Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Chiefs for Change COO Weighs in on Challenges of Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — April 07, 2020 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

*UPDATED: A previous version of this post included information that has been updated and changed.

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Julia Rafal-Baer is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit advocacy group whose members lead education systems serving 14,000 schools. Previously, she was assistant commissioner of the New York state education department. I recently asked Julia about what she’s hearing about how districts and states are handling the challenges of coronavirus.

Rick: What’s the biggest practical challenges that supes and state chiefs are dealing with right now that people might not be aware of?

Julia: Connectivity for all students. People recognize that with many school systems closing through the end of the year, online learning is vital. As our members grapple with improving upon their first versions of continuous learning plans, they are also determining which students they are reaching now and who they have yet to reach. The biggest challenge is getting students the technology they need to keep learning and so that families can stay connected to their schools and get the critical information they need. This post covers a number of the tech issues across our membership, but the short version is: In some of our chiefs’ districts, as little as 30 percent of students have a tablet, a laptop, or an internet connection for a meaningful learning experience. Many districts need both devices and internet access. Yet even in places where there are enough devices, it’s difficult to get students online. Telecommunications companies are taking steps to expand access to broadband and Wi-Fi networks by doing things like opening hotspots for public use and waiving installation fees for some service plans. Still, much more help is needed. One problem that we’re hearing about, for example, is that some companies require families to pay off any outstanding balance before they can get reconnected. That is solvable if the CEOs of America’s largest telecom companies suspend policies that keep families with school-age children from obtaining service.

Rick: How are they responding to this problem?

Julia: They see the urgency here and are making that investment a priority. Our members are responding in a number of different ways. As a first step, many districts had to find out what the needs actually are. In the Florida district of Palm Beach County, for example, Superintendent Donald Fennoy, started by asking families to fill out a technology survey asking if they have a device and internet access. In San Antonio, where our board chair, Pedro Martinez, is the superintendent, the district ordered 30,000 computers and more than 3,000 internet hotspots this week for students who don’t have them and is hoping to pay for the devices with money from a bond that’s expected to go before voters in November. In Guilford County, N.C., we also just issued a grant to Sharon Contreras from our COVID-19 Relief Fund that will allow Guilford County to turn 75 school buses into hotspots. The buses will park in different neighborhoods, so kids nearby have a way to get connected. In Miami, where future chief Mari Izquierdo is leading the academic strategy, her team acted with extraordinary speed to distribute laptops, tablets, and hotspots, while also building a help desk for families struggling to master the technology. By the second week of distance learning, they were seeing hundreds of thousands of logins. Districts like Palm Beach and Miami are showing the way, thanks to strong leadership and aided in part by their experiences with hurricane-driven emergency action. They are also acting fast to negotiate partnerships, ranging from content providers to conferencing technology, to deliver quality materials affordably.

Rick: What are a couple of the most useful measures you’re seeing folks talk about or implement?

Julia: Well, the most important measure right now is attendance—meaning the proportion of kids who are able to get online and tell their teachers they are ready to learn that day. We are seeing our members working to ensure all students are seen by teachers and maintain 1:1 relationships so no student goes without a check-in. Phoenix’s high school district under our member Chad Geston has launched an ambitious “Every student, every day” effort that is exactly what it sounds like: every kid in the district having a check-in with an adult, every day. That’s crucial for so many reasons—relationships, academics, and physical and mental health. Obviously, it’s not the same as seeing each other in person, but it’s so important right now when that’s not an option.

In Tennessee, our member and future chief alum, Penny Schwinn, understands that making up for lost time will be a multiyear effort that starts immediately. She is revisiting every element of her strategic plan to align with the needs for quality learning at a distance, for a more robust digital infrastructure, and for frequent checks to ensure students and adults are handling these enormous shifts emotionally as well as academically. She is working on plans now to develop her own statewide online tool that will provide a system for teachers to deliver content and remediation for small groups, participate in virtual professional development, and provide resources for families, including information on meal locations. *

Rick: What kinds of state or federal policies are making things trickier for schools and districts?

Julia: There are challenges in this moment with regulations that tie credits, completion, graduation, and higher education entry to “seat time"—the amount of time a child is physically in class. Another challenge is requirements for certifications that teachers and other educators can’t complete, especially with residency requirements and realities of not being able to take exams. States need to quickly waive certification and testing requirements that impact hiring. The federal government has moved quickly on some important issues, including flexibility on school meal regulations, allowing schools and districts to distribute meals quickly. In addition, waiving regulations around testing and accountability and providing fast guidance on distance learning have been really helpful.

Funding is going to be a challenge and will require maximum flexibility for states and districts so districts can carry over major unspent portions of their budget. From the federal side, getting support around stretching carryover deadlines will be important and helpful. From a state side, supporting districts to ensure that unspent funds—things like professional development, substitutes, transportation, etc., are flexible. There will be increased needs for students and major budget holes state by state that are going to have huge impacts on districts and their budgets, especially as we see more kids move into poverty status. Continued support and additional flexible funding to support students in the summer with remediation similar to Tennessee’s plan for a “summer surge” and a longer-term, multiyear academic effort will be critical.

Rick: What else should federal and state leaders be doing to help right now?

Julia: Getting the initial wave of stimulus funds to states and districts quickly is crucial. We urge governors to listen to their state and district education leaders. They are on the ground and have a true understanding of what their students, families, and schools need right now. Beyond that, I’d say having flexibly emergency resources—especially for connectivity and devices—is key. And clearly, the sooner aid from a larger relief bill reaches families, the better. Those funds will help prevent traumatic events like eviction—which can have a major impact on a child’s education.

Rick: OK, last question. How are your folks thinking about reopening schools downstream?

Julia: Our members are working hard to create learning opportunities in this new digital world and are thinking about how to approach academic and remediation policy and implementation at scale. This is going to require new policy solutions as well as the implementation of evidence-based practices around summer learning loss. The decision to reopen school facilities is a public-health decision that is out of our hands. And students have to continue learning in spite of the uncertainty of that decision. Rethinking time and school calendars is front and center for our members, and continuing to improve upon who is reached and how to best support their learning needs is a consistent theme. Ultimately, school systems will have to reinvent a lot of their practice this fall, not just due to the slide in learning but also the enormous range of experiences and readiness students will bring when they finally return to school. Leaders will have to grapple with what is ambitious versus feasible. For example, the idea of an individual learning plan for each student is not new—these are required already for students with special needs—but are something all educators will essentially need to do in order to assess where each student stands and to make learning fit his or her actual needs. Many students will be entering schools in the fall 5-6 months after they were last in buildings. Creating an individual learning plan with student specific learning goals, social and emotional supports, and coordination with providers is one way to support all students who are each re-entering with such an extreme spectrum of needs. Our website has a curated landing page where we continue to share the latest materials and plans from our members.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.