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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.

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Shutdown by Coronavirus: CCSSO Director on State Response

By Rick Hess — April 14, 2020 5 min read

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.

Carissa Moffat Miller is the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which means she’s in close contact with the leaders of education in all the states. In that role, she’s been working intensely on the coronavirus response. Before coming to CCSSO, Carissa served as a deputy superintendent at the Idaho state department of education. I reached out to ask Carissa about what states are doing in response to the coronavirus and any advice she has to offer. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick: What is happening at the state level in response to COVID-19?

Carissa: In just the past few weeks, states have made decisions to close schools statewide and shift to remote learning. While it seems like months ago, it has been just a few weeks since education across the country was forced into being delivered virtually with little forewarning. On top of that, states have had to grapple with providing students’ most basic needs, such as accessing meals throughout the day and providing child care to health-care workers and first responders, all ensuring that the environment in which those are done is designed to prevent the spread of a contagious disease. States have stepped up to meet the most basic needs in innovative ways, such as asking bus drivers to deliver meals and homework packets, or providing Wi-Fi hotspots.

Rick: As you look ahead to the coming days or weeks, what else are we likely to see states do?

Carissa: States are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of all students, teachers, and community members, which could become even more important in some communities in the next weeks. We are seeing numerous states outlining how they plan to provide instructional supports to all students in remote settings and addressing challenges that particular students face, whether that be students with disabilities or students who don’t currently have access to devices or internet. Massachusetts, New Jersey, and many other states are partnering with public television stations to broadcast educational content, whether that’s pre-existing shows or recorded lessons given by teachers. Many states are offering specific guidance on serving students with disabilities, like Rhode Island, which is regularly updating a list of accessible online learning platforms that can work for students who are blind or deaf, for example.

Since the passage of the federal CARES Act on March 27, states have been focused on the best ways to spend the relief funding to quickly meet immediate needs like new technology, meal programs, and other unexpected expenditures.

Rick: What are some of the biggest state-level challenges to all this that people don’t really appreciate?

Carissa: The pace at which this situation evolved. States have had to make extremely complex decisions on tight timelines, and the stakes—the health and safety of their students, teachers, and staff—are so high. The first urgent decisions focused on meals, which might have required setting up food distribution sites and utilizing bus routes to take meals to kids at bus stops. Other major issues include the varied access to broadband, connectivity, and devices and training for teachers to deliver the content, as well as adapting content that might not work as well for virtual teaching. There are also continuous learning plans being developed by states. What Kansas, Alaska, Utah, and Massachusetts are doing are just a few examples.

Rick: What resources are out there to help states and districts figure out how to deal with all this? Are there any examples of places that seem to have been particularly successful at solving these problems?

Carissa: CCSSO is helping states share resources with each other, and states are developing plans and guidance to help districts. Beyond important guidance on state regulations, many of these resources offer best practices for districts. Illinois is providing recommendations for minimum and maximum learning time per day, based on students’ ages. Mississippi crafted a social-emotional at-home learning resource. Maine’s SEA staff has stayed connected to educators and school staff through popular content-specific virtual office hours.

Rick: We’ve seen several states pre-emptively close schools for the rest of the year. What are you hearing about that? And what are the considerations that states are weighing when making that call?

Carissa: It’s really a decision made by states and communities based on the information they have at the time, with top consideration given to how the disease is evolving in their communities. But the key thing we have heard from chiefs and seen is that in state after state how connected the entire state government is in making these decisions. The governor, the education chief, the heads of health departments, everyone is working hand-in-hand because it requires the entirety of the community, not just K-12 schools, to address COVID-19.

Rick: Looking ahead to when schools reopen later this spring or even in the fall, what are some of the effects of all this that we’re likely to see down the road?

Carissa: There is no doubt this crisis will cause challenges—from making sure students stay on track academically to getting them the social-emotional supports they need. Given the rapidly changing conditions with this virus, states have had to adjust and adapt to significant challenges on a daily and weekly basis—and will continue to do so. We all need to have our eyes wide open as we prepare for the next few months, schools reopening, and what has been lost by students. At the same time, we have some real opportunities. Right now, it’s hard to not be in a deficit mode about virtual delivery. On the other side of this is a real chance to focus on what worked and take advantage of new delivery models that can benefit all students in the long-term.

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.

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