits to covering 75 percent of the cost of rebuilding schools and other public institutions like hospitals following floods, tornadoes, and other storms.

With the new policy, schools can now include in their reimbursement requests the cost of solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, and other modern systems designed to improve sustainability. Schools can take advantage of this funding opportunity for any disaster declared after Aug. 16, 2022, the agency said.

The goals of the policy, according to the agency, include offering incentives for schools to help with the nationwide effort to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Schools and other facilities that install energy-producing systems can stay open and even provide power to surrounding communities in the event of an electrical outage, said Tish Tablan, senior program director at Generation180, an advocacy nonprofit that promotes clean energy adoption.

The Santa Barbara district in California, for instance, experienced wildfires and mudslides in 2018 that forced schools to temporarily serve as emergency shelters. Since then, Tablan said, the district has invested in solar canopies and battery storage that will prevent future outages. A growing number of schools are investing in energy-efficient building systems or making plans to do so when existing systems fail. As of 2021, 7,332 schools nationwide had solar panels, according to Generation180.

The new federal money from FEMA is good news for schools, but may bring challenges. Districts often struggle to promptly secure FEMA funding or reimbursement even when it’s offered.

Olina Banerji, Staff Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; and Madeline Will, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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