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Education Opinion

Coronavirus Closures: How Urban Schools are Responding

By Rick Hess — March 31, 2020 8 min read
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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.

Mike Casserly has been the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s large urban public school districts, for more than two decades. Prior to this, he was the organization’s director of legislation and research for 15 years. I recently talked to Mike about what the coronavirus has meant for urban schools, and how they’ve been dealing with the challenges it’s presented. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: What’s the biggest thing that people don’t understand about what districts are dealing with right now?

Mike: I think a lot of people would be surprised at how early big-city public school systems started planning for this. Most of our districts started developing plans and sharing strategies with one another around the third week of January. That doesn’t mean that we are fully on top of everything, but the early planning gave us a head start that has helped all of us.

Like hospitals, one major thing we are dealing with now is serving our students and families while trying to make sure that our own people don’t get sick. Even with stay-at-home orders, we have food-service workers, bus drivers, custodians, administrators, and security staff in the field delivering meals and electronic devices for instruction. These are our first responders, and they are doing incredible work under difficult circumstances. I suspect the public doesn’t quite understand the extent of the efforts being made.

Rick: What are some of the other major challenges that your districts are facing?

Mike: We have substantial challenges despite our early start on much of the work. Our biggest challenge will be how to ensure equity. But there are a number of others including figuring out how to conduct evaluations for students with disabilities, how to register incoming students new to the country, how to retrofit school buses that are delivering meals with refrigeration, how to deal with devices that don’t work, how to provide mental-health services for those in need, and how to pay for the services we’re providing and the people who are providing them.

Rick: What’s got you most concerned about all this?

Mike: Our immediate concerns are around the virus itself and keeping people safe. Obviously, we will get through this in a matter of weeks or months, but my biggest concern is around the unfinished learning we may face when students go back to school next fall. When schools reopen, we are likely to face not only the instruction for the new school year but also a lot of catch-up instruction for students who did not grasp the concepts they will need going forward. Our folks are working triple time to provide the instruction students need now, but there will be gaps, especially with our struggling learners, students with disabilities, homeless, and English-learners.

Rick: Your districts serve a lot of kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Can you talk a bit about efforts to continue serving those kids and how they’re going?

Mike: Every one of our districts has put multiple food-service operations in place. Some districts are providing meals every day; others are providing meals for multiple days at a time. All are providing at least one meal a day, and some are providing three. Meals are being provided at pickup stations, and some are being dropped off where students live—including homeless sites. In a couple of instances, at sites where our food-service workers have gotten sick, the districts have had to temporarily shut those down, deep clean them, and redeploy meals and staff to differing sites.

You can see great examples in every city. Philadelphia is distributing three breakfasts and three lunches per student two days per week at 49 schools and locations. Portland, Oregan has 15 meal-distribution sites with walk-up or drive-thru service, with one breakfast and one lunch provided to each child. St. Paul serves some 42,000 meals a day at school curbsides, on bus routes, and some home delivery. Each student gets a box with five breakfasts and five lunches included. All districts are making tactical changes to their meal-delivery services as numbers grow.

Rick: What is the state of the districts’ instructional programs as they are dealing with the virus?

Mike: It’s a work in progress. Some districts like Cleveland are distributing hard copies of lessons; others are moving to online instruction. Many use a combination. Miami-Dade County has distributed nearly 60,000 devices for online learning; has trained some 18,000 teachers; set up a call center for students, parents, and teachers; and is working with its service providers to identify and close internet deserts in the county. Los Angeles is using its Public Broadcast System television station to provide lessons. Long Beach is using crowdsourcing strategies to assemble teachers for joint lesson development and planning. Baltimore is providing devices to its students with adaptations for students with disabilities. Wichita is providing online professional development for teachers every hour on the hour on how to provide blended learning. New York City is setting up hot spots in its public housing. Orlando is creating a virtual Parent Academy. San Diego is working with students and families to provide appropriate accommodations with their online devices. Dallas is providing virtual meetings for their special education parents in lieu of their regular in-person meetings. The District of Columbia has developed and distributed instructional packets for English-learners without internet service. And Boston and many others are holding their board meetings online.

Rick: How are you thinking about planning into this summer and beyond? Is reopening schools likely? What are the considerations?

Mike: Most of our districts did initial planning with the expectation that they might be able to reopen in mid-April. Obviously, this is not likely, so they are spending a lot of time planning for meals, instruction, graduations, etc., through the remainder of this school year. Reopening schools during the summer or earlier in the fall will depend on all kinds of things from collective bargaining agreements, to funding, to whether states will allow it. Several states, for instance, bar schools from opening too early in the fall in order to protect their tourism business. This may have to be rethought. When the time comes to return to school, we will need to build confidence in the public that having students return to their classrooms and buses is safe.

Rick: What are your districts doing for staff? Are they being paid? How are you thinking about this?

Mike: Yes, staff are being paid for the most part, but some hourly employees may not be if they are not working. Unfortunately, the Trump administration and Congress didn’t help us much on this front when they established a new federally required expenditure for additional paid emergency sick leave and family and medical leave but prohibited school districts and other governmental entities from receiving the same federal payroll-tax-credit subsidy that private-sector employers will receive for identical emergency paid-leave expenditures.

Rick: OK, so what should Washington or the states be doing to help right now?

Mike: Send money, waive everything waivable, and file charges against any vendor who tries to price-gouge. We saw a recent example where one of the milk suppliers jacked up prices substantially on a district trying to provide meals for its students.

The states and the federal government should know that districts do not yet have good projections on their loss of school revenue for the current and upcoming year. There is always a lag between the onset of any economic downturn and its effects on school revenues. School districts are being asked to keep track of their spending on virus-related activities, but we won’t know the effects on revenues for a while. Some longer-range thinking and planning on the part of the federal government and the states on how to maintain the financial underpinnings of public education will be necessary.

Rick: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

Mike: There are several things that might be useful. One, there is just no substitute for students being with teachers as lessons are being taught. Our districts are using all kinds of mechanisms to ensure that teachers have access to their students. But even distance learning, as good as it can be, is no replacement for a teacher. Two, if your district has asked for and received a waiver from its state, a parent does not have to have a child with them when they pick up a meal. Three, most of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not waivable, and the Department of Education cannot set aside the law on its own. Recent legislation asks the department to review and recommend provisions that Congress might consider for flexibility, but it is Congress’ prerogative. Four, parents should be careful with the online educational tools that are now flooding the airwaves. Check with your child’s teacher on what is appropriate.

Rick: If people want more information about what’s going on, where could they go?

Mike: They could go to www.cgcs.org/corona if they’d like to know more. We keep a running update city-by-city of what people are doing.

Rick: OK, last question. What have you seen that’s most promising or heartening?

Mike: Every time we are involved in responding to one of these situations or something like it—whether its hurricanes, floods, shootings, bombings, 9/11, or earthquakes; man-made or natural disasters—I am always heartened by the extraordinary compassion, energy, and skill of our big-city school folks who move mountains to make sure that our communities get what they need. Milwaukee is providing a nice example where teachers are creating and distributing lessons over YouTube and ClassDoJo; kitchen crews are getting up early to cook some 12,000 meals a day and distribute them to 20 sites across the city; and print-shop staff ran 30,000 supplemental instructional booklets for students. The spirit of collaboration is palpable.

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.