Education

Briefly Stated: March 24, 2021

March 24, 2021 8 min read
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States Must Give Tests to Students This Year, Cardona Emphasizes

Despite all the entreaties, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has not had a change of heart. The Department of Education is not going to entertain states’ requests to cancel standardized exams for this school year.

His comments came last week as the Biden administration detailed $10 billion in new funding to support COVID-19 testing in schools, notified states of the K-12 relief funds they would receive through the new American Rescue Plan, and set the date for a school reopening summit this week.

“This spring, we’re wanting to see schools reopen” with appropriate health and safety measures in place, Cardona said in a call with reporters. He stressed that students benefit in many ways from attending school in person, engaging in activities beyond academic instruction.

“I just know that school reopening is about creating those opportunities for students,” he said.

The education secretary also said he expects schools to reopen for in-person learning in the fall.

Cardona’s comments came the same day the Education Department announced it planned to host a summit on reopening schools safely on March 24. The summit was to feature Cardona, First Lady Jill Biden, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky. Sessions were to focus on lessons from the field, technical assistance to implementing CDC guidance, and addressing students’ social-emotional and academic needs in an equitable way.

A month ago, the department issued guidance about state exams that indicated states will have to give the federally mandated tests for this school year, although it left the door open for “flexibility.”

Last week, Cardona said the department’s advisory to states “is the guidance that we’re going with moving forward on assessments.” That guidance also notes that states have the ability to shorten exams, administer them remotely, or give them in the summer or fall as well as this spring.

Some states had pushed to get waivers this spring for a second straight year because of challenges to assessing students imposed by the pandemic. Even after the department’s guidance on Feb. 22—before Cardona was sworn in—some state officials hadn’t given up their efforts to get blanket waivers or find other loopholes around giving traditional state tests.

CDC Now Says 3 Feet of Distance Sufficient for Distancing Among Students, With Caveats

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has eased its recommendations for social distancing in K-12 schools, saying 3 feet of space between students who are wearing masks is a sufficient safeguard for safety in most classroom situations.

Many educators and policymakers viewed the agency’s previous recommendation of 6 feet of space as a major hurdle to a full return to in-person school during the COVID-19 pandemic. And some feared the more-rigid guideline could affect schools’ ability to return to fuller in-person operations in the fall.

The major change in CDC recommendations last week comes a little more than a month after the agency released updated guidance, seeking to regain credibility and consistency in its messaging to schools under the newly formed Biden administration. CDC leaders pointed to new research that suggested 3 feet of space may be effective to justify the shift.

Six feet of space is still necessary in middle schools and high schools in communities with high transmission rates unless schools can group students in small cohorts that remain together throughout the school day to limit risk of transmission across larger groups of students, the CDC says in its updated recommendations.

Adults should also maintain 6 feet of space from each other and from students, the recommendations say. And 6 feet of space is still necessary in common areas, like lobbies; in situations where masks can’t be worn, such as meal times; and when “increased exhalation occurs,” like during sports, choir and band rehearsals, and exercise.

It’s unclear how much the revision will help more schools open. Some schools had opted to remain in remote learning or in hybrid learning modes when they couldn’t find adequate space in their buildings for the previous recommendations. But many others have adhered more closely to state guidelines, some of which departed from the CDC on issues like distancing.

And some school districts have already committed to 6 feet of distancing in agreements with teachers’ unions and staff organizations.

Schools, Camps Prepare for Summer of Learning to Help Pandemic-Weary Students Catch Up

For students, one of the joys of spring is knowing summer break is right around the corner. This year, they need to think again.

After a dreary year spent largely at home in front of the computer, many children could be looking at summer school.

Experts say that after a year of interrupted study, it’s crucial to do at least some sort of learning over the break, even, say, if it’s incorporated into traditional camp offerings.

Several governors, including those in California, Kansas, and Virginia, are pushing for more summer learning. And some states are considering extending their 2021-22 academic year or starting the fall semester early. Many cities, meanwhile, are talking about beefing up their summer school programs, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Hartford, Conn.

The new $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief package should help, as it allocates $122 billion in aid to K-12 public schools, including $30 billion specifically for summer school, after school, and other enrichment programs.

Keri Rodrigues, a co-founder of the advocacy group the National Parents Union, said her children have floundered with remote learning. “We need to access where our kids are, determine what they need, and then get to work right away and not just put it off for three months,” she said.

Engaging poor children should be a priority, educators say. Summer has traditionally been one of the most inequitable times in education, with kids from upper- and middle-income households getting to attend camps or take part in other enrichment activities that often aren’t an option for poorer ones, said Aaron Dworkin, the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He envisions summer programs offered through the YMCA or municipal park districts using the federal funding to expand their typical offerings.

Tom Rosenberg, the president and CEO of the American Camp Association, said more scholarships will be available to help lower-income students attend camp. Most camps already provide academics, he said, but camp also provides nonacademic benefits that are particularly important after a year of social distancing.

“I think there is a lot of anxiety right now about just being near their peers,” he said.

Mass. District Bans Images of Confederate Flag Online

It used to be on T-shirts and banners flying on car antennas, but with so much teaching and learning online these days, officials in one Massachusetts school system felt the need to banish the image from virtual classrooms as well.

The Northampton school board this month banned the Confederate flag in its public schools in response to reports from middle school students who said they felt unsafe after seeing classmates display or wear the flag during remote classes.

The ban includes displays of the flag by students, staff, and visitors on school property, at school-sponsored activities, and during virtual events and learning. There are exceptions for images of the flag in library materials and for properly supervised classroom assignments.

“I think this policy is an important first step toward ensuring a safe learning environment and hope we soon find a way to expand this beyond just one of these images and symbols,” board member Roni Gold said.

The vote came after JFK Middle School Principal Desmond Caldwell, in a video last month, asked students to stop wearing or displaying Confederate flags during virtual classes because it made other students feel unsafe.

An anonymous Facebook page claiming to be made by students at the school responded to the video with posts accusing Caldwell of trying to suppress free speech.

In response, students held a rally outside the school in support of Caldwell, who is Black.

Some free-speech concerns arose about the ban, but the board’s lawyer said courts have allowed similar prohibitions when there’s a disruption to learning. “What you’re faced with here is a unique thing: There’s been an actual disruption in the school,” said Layla Taylor. “The last few months at JFK have shown that. There are kids that have expressed that they feel unsafe by this flag and legitimately so.”

In New Orleans, Historians to Vet Names for Schools

San Francisco, if you’d only let New Orleans go first, you might not have gotten all that grief from trying to rename schools.

In the Big Easy, a team of seven historians has been assembled to scrutinize public school names for ties to the Confederacy or slave owners.

Among the historians are an associate professor of history at Xavier University of Louisiana who has focused research on African American activism in Louisiana and the civil rights movement; a longtime expert on New Orleans public schools and adjunct professor at the University of Holy Cross; and an assistant professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764–1960.

Already, the team has earmarked 19 schools that should carry new names. The district is also taking suggestions from the public until April 19, and it will hold student-feedback sessions on March 30 and April 27.

In contrast to the process in New Orleans, San Francisco’s school board ordered that 44 schools be renamed based largely on members’ own research—some of which was conducted via Google searches or hearsay.

Excoriated across the country, the San Francisco board pulled back on its plans.

In New Orleans, the team of historians will vet names and send suggestions to the district’s Renaming Committee. From there, final contenders will go to the superintendent and, ultimately, the school board for a vote.

Justin McCorkle, the director of community relations for the New Orleans schools, underscored that while the historian review team wasn’t required by district or school board policy, district officials felt it was necessary to have experts involved.

“Due to the nature of this undertaking,” he said, “we felt it was very critical to this process.”

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Staff Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; Tribune News Service; and Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

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