School & District Management

How Schools Will Overcome the ‘Coronavirus Slide:' Ideas From 5 Superintendents

By Denisa R. Superville — April 07, 2020 10 min read
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More governors are canceling in-school instruction for the rest of the academic year, leaving superintendents and their academic teams to figure out how they will make up for what could be profound learning losses for millions of students.

Will they run summer school? Would they even have the money to do that? Should they start the 2020-21 year earlier? Can they require longer school days in the upcoming year?

Those options—some more feasible than others—are what superintendents are weighing right now as it becomes increasingly likely that few, if any, schools will resume in-person instruction this academic year. Already, at least 15 states have either ordered or are recommending that schools not re-open this spring.

“I do think there will be gaps when kids come back,” said Jason Kamras, the superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools in Virginia. “I think there is going to be the ‘coronavirus slide.’

While many districts are providing remote learning, the quality and quantity of those efforts are highly variable. Analysts at the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Washington state have been collecting and reviewing dozens of districts’ remote education plans.

Mostly, CRPE has found “good assignments,” but not robust instructional plans, said Sean Gill, a research analyst.

“For the most part, we are not seeing a lot of instruction, however you may want to define it: whether it’s a teacher on Zoom or a teacher doing check-ins. That’s not something we have seen as much,” Gill said.

“What we’ve seen is more districts are providing general resources or they are providing directed curriculum, where the curriculum has kids at a certain place or time. …Those interactive programs do help kids learn and do give them feedback. But whether teachers are looking at that data as they normally would and then supplementing that with targeted instruction doesn’t seem to be happening yet.”

How districts decide to make up for that slide depends on a host of factors–many beyond their control.

The biggest wildcard is when the coronavirus will be under control and when public health officials will deem it safe enough for social distancing to end.

Another is what state governments do. Already, in most states, governors have mandated how long schools must stay shuttered. Some governors or state education officials could also order the steps that schools must follow to make up for the lost learning time.

Then there’s the looming recession, caused by the near total shutdown of the economy. Most districts, which are heavily reliant on state funds, may have no choice but to go along with state recommendations, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, who leads policy and advocacy for the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

But there are also local factors that may constrain what districts can do to make up for lost time. Do they have enough in their contingency funds to pay for summer school for all or nearly all students? Is there enough staff available to teach during the summer and will labor contracts need to be negotiated to make that possible? What about bus drivers to transport students?

Education Week interviewed five superintendents, who talked about the ideas and solutions they are considering for making up for lost time.

Jason Kamras, superintendent, Richmond Public Schools, Richmond, Va.

The district created a daily instructional schedule for every subject at every grade level. Those lessons are pre-packaged and available on a weekly basis on the district’s website. Teachers recorded video lessons addressing each standard and the district built in independent practice for students. It’s also set up on-demand tutoring.

But the district is not requiring teachers to teach every day. They are encouraged, but not mandated, to check-in with students.

“We are working around the clock, seriously, to provide as much as we can now,” Kamras said. “But we know that even with the best resources— and the best of intentions— that does not replace the time a child has with a teacher. We are thinking about, do we start school earlier, do we extend the day, do we make the next year longer? We are thinking about all kinds of things to help provide supports to fill in those gaps.”

Summer school for all kids may be off the table for Richmond. Virginia has a stay-at-home order through June 10. Even if that order is lifted by then, school buildings will have to be cleaned and prepared for students. Additionally, the district planned to have three new schools ready for occupancy by mid-to-late August. If those buildings are not ready, the district’s enrollment zones will be affected, Kamras said.

“We already know there are massive opportunity gaps in our schools here in Richmond, Virginia, and around the entire country, and that, as we all know, has negative consequences largely for kids of color and low-income kids,” Kamras said. “And this closure—while necessary, and I support it—is only going to exacerbate those opportunity gaps. I think as we look towards next year, and frankly as we look toward the next several years, it’s going to mean that we need to invest even more in closing those opportunity gaps than we already were. Because I fear this closure is only going to make them worse.”

Deborah Gist, superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools, Tulsa, Okla.

Oklahoma has closed its school buildings for the rest of the academic year, so keeping students engaged in remote schooling for such a prolonged period is a major concern for Gist. That’s why teachers there are focused on students’ social-emotional needs, as well as academics, she said. Students’ home life and emotional state will dramatically impact their ongoing connection and engagement with distance learning.

“We are definitely planning to do what we can to support our students to overcome that,” Gist said.

Planning for summer school is under way, Gist said, but whether the district can provide a full program to every student is unclear. Finances are also a big source of uncertainty and may limit what the district can do to make up for lost time. With Oklahoma’s heavy reliance on oil, and oil prices plunging, Gist is bracing for additional budget cuts on top of what the district experienced from the Great Recession.

“We know that we are going to have to pay attention to [learning loss], because we know that we are going to see challenges with our students being out of school,” Gist said. “Even though we are confident that our teachers are going to do everything they can and our whole team is focused on this, we know that it’s not going to be the same for every family…We anticipate that it will be some combination of additional supports for children—whether that’s summer or something during the school year. But we are also watching the finances very closely.”

Randy Poe, superintendent, Boone County Schools, Florence, Ky.

When Poe shut down his district’s schools in March, he thought it would be for just a few weeks. He started using non-traditional instruction days that were built into the calendar, like snow days. Now with the closure expected to last the rest of the school year, Poe is keeping instruction going online.

About 92 percent of the district’s 20,000 students are keeping up using the remote learning option, while the rest have printed course packets delivered to their homes.

When students return, teachers will first assess them to see where they are and then decide how to proceed. Still, Poe thinks a combination of extended learning days, possibly in the summer, will be part of the district’s plan.

If the pandemic hasn’t eased and social distancing guidelines are not relaxed by July or August, then whatever the district does to help students–whether it’s extended school days, targeted enrichment for students after school, or an extended school year—will be incorporated into the new school year, he said.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

“We are not going to be able to catch up in one to two weeks,” Poe said. “This is going to be a situation where you are going to have to apply extended school services over the entire school year next year.”

While some students may need help reviewing a few concepts, others may need targeted support.

“We are going to have to look at personalizing this over the next year for all the different students that we have,” he said.

Joseph Meloche, superintendent, Cherry Hill Public Schools, Cherry Hill, N.J.

Teachers are regularly checking in with students—and the district distributed nearly 2,000 Chromebooks to students who needed them. But replicating the in-school experience with distance learning will be a huge challenge, said Meloche.

Teachers spent their first week reviewing content with students and strengthening their skills, with very little new material, except in Advanced Placement classes.

The district has not yet decided whether it will do end-of-year assessments online. Meloche is still hoping to have students back in the buildings before the school year ends in mid-June.

But he and his team are also beginning to think about what the beginning of 2020-21 ought to look like.

“What should we do differently? What types of questions do we need to ask that are different? And what can we provide for kids during the months of July and August beyond the traditional summer reads and recommendations for families and children to rehearse and prepare for those school-type skills?” Meloche said.

When the district reopens depends on many factors, such as whether students progressed as far as the district expected them to while learning online and feedback from local stakeholders, including students.

“I think listening to those student voices about what their current experience is, is going to be incredibly vital,” he said. “It’s vital right now.”

While a focus on student learning is paramount, Meloche is also concerned about students’ emotional well-being.

“Their social and emotional wellness is our first priority,” Meloche said. “Safety and security are at the top of any list and then their social and emotional wellness. …Those things have to be met and connected with before we can venture into the pool of academics and starting discussions about content and development of skills and that kind of stuff, which we do a pretty decent job with.”

Raquel Reedy, superintendent, Albuquerque Public Schools, Albuquerque, N.M.

Reedy said district leaders, despite the unprecedented disruption to the last weeks and months of this school year, should take a longer view of students’ educational careers. Most students will miss what may amount to one-quarter of in-school instruction this academic year. That’s out of the more than 13 years of schooling they get from kindergarten through the end of high school, she said.

Albuquerque is running a virtual learning program and purchased 18,000 Chromebooks to deliver to students who did have not devices at home. About 8,000 have been distributed so far. The district has a partnership with the local PBS station to provide four hours of programming for students daily, including a bilingual hour in Spanish and English. And it’s working with the city to expand the number of hot spots available to students who don’t have access to the internet.

She anticipates that teachers will need to start planning for the new school year earlier to develop programs to help students catch up. They’ll likely have to adjust where they normally pick up in the curriculum.

“We need to say, ‘OK, you’ve always been able to start X unit in your language arts class or in your chemistry class…You may need to spend some time reviewing with the students the different concepts and the foundational information they need to have before you can start unit X,” Reedy said. “Reviewing is never a bad thing. But again, bringing kids up to snuff as far as what’s required, what skills they need, what knowledge they need to have before you can enter a unit—which is good teaching practices anyway—we’ll want to reinforce that.”

The district has already extended online instruction through June, with additional extensions possible, for seniors to get the credits they need to graduate.

Still, Reedy and other superintendents think that with teachers and students forced to adapt to online learning almost overnight, the in-class experience will be very different when they return.

While schools have always talked about flipped classrooms and other ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, actual practice has largely remained the province of a few dedicated teachers. Now, with the coronavirus closures, everyone had to make the leap.

“I think the comfort level that teachers are going to have as a result of being pushed into this is going to reap some real benefits as far as instruction and the use of different modalities,” Reedy said. “It will [look different] because students and teachers have put themselves in a different [level] so to speak, and stretched themselves in ways that they have never truly been asked to do.”


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