School Climate & Safety

School Reopening Plans and the Suburban Challenge

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 30, 2020 3 min read
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As the unique 2020-21 school year continues, organizations are beginning to analyze what districts coping with the pandemic put in their reopening plans in the spring and summer, looking for patterns to inform future work. Now comes one such analysis from the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium.

The consortium is an invitational network of 18 suburban and countywide districts run by EducationCounsel, an advocacy group. The network is also affiliated with AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

This is, by the way, a perspective that tends to be lacking in national discussions about school districts, and it’s an important one: Our suburbs, and the schools that they serve, are changing, leading to new opportunities and tensions.

Here are some standout points from the paper, which was released by the consortium and its research partner 2Revolutions, Friday afternoon.

Local connections were far more important than national ones.

Every national organization out there put out guides and recommendations on reopening, but the district leaders only occasionally turned to those. They tended to rely much more heavily on local health departments and community organizations.

“Certain districts, in the absence of such clear guidance, ended up positioning themselves as leaders for neighboring districts or banded together to create common decision frameworks to bring some coherence to their geographic areas,” the report notes.

Obliquely, of course, this underscores the abject failure of federal and state governments to provide clear, consistent guidelines to schools and to create a national data set on COVID-19 cases and schools that could inform reopening decisions.

“Good on paper” plans were hard to make work in reality.

Volatile politics, confusion about the science on COVID-19, collective bargaining challenges, and difficulties in collecting reliable data from families about what form of learning they preferred made it a lot harder to put some innovative plans into action. And because superintendents were de facto asked to make decisions about a health crisis, communities tended to take out their anger and frustration on district leaders.

There were unexpected opportunities to innovate.

The “community schools” model of providing a full array of health and welfare social services to students has been around for decades, but not until the pandemic hit did most of the districts embrace this idea.

“Districts report prioritizing the whole child in ways they haven’t necessarily been able to before—from child-care supports, to community-wide food banks, to broad family supports for mental health, to stronger trauma-informed approaches and social emotional support and integration during the school day,” the report notes.

This is a theme Education Week has reported on, too: The pandemic threw into stark relief all the services many districts now provide to students that are easy to lose sight of. Whether this newfound knowledge translates into shifted attitudes toward public schooling—and more respect and funding—remains to be seen.

Other districts finally put into place one-to-one programs; and most of the districts also said that online learning, as an option for parents, is probably here to stay long-term.

Equity is a core concern, and a core driver of reopening plans.

The pandemic exposed for the districts the realities of inequitable access to broadband, technology, and food, among a host of other issues. As a result, many of the districts used a tiered approach as they developed their plans, prioritizing some groups for in-person learning, such as students with disabilities, English-learners, or those in key transition years. (This is a theme that also showed up in Education Week’s “How We Go Back to School” series from earlier this year.)

Much more in the full report; be sure to check it out.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.