As I write this, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, have ordered their schools to close because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Reports of more closures are coming in seemingly by the hour. These are uncertain and unnerving times. There is no blueprint emerging from the federal government for how to respond to a health crisis of this magnitude. The leaders of state and district education systems are on the front lines, working to protect the health of school communities, meet students’ basic needs, minimize disruptions, and provide academic instruction all while responding to breaking developments in real time. In this environment, basic community health dwarfs other priorities and concerns.
I lead Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs who oversee systems that collectively serve more than 7 million students. For the past two weeks, we have been working closely with our members, helping them develop their COVID-19 response plans and connecting their operations and communications teams with each other to facilitate the sharing of information, protocols, and strategies. Today’s education leaders are facing unprecedented challenges with this virus. While it is impossible to state everything that is needed, here are five things our members are asking for:
Forecasts and reliable information. How long will this epidemic last? Will schools need to close for a matter of weeks? Could it be months, or even longer? When will COVID-19 testing kits be widely available, and when can we expect a vaccine?
These are just some of the questions that lie at the heart of the decisions education chiefs have to make. While so much remains unknown, we need experts to provide accurate, thorough, and up-to-date information—and we need state and federal policymakers to be serious and levelheaded. They must put aside partisan differences and come together for the good of our nation.
Awareness and recognition of the enormous and complex challenge. Susan Enfield, one of our members and the superintendent of Highline Public Schools in suburban Seattle—the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak—tweeted earlier this week: “It’s 9:00 pm & I finally have time to send this message: to every vendor, solution partner, researcher, education advocate, etc. please stop. Just stop. My WA superintendent colleagues & I confronting school closure need to focus on our communities. Let us do our jobs.”
Our chiefs need support—but they also need the space to make thoughtful decisions about what their school communities need, and how much of it and when. Now is not the time to pitch new products, promote an agenda, or otherwise exploit the crisis. COVID-19 is not a forcing event for innovation. It’s a global and national health crisis. Our chiefs and their teams are on the ground and working around the clock. They are deeply connected to students, teachers, and families. Follow their lead. Give them what they are asking for.
Regulatory flexibility where it will increase equity and serve students’ best interests. Chiefs need flexibility in order to meet immediate needs and plan for an uncertain future—but these times also demand we remain vigilant and serve all students. The federal government should suspend or ease regulations where doing so would advance equity and support students’ well-being. Many children, for example, go hungry if they don’t go to school. It is where they get lunch, often breakfast, and even snacks that serve as dinner.
Chiefs are working to figure out how they will continue to feed their students by setting up distribution centers and, in some cases, arranging home deliveries. The federal government has granted waivers to at least 17 states for providing meals while schools are closed and has promised to expedite the processing of other requests. It has also indicated that it will consider waivers for schools that are unable to meet certain benchmarks due to absenteeism or extended closures. These are sound responses. While COVID-19 is itself indiscriminate, this crisis may disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged students, exacerbating the already persistent inequities in public education. We must keep equity at the core of every decision.
More funding and collaboration to support digital learning. Without knowing how long school closures will last, chiefs are devising new ways to ensure students keep learning. Families can’t be expected to fill the shoes of their child’s teachers. Parents and caretakers are facing extreme stress themselves. They must continue to work, juggle responsibilities, and meet obligations. In addition, most don’t have the training to take on the extraordinary task of fulfilling their child’s academic needs.
Many systems are considering virtual learning, including those that don’t routinely use online learning or have flexible remote-learning systems. It must be noted that the transition from the classroom to the cloud is not an option for all students. One issue is that online-learning programs may not effectively serve children with disabilities. Another is that many students don’t own computers or other devices—and they don’t have a way to get online. Yet, given the reality our country is facing, virtual learning will undoubtedly be a part of many systems’ response plans. Congress should, therefore, approve federal funding to give students the hardware and connectivity they need to learn with digital platforms. Telecom and technology companies should act swiftly and do whatever possible to support the expanded availability of their products and services.
Mechanisms to share what works. In this rapidly evolving situation, educators need a way to learn what others are doing and share ideas. Our top priority at Chiefs for Change is supporting our members and other systems leaders. In addition to providing ongoing and intensive supports, we have posted curated resources on our website that we believe provide sound guidance. We are updating the page on a regular basis.
Schools are the soul of our communities. Children are dealing with separation from teachers and friends they love; disruptions to their sense of security and routine; and a range of emotions, including anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear. As Superintendent Enfield said, schools are where many students “feel most safe, loved, and seen.” This weighs heaviest on her heart—as I know it does for educators all across this country.
State and district education chiefs, under immense pressure, are doing some of the hardest and most important work in this crisis—with an astonishing lack of clarity from the federal government and without the resources to monitor the spread or trajectory of the virus. Their work to protect and serve us did not begin and will not end with school closures. These leaders—and our nation’s children—deserve all the support we can give them.