Education

Briefly Stated: January 19, 2022

January 18, 2022 9 min read
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Biden Administration Sending More Tests for COVID to Schools

The law of supply and demand is not on the Biden administration’s side.

Even though it’s increasing federal support for COVID-19 testing for schools in a bid to keep them open amid the omicron surge, what that amounts to is a drop in the bucket of what’s needed.

The White House announced last week that the administration is making a dedicated stream of 5 million rapid tests and 5 million lab-based PCR tests available to schools starting this month to ease shortages and promote the safe reopening of schools. That’s on top of more than $10 billion devoted to school-based tests authorized in the COVID-19 relief law and about $130 billion earmarked in that law to keep children in school.

The new initiative comes as the White House faces mounting criticism over long lines and supply shortages for testing and after the nation’s third-largest public school system, in Chicago, closed for days after an impasse between teachers and officials over reopening policies. The closure was a black eye for President Joe Biden, who made reopening schools—and keeping them open—a priority.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure that our children have an opportunity to stay in school,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said on “CBS Mornings.” “That’s where they need to be, and we know we can do it safely.”

The new crop of tests, though, is enough to cover only a small fraction of the more than 50 million students and educators in the nation’s schools. The administration hopes the tests will fill critical shortfalls in schools that are having difficulty securing tests through existing federal funding or are facing outbreaks of the more transmissible COVID-19 variant.

States will be able to request the tests immediately, says the White House, and the tests will be available for use by the end of the month.

The administration is also working to target other federally backed testing sites to support school testing programs, including locating Federal Emergency Management Agency sites at schools.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was set to release new guidance last week to help schools implement “test-to-stay” policies, in which schools use rapid tests to keep those who test positive in the classroom.

Both in School and Online, Bullying Drops Off as Students Spend Less Time in Class in Person

The long periods of remote learning during the pandemic may have one silver lining: The physical distance appears to have prevented student harassment.

New research from Boston University using internet-search data suggests bullying declined during the pandemic—not just in schools but online as well—and harassment hasn’t entirely returned even after students started to come back to campus.

In a typical year, the internet sees a spike in people looking for information on bullying at the beginning of a school year, which then drops over time, with lulls particularly over the winter and summer breaks. By comparing the month-by-month search patterns of millions of Google users from March 2020 to February 2021, researchers got a glimpse of how school and online harassment may have changed when students were at home, beyond school reports and surveys.

During the pandemic, searches related to school bullying were 33 percent lower than expected based on historical trends; those related to cyberbullying were 27 percent lower.

The drops were driven by changes in in-person learning during the school year. Lead author Andrew Bacher-Hicks and his colleagues found that searches related to bullying stayed about the same in summer before and during the pandemic.

Bacher-Hicks said he was surprised that there was a significant drop in online as well as in-person harassment during the pandemic—considering students were spending more time socializing online. But the findings bear out the results of other studies that suggest “cyberbullying rarely occurs independently of in-person bullying,” he said.

“There might be some event or interaction that’s going to create a cycle of both in-person [bullying] and then spill over into cyberbullying,” Bacher-Hicks said. “And so when that initial event doesn’t happen, not only is in-person bullying less likely to happen, but so is cyberbullying.”

He suggested that when students attended school remotely—and returned to strict social distancing—there was less time moving between classes and other unstructured periods in which students could have an initial falling out in person that could lead to later bullying on campus and online.

With New Restrictions, Lawmakers in Some States Pile Worries on LGBTQ Youth

As if they needed more strife in their lives, along come national political fights over transgender youth rights.

Based on the results of a new poll, it seems apparent that LGBTQ teenagers and young adults are receiving the message that they aren’t welcome. And that, combined with the pandemic, has taken a toll on the mental health of many of them.

Two-thirds of LGBTQ teenagers and young adults say that recent high-profile debates and state legislation restricting transgender youth participation in school sports, among other related issues, have been hard on their well-being, according to the poll conducted by Morning Consult for the Trevor Project, a national suicide-prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.

The impact of these political debates is felt even more keenly among transgender and nonbinary youth, 85 percent of whom say such discussions and legislative activity have negatively affected their mental health.

“These results underscore how recent politics and ongoing crises facing the globe can have a real, negative impact on LGBTQ young people, a group consistently found to be at significantly increased risk for depression, anxiety, and attempting suicide because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society,” said Amit Paley, the CEO and executive director of the Trevor Project.

The survey asked LGBTQ youth how they felt—angry, nervous, stressed, scared, sad, excited, or happy—about three policies in particular: bans on transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams and transgender boys playing on boys’ teams; prohibitions on doctors prescribing gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth; and mandates on schools to tell parents if their children are using different names or pronouns at school or are identifying as LGBTQ.

Anger, stress, sadness, and nervousness were the most commonly reported emotions. Policies requiring schools to inform parents about their children’s gender and sexual identities made LGBTQ students particularly stressed and nervous.

“It’s clear that lawmakers should be taking an intersectional approach to public policy, not working overtime to target the most marginalized young people, particularly those who are transgender or nonbinary, for partisan political points,” said Paley.

Citing Inflation, USDA Ups Funding for School Meals

More money is coming, but will there be enough to buy?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer an unusual midyear boost to the reimbursements it gives schools for meals, citing challenges related to inflation and supply-chain interruptions that have made it difficult for schools to purchase food.

Schools will receive an additional 25 cents per lunch, the agency announced this month, an increase of about $750 million nationally.

The move comes as school meal programs face unprecedented challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including recruiting and retaining staff and workforce interruptions caused by quarantines. Those concerns combined with the logistics of serving meals while maintaining virus precautions have strained nutrition departments, which operated on thin margins before the national crisis.

The funding increase comes on top of a previous waiver granted in April that allowed schools to collect reimbursements at the higher rates set for summer meal programs during the school year—raising the money they get per meal served by about 15 percent.

Between the new increase and the waiver, schools will get about 22 percent more per lunch than they would in a typical school year, the USDA said.

The change is one of several the agency has made during the pandemic, including providing waivers that allow schools essentially to serve universal free meals and flexibility in how closely they adhere to federal nutrition standards. In December, the USDA provided $1.5 billion to states and districts to work with local suppliers as they tackle supply-chain issues.

In a recent national survey by the School Nutrition Association, 98 percent of food-service directors cited their top three problems as lack of available menu items, dearth of packaging and supplies, and supplier-discontinued menu items. Three-quarters of the respondents said higher costs were also creating significant challenges.

In Cyberattack, Thousands of School Websites Go Dark

Hackers, it seems, are aiming their sights higher—targeting not simply schools but the vendors that provide internet services. Just ask the 5,000 schools and colleges that saw their websites go dark when a ransomware attack hit Finalsite.

The private company, which provides webhosting and other communications services, works with 8,000 schools and colleges in more than 100 countries and is still looking into the Jan. 4 incident.

A week after the attack, Finalsite said it had found no evidence of compromised data.

In the United States, the incident affected some 3,000 K-12 public schools. The attack is more than just another example of how widespread a problem cybersecurity has become. It is also a stark reminder that school districts need to think about not just their own data-security systems but those of the technology and education companies they work with, experts say.

“One of the things that we’ve seen in K-12 education is [increased] targeting of schools and districts for ransomware attacks,” said Amy McLaughlin, the cybersecurity director for the Consortium for School Networking, a group that represents chief technology officers in school districts. “And I think that we’re also starting to see an uptick in targeting of vendors who support K-12 schools and districts.”

The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, a research organization, found 408 publicly disclosed cyberattacks against K-12 schools or districts in 2020, an 18 percent increase over the previous year, according to Doug Levin, the group’s national director.

These days, it’s not unusual for a district to have 200 or 300 technology vendors that help with everything from controlling the school bell schedule to running applications that teach kids math concepts, he said.

It’s a challenge for district leaders just to keep track of the volume of vendors, much less puzzle through questions like, “Which ones are doing a good job with cybersecurity? What does that even look like? What requirements and standards should [vendors] be held to?” Levin said.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Staff Writer; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; and Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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