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Gates K-12 Education Chief on the Foundation’s Response to Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — April 28, 2020 8 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be looking to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Bob Hughes is the director of K-12 education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has committed billions over the years to both public health and education, giving the foundation a distinctive perspective on how coronavirus is impacting schools. Given Bill Gates’s personal leadership on the COVID-19 response, I reached out to Bob with a particular interest in hearing about how Gates education is responding to the pandemic. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: How is the Gates Foundation responding to the coronavirus? Have you had to shift your priorities?

Bob: This is obviously an unprecedented time in the United States and around the world, and the Gates Foundation has invested more than $250 million to support a global response. When the Seattle region emerged as a hot spot for the coronavirus in February, the foundation committed $5 million in resources to support local community response efforts. Globally, we are focused on funding the development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, helping to strengthen African and South Asian health systems, and helping to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the virus.

In education, we first focused on emergency aid within our K-12 and postsecondary strategies, helping national partners work with their members to confront their most urgent needs. We’re working with partners such as the Council of Chief State School Officers to help state departments of education and school districts navigate the immediate programmatic and financial implications of this emergency. We’re also supporting partners who are expanding online learning and coordinating meals and other supports for K-12 students, and helping lessen the financial shock felt disproportionately by low-income college students due to lost housing, food, and wages.

Moving forward, we’ll be focusing on things like ensuring educators and families have access to high-quality materials and resources through our partners WideOpenSchool and LearningKeepsGoing, among others. We’re also assisting groups like the National College Attainment Network to provide guidance to schools and districts as they help students make the transition from high school to college—as we know that many students are wondering if they’ll be able to continue their education beyond high school. Those are just some of the areas we’re focusing on at the moment.

Rick: Where are you and your staff getting your sense of what is important to fund right now? With so much need at a time like this, how are you prioritizing?

Bob: We’re spending a lot of time talking to our partners in the field and getting input from networks of educators like Teacher2Teacher and the Principal Project to learn in real time about their needs. We made a conscious shift in our strategy years ago to focus on Black, Latinx, and low-income students, and now we’re expressly concerned with addressing their needs associated with this pandemic. COVID-19 is having a clear, outsized impact on vulnerable student populations due, in part, to issues like a lack of reliable access to devices and the Internet. This will exacerbate already large opportunity gaps among students, and we’re committed to doing everything we can to mitigate that reality.

Rick: What does all this mean for projects that you were already funding?

Bob: We are supporting our partners by increasing flexibility in their grants to allow them to respond to unanticipated needs. But the commitment to and overall goals of our education strategies are not changing. In some ways, COVID-19 requires us to accelerate our work, especially to help partners and communities open school in the upcoming school year in some form this fall.

A recent EdWeek survey showed that 90 percent of teachers are particularly concerned about their students falling behind in math as a result of school closures. We share that concern and are moving quickly to build on existing investments we’ve made in innovative approaches to middle years math. An example is the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s Elevate Math program, which is shifting from an in-person summer program to a virtual summer program.

In other areas, we’ll need to work with partners to fully understand how this pandemic will impact ongoing work. For example, we’ve invested in several Networks for School Improvement, and while we’ll continue to onboard new networks this year, the type of school-team and cross-school collaboration that work requires will be harder to do virtually. The lack of end-of-year assessment data will also mean a delay in understanding which interventions are most effective in improving student outcomes.

It will be a balance, but we’re committed to working with our partners to address near-term needs and also think about how this pandemic is going to impact the education system over the longer term.

Rick: How has the Gates’ passion for public health and the foundation’s huge investments in the coronavirus response influenced how you are approaching the challenge from the K-12 side?

Bob: Across the Gates Foundation, we see our role as catalysts and innovators providing tools, resources, and expertise that governmental entities and other key stakeholders can use to take collective action. Whether it’s COVID-19 vaccine development or expanding access to high-quality digital learning resources, we view our role as contributing to markets in ways that benefit the public. And because we know that epidemics hit the poorest and most vulnerable communities hardest, that’s where our funding is chiefly directed—both in global public health and U.S. education.

Rick: Can you share a bit about some of the specific education initiatives you’re funding in response to coronavirus?

Bob: Absolutely. Let me give you a couple of examples. In California, the CORE districts have looked at academic and social-emotional learning (SEL) growth simultaneously. We are helping them develop a teacher-level tool using district, state and SEL data to create a student-by-student level diagnostic snapshot of each student’s need—including estimated learning loss—while they reconnect them to schools. During this difficult period of transition, it’s critical to gain a sense of how students are faring, both academically and in terms of their social-emotional development and the trauma they are experiencing.

We’ve also invested in the USC Understanding America Study and the RAND American Educator Panels to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on educators and families and make those insights publicly available.

Rick: What are some of the challenges funders are facing that people might not know about that they should be aware of?

Bob: Funders are experiencing a range of challenges, from decreases in their endowments to the challenges of coordinating giving across the local, national, and global levels. It also takes time to identify and vet giving opportunities that will also address the most urgent needs.

In the face of the enormous need students and teachers are facing, I wish we could support every worthy idea coming from the field, but unfortunately we can’t, and so we are prioritizing as smartly as we can within our existing strategies.

The stimulus bill passed by Congress includes more than $30 billion in funding for education, which vastly outweighs the resources we can provide, so we have to be strategic about where and how we direct our funds. Fortunately, this crisis has engendered a deep level of communication and collaboration across the philanthropic community to ensure we maximize support and minimize burdens to grantees so they can remain focused on the work.

Rick: What advice would you offer to folks seeking funding right now?

Bob: While there is a lot that is still unknown—like when schools will reopen and in what form—we do know that this pandemic lays bare some of the fundamental inequities that confront Black, Latinx, and low-income students in American public education. There is no question that this crisis is having a disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable families and communities. For those committed to equity, this can be intensely frustrating and equally motivating. We are encouraging our staff to join our partners and others who are thinking beyond the current crisis to understand and mitigate its longer-term impact. Millions of students will surely be behind in their learning journey—so part of our work going forward will have to involve innovation, acceleration, and catch-up supports deployed at a scale we’ve never seen before to help students get back on track.

Rick: OK, last question. What have you seen that is most heartening in all of this?

Bob: I continue to see many signs of courage and hope in our communities—teachers and school staff are feeding students and families, transitioning to online learning against a large digital divide and working to ensure that students have their diverse needs met.

It’s hard to pick just one, but a specific example is how Teacher2Teacher is partnering with Understood.org, Educating All Learners, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities to support students with special needs. Educators have expressed concern about meeting the needs of students with IEPs, and this partnership is getting quality resources and toolkits out to educators, providing peer-to-peer community support, and even offering “office hours” and other on-demand support. As a foundation, we’ve only recently started focusing on students with disabilities through a small portfolio, and it’s critical that we make sure those students don’t get left behind during or after this crisis.

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.