Education

Briefly Stated: May 12, 2021

May 11, 2021 | Corrected: May 14, 2021 9 min read

Corrected: In an earlier version of this news roundup, the name of the Florida school where officials don’t want their teachers or staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine was misspelled. It is the Centner Academy.

Trying to Purify Air, Schools Install Devices With Risky Potential

“First, do no harm” is the central tenet of the oath doctors take. Schools might be well-served if they looked to that principle when it comes to their attempts to protect students from COVID-19.

Case in point: ventilation systems. Desperate to calm worried parents, school officials have bought air-purifying devices with a flood of federal funds, installing them in more than 2,000 schools across 44 states, a Kaiser Health News investigation has found. They use the same technology—ionization, plasma, and dry hydrogen peroxide—that the Lancet COVID-19 Commission recently deemed “often unproven” and potential sources of pollution themselves.

In the frenzy, schools are buying technology that air-quality experts warn can lull them into a false sense of security or even potentially harm children. And schools often overlook the fact that their trusted contractors—typically engineering, HVAC, or consulting firms—stand to earn big money from the deals, KHN found.

Air-quality experts are encouraging schools to pump in more fresh air and use tried-and-true filters, like HEPA, to capture the virus. Yet every ion- or hydroxyl-blasting air-purifier sale strengthens a firm’s next pitch: The device is doing a great job in the neighboring town.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people buy these technologies, the more they get legitimacy,” said Jeffrey Siegel, a civil-engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s really the complete Wild West out there.”

Marwa Zaatari, a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Epidemic Task Force, first compiled a list of schools and districts using such devices.

Schools have been “bombarded with persistent salespersons peddling the latest air and cleaning technologies, including those with minimal evidence to date supporting safety and efficacy,” says a report by the Center for Green Schools and ASHRAE.

Zaatari said she was particularly concerned that officials in New Jersey are buying thousands of devices made by a company that says they emit ozone, which can exacerbate asthma and harm developing lungs.

“We’re going to live in a world where the air quality in schools is worse after the pandemic, after all of this money,” she said. “It’s really sickening.”

Biden Pitches Plan to Expand Pre-K, Underwrite 2 Years of College, and Better Train Teachers

President Joe Biden really, really wants to bolster education in the United States. He made that obvious—to the chagrin of Republicans—on the eve of his 100th day in office, when he proposed an ambitious $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would expand universal prekindergarten access, make it easier for high-poverty schools to serve free meals, and fund programs to train and support teachers.

The package served as the centerpiece of Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress late last month. It faces strong political headwinds as Congress considers other costly proposals from the administration.

Biden pitched the plan as adding four additional years of free education—two in early childhood and two of community college—to the existing public education system.

“When this nation made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated and best-prepared nation in the world,” Biden said. “But the world is catching up. They are not waiting. Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st century.”

Among other priorities, the American Families Plan would:

  • Provide $200 billion for “universal, high-quality” preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. That proposal would rely on partnerships with states and would call for minimum employee pay of $15 per hour and “high-quality and developmentally appropriate curriculum.”
  • Provide $109 billion to pay for two years of free community college for all Americans, including undocumented immigrant students protected through the DREAM Act. The plan would also expand the maximum Pell Grant for low-income college students by $1,400.
  • Provide $9 billion to “train, equip and diversify American teachers” through expanded federal scholarships for would-be educators, “grow-your-own” programs that help paraprofessionals become full-time teachers, and teacher residency and leadership programs. The plan would also provide federal funds to help existing teachers earn additional credentials in high-demand subject areas.

The families plan, as well as Biden’s proposal to improve K-12 infrastructure, faces big hurdles in passing a deeply divided Senate where Republicans have criticized calls for additional federal spending.

Boston’s Socioeconomic-Based Admissions Plan for Elite Schools Backed by Federal Appeals Court

At least one big-city district seems to be making dents in the admissions criteria for its elite high schools.

A federal appeals court late last month refused to block the Boston school system from sending out acceptance letters for its selective “exam schools” under new criteria for next academic year, ruling that the plan’s use of a socioeconomic measure to achieve greater racial diversity in those schools is likely constitutional.

A group representing white and Asian American families requested the injunction.

“There is no likely controlling reason why one cannot prefer to use facially neutral and otherwise valid admissions criteria that cause underrepresented races to be less underrepresented,” said the three-judge panel.

For the past 20 years, admission has been based on a test, GPAs in math and English/language arts, and student preferences.

Under the new plan, GPA and other academic factors are still criteria, but students from low-income ZIP codes get a preference in filling 80 percent of the slots.

The coalition challenged the plan under the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, arguing that it was adopted with a racially discriminatory purpose.

A federal district court found that the use of socioeconomic criteria based on ZIP codes was “devoid of any anchor to race.”

The decision comes as admissions plans at selective K-12 schools are under legal scrutiny. A lawsuit was filed recently challenging a race-conscious admissions plan for an elite math and science high school in Fairfax County, Va. And a lawsuit was filed in March challenging the racial effects of the New York City school system’s program of admissions for its selective schools.

In fact, the already minuscule number of Black and Latino students accepted each year into New York’s specialized high schools got even smaller during the pandemic, new data show.

Overall, the number of Black and Latino students offered a spot in one of the eight coveted schools—which select students based on the results of a single exam—fell from 506 to 384 this year.

City officials gave the test in-person last winter, despite protests from some parents and advocates who said continuing with the exam during the pandemic would worsen inequities.

Private School Won’t Hire COVID-Vaccinated Staff

There’d been talk about schools requiring teachers and other staff members to get vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to their buildings. Now comes a private school in Florida that doesn’t want them back in the fold if they do get vaccinated.

The Centner Academy in Miami notified parents late last month that teachers or staff who had already taken the vaccine were told to continue reporting to the two campuses of about 300 students but to stay separated from them.

“It is our policy, to the extent possible, not to employ anyone who has taken the experimental COVID-19 injection until further information is known,” co-founder Lelia Centner wrote in an email.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious-disease specialist with Florida International University’s Wertheim College of Medicine, said there is no evidence that unvaccinated people face any risks from the vaccinations of others.

The academy’s website promotes “medical freedom” from vaccines and offers to help parents opt out of vaccines that are otherwise required for students in Florida.

The school also asks guests to swaddle the soles of their shoes in Saran wrap, wants windows covered to ward off potential radiation from 5G cell towers, and requires employees who want to quit or parents who want to withdraw their children to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Still, many parents and teachers defend the academy, a $15,000-to-$30,000-per-year haven for those who believe the antidote for the virus lies in nutrition and wellness and that masks are ineffective.

In Memoriam: Bob Slavin, Education Researcher

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Bob Slavin, a renowned education researcher at Johns Hopkins University and co-founder of the Success for All Foundation with his wife, Nancy Madden, died April 24 from a heart attack. He was 70.

Slavin was a formidable force in pushing for policies to support the nation’s students and ensure those most likely to struggle with learning had access to effective instruction and school services.

His latest campaign, which he outlined in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden a few days after the election, called for a “Marshall Plan” for tutoring. Slavin was anticipating the likelihood of millions of children in high-poverty schools falling further behind their peers as a result of the pandemic. He saw a massive mobilization of tutors and resources to bolster classroom learning as an effective strategy for tackling the problem.

Having spent more than three decades working with educators and students in high-need schools and districts across the country, Slavin had keen insight into the challenges of raising student achievement and getting children on the path to success from the start.

As an early advocate of comprehensive school reform, he was a persistent and insistent voice for following the evidence on effective learning approaches and programs and then putting those strategies into practice. Slavin himself began building a coalition of service providers to mobilize the army of tutors he envisioned, and ProvenTutoring.org launched with his prewritten announcement as planned, two days after he died. The site recommends effective models for addressing the learning loss caused or exacerbated by the school disruption of the past year.

Slavin wrote or co-authored more than 24 books and more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, according to Johns Hopkins. The topics he wrote about often followed his work in Success for All, a comprehensive school improvement model designed with literacy as the foundation for children’s learning success.

But just as often, he’d advocate with equal passion—sometimes exasperation—that relatively simple solutions could spare children and their families unnecessary frustration with learning struggles. One was providing regular eye exams and glasses for students who needed them.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo is the former managing editor of Education Week.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Staff Writer; Tribune News Service; Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer; and Madeline Will, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed