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States Opinion

During Coronavirus Crisis, How Can State Leaders Help Schools?

By Rick Hess — April 06, 2020 6 min read
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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.

Carrie Conaway is currently a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and previously served as the chief strategy and research officer for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She is also the immediate past president of the Association for Education Finance and Policy. I recently talked with Carrie about the challenges coronavirus presents for state education departments, and how folks are dealing with them.

Rick: You spent years inside the Massachusetts department of education. Now that you’re on the outside and can speak freely, what are the folks in state government—in Massachusetts and elsewhere—likely wrestling with right now?

Carrie: I think the biggest challenge is likely that so much of how a state agency serves educators and kids depends on schools being in session. The immediate and obvious worry is how kids will get access to needed support services such as school lunch or special education without schools in operation. But there are also other concerns. How will teacher-candidates get the hours of classroom experience they need to earn their teaching licenses? How will states identify which schools need the most assistance if they can’t run their state testing program? How should the state advise high school principals on the minimum requirements for high school graduation when schools can’t run the required classes? Without schools in operation, the fundamental assumptions about how education happens are upended. State agencies will have to throw out their old playbooks to make this all work.

Rick: Many states, like Massachusetts, have hundreds of school districts. How does the state work across all those different environments effectively and efficiently in a crisis like this?

Carrie: It may be a hassle, but at least this is a condition states are used to dealing with! I imagine states are doing what we always tried to do in Massachusetts: listening to district questions and concerns and thinking through unintended consequences across all types of districts before making any decision. This is where stakeholder and advocacy groups can really help. They can surface issues and get them quickly to state leadership, to make sure the state is making the best-informed decisions it can in the short time available.

Rick: What kinds of state or federal policies might be making things trickier for schools and districts?

Carrie: Figuring out how to maintain access to free and reduced-price lunch and special education has been a big issue, of course. But equally as challenging are state laws around minimum instructional time, student testing, high school graduation requirements, reporting deadlines, and so forth. Most states will need to seek flexibility, waivers, or even changes to law from several federal agencies and their state legislatures to get through this. This is a challenge in itself because of the multiple agencies and processes involved.

A less obvious issue is the downstream impact of public procurement laws. State and federal laws often prohibit using public dollars to pay for services not yet rendered. Districts may have no way to maintain contracts for busing, health services, and so on if those vendors aren’t still working. Businesses like these are already starting to lay off workers because they can’t afford to keep them on the payroll.

Rick: What should state leaders be doing to help right now? What can they provide that’s most helpful, or what rules or requirements would it be useful to relax?

Carrie: I think the most important thing is for states to provide as much advance notice to districts and schools as they can of the plan for when and how school will reopen, so that districts in turn can inform families. I’d rather see schools stay closed a bit longer than absolutely necessary, with plenty of notice so people can plan, than keep pushing out the date every week or two and forcing families to readjust multiple times.

States also need to provide clearer advice on how to handle special cases such as access to services for students with disabilities, students who have not yet met graduation requirements, and so forth. Some of the early messaging I’ve seen on this has been garbled or inconsistent, but I anticipate that states will sort out those issues and provide better guidance in the coming days.

As a researcher and lover of data, it pains me to say this, but I would cancel state testing for spring 2020. Any test administered this spring is not likely to be a good measure of students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, nor to be comparable to prior years’ data anyhow. States like Massachusetts that have a test-based high school graduation requirement might consider offering just that test but canceling all the others.

Rick: What is the state of online and virtual learning, and what are the challenges of doing it well?

Carrie: This strikes me as a much greater challenge in K-12, where most schools run on the assumption that students are coming to a physical classroom and sitting at traditional desks every day, than in higher ed, where many universities have an online-learning platform already up and running. The big issue is that relying on virtual learning to substitute for school is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities. The Boston Globe reported this week that as many as 15 percent of Boston public school students don’t have a laptop or computer at home to do schoolwork. And even if every kid had a computer, delivering online learning for students in K-12 assumes that a parent is available to make sure the computer is working, the internet is connected, the student understands the assignment, the student completes the assignment, and so on. Plenty of students of all stripes don’t have a parent available to do that right now, and school districts can’t just not educate those kids.

Rick: How will states be thinking about getting schools up and running again? What are the challenges of doing so?

Carrie: The top priority has to be safety, and not just the safety of students but of the whole community. Studies of prior epidemics show that schools can be a major source of transmission of disease. Schools shouldn’t reopen until public-health officials feel confident that it is safe to do so.

Beyond that, I think a lot will depend on where we are in the school year when the “all clear” comes. Everyone wants schools to get back to their normal routines as soon as possible and for students not to miss out on important learning—but does that mean coming back to business as usual? Should schools run longer school days or summer school to catch students up, or should they call a mulligan on this year and start afresh in the fall? States will need to provide guidance and set policy on these issues, and I’m sure most haven’t had bandwidth to focus much on this yet.

Rick: OK, last question. What are a couple of the most useful measures you’re seeing folks talk about or implement?

Carrie: I love the idea of deploying school buses to deliver grab-and-go meals to students. It’s a clever redeployment of resources that gets needed food to low-income students and keeps bus contractors in business. I have also appreciated how quickly people have stepped up to provide free internet-based access to educational resources such as museum tours, arts activities, and story time for kids—as well as access to the internet itself through Wi-Fi buses and laptop distribution. My former agency even set up a partnership with our local public-television station, WGBH, to provide educational programming from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday so students without internet access still have access to high-quality educational programming.

But perhaps the most useful thing I’ve seen are the many creative ways educators are working to maintain their learning communities at a distance. Whether that’s snack time by Zoom for young kids, phone calls or pen pals for students without internet access, or online discussion boards about course content for high schoolers, those human connections and sense of togetherness are what will get us through this crisis.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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