Briefly Stated: November 23, 2022

November 22, 2022 8 min read
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Respiratory Illnesses Compelling Schools to Close Their Doors

Don’t point your finger at COVID-19. This time around, other respiratory illnesses, while driving up student absences, have forced schools in several states to close down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the country is experiencing a surge of two seasonal illnesses—influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV—that have arrived on the scene much earlier and are more intense than in a typical year.

And they’re keeping affected kids out of the classroom at a crucial time, when educators are going to great lengths to restore school attendance habits that cratered during the pandemic.

“Even if we know a kid is missing school for health reasons, we still have to worry about them … especially if they were already struggling [with academics or attendance] before the illness,” as many students were, said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, which promotes ways to measure and address chronic absenteeism.

Dr. José Romero, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said officials have tracked an unusually early spike in cases of the flu and RSV this year. “We suspect that many children are being exposed to some respiratory viruses now for the first time, having avoided these viruses during the height of the pandemic,” he said.

Some schools are shifting to remote learning or closing for several days to slow the spread within their buildings.

Ohio’s Lynchburg-Clay district canceled elementary classes and sent secondary students home for remote learning after about 20 percent of students—and many staff members—were absent with the flu for several days.

“Given the circumstances of the last two years and the staffing levels, we are a little quicker to make immediate course corrections, such as shutting down for a brief time, instead of plowing through as we used to do,” said Superintendent Jack Fisher.

Schools and districts in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin have had closures as well.

Chang said schools need to maintain connections to students when they are out for personal illness or when schools close to prevent an outbreak.

Federal Law Prevents States From Lowering Standards for Special Education Teachers

Here’s a Catch-22: States have been lowering their standards for teachers, but federal law prevents them from doing so for special education teachers to increase the hiring pool.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that special education teachers be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained” and “have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities.”

The U.S. Department of Education has noticed that some states and districts may be skirting the law. Valerie Williams, the department’s director of special education programs, last month issued a warning to state directors that those requirements haven’t changed—despite the challenges in recruiting.

Indiana is one state that had been violating the IDEA for years. But in April, the state board of education ended the use of emergency permits for special education teachers.

Last fall, the state education department partnered with the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis to launch a program that makes it easier for educators already working in schools to become certified special education teachers. Sixteen teacher-preparation programs across the state are providing the coursework and support for taking the Praxis test at the end, free of charge.

The program has enrolled about 600 candidates. But it’s funded in part by federal pandemic-relief money, and Carey Dahncke, the center’s executive director, said he’s not sure it can maintain such a high volume when that money runs out.

Oklahoma, too, is trying to address the problem by helping paraprofessionals earn special education teaching licenses. Meanwhile, some districts have to rely on substitute teachers, said Shawn Hime, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Districts are also using financial incentives. In Oklahoma, special education teachers receive 5 percent premiums on their salaries, but Hime said that incentive hasn’t been enough to make a real difference in the shortages. Some districts have increased the salary differential to upwards of 10 percent, he said, or have offered signing or retention bonuses between $3,000 and $5,000.

The Status of the Teaching Profession Has Hit a 50-Year Low. Can It Be Turned Around?

Who wants to be a teacher? The silence may be resounding.

Based on a study that came out last week, the status of the profession is at its lowest point in five decades.

Researchers at Brown University and the University at Albany compiled and analyzed decades’ worth of national data from more than a dozen sources about factors like teachers’ morale, the perceived prestige of the profession, and interest in entering the field, to create an annual profile of the profession between 1970 and 2022.

What they found suggests that the pandemic only exacerbated the decline in prestige and attractiveness of teaching.

“When you look at the data that we have, it’s hard to see us in a spot anywhere else other than a really critical tipping point in public education,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown and co-author of the report.

For the study, the researchers pulled from dozens of data sources—federal databases, long-standing annual surveys, more-recent nationally representative polls, among them.

Their key takeaways: Only 42 percent of educators say the stress of their job is worth it, compared with 81 percent in the 1970s; interest in the field among high school seniors and college freshman has dropped 50 percent since the 1990s; the number of new entrants into teaching has decreased by one-third over the past decade alone; and just 59 percent of respondents to a nationally representative survey of the public say the job has at least “considerable prestige” this year, compared with 78 percent in 1998.

Why has all this occurred?

Declining wages, a competitive outside labor market, the decreasing influence of teachers’ unions, a rise in school shootings, strenuous reform efforts, and low education funding levels are likely culprits, the study says.

The researchers believe that can be turned around because that has happened in the past. Higher wages and more professional autonomy could be a start, they believe.

Other issues still need to be addressed, though, such as modulating the divisive debates that have undercut the long-standing notion that educators are allies to children’s learning, rather than barriers, and stemming the rising violence in schools.

DeSantis Board Appointees Fire Broward Schools Chief

The superintendent of Florida’s second-largest district wasn’t even in charge when a gunman killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, but that didn’t stop outgoing school board appointees of the state’s conservative governor from firing her last week.

Broward County schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright was cast out by a 5-4 vote following the release of a grand jury report into the 2018 school massacre.

All five members voting against Cartwright in Florida’s most Democratic-leaning county were appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Four of them were already headed off the board, to be replaced by others who won seats Nov. 8.

Those who backed Cartwright included Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter was killed in the shooting, and Debra Hixon, whose husband was also fatally shot.

Cartwright took over as interim superintendent in August 2021 and was made superintendent this past February.

“There are some great people who work for this organization, but toxic behavior continues to happen,” said Daniel Foganholi, the DeSantis appointee who led the move to oust Cartwright. “This is about accountability.”

Some school board members said the motion was unfair since they had just asked Cartwright on Oct. 25 to address a long list of concerns.

“This action is impulsive and inappropriate at this moment, and I cannot support this,” Sarah Leonardi said.

The meeting was publicly advertised, but there was nothing on the agenda suggesting Cartwright would be fired, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.

The motion to fire her came at the end of the board’s discussion of two audits criticizing the district’s practices.

Conservative Lawmakers Cite District for CRT Breach

Welcome to 2022, 1984-style.

A group of ultraconservative South Carolina lawmakers is suing a district and its superintendent alleging that the school system violated a one-year state law prohibiting schools from teaching concepts associated with critical race theory.

The South Carolina Freedom Caucus filed suit last week against the Lexington 1 district and Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait claiming it uses curricula promoting the indoctrination of students with CRT-derived ideas and makes teachers and staff be trained in “racist” concepts. And it plans to sue at least two other districts.

The allegations against Lexington 1 stem from an audio recording of an employee with EL Education, a New York-based nonprofit that offers K-12 curriculum support and professional development.

The recording, which a former Lexington 1 student-teacher surreptitiously recorded and shared with the Freedom Caucus, captures a professional-development specialist for EL Education discussing the company’s practices and philosophies, including its emphasis on “culturally relevant teaching” and “equity.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Adam Morgan said the recording clearly illustrates that ideologies associated with critical race theory are being taught in South Carolina schools. “In fact, the person on video clearly states that she is here to find ‘co-conspirators’ who are willing to cause trouble and break state law in order to teach things that they’re not supposed to,” he said.

However, Lexington 1 high school teacher Mike Burgess said that EL Education’s methods have had a profoundly positive impact on the district and don’t constitute critical race theory.

“What’s really frustrating for a lot of us,” said Burgess, a history teacher at River Bluff High School and a former leader of the Lexington Country Republican Party, “is that we know what we’re doing and how we’ve done it and we know we’ve done what is in the best interest of our students. And yet here is this legislator using our school, our teachers, and our students as a piñata.”

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Caitlynn Peetz, Staff Writer; Tribune News Service; and Madeline Will, Assistant Managing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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