States

Teachers Hungry for State Leadership on School Reopenings

By Evie Blad — May 13, 2020 8 min read
Governors find themselves on the hot seat as educators look for clarity on how schools shuttered by the coronavirus should prepare for eventual reopening. Clockwise: California Gov. Gavin Newsom, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
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As educators wrap up the current school year in unprecedented circumstances due to the coronavirus, they want state leaders to give as much direction as possible about how to prepare for the next one.

When schools shut down to contain the spread of the infection, many educators went into triage mode. And, though they recognize that governors and state school chiefs face many unknowns, teachers and school employees tell Education Week they want transparency and input as states prepare to either reopen their buildings for 2020-21, continue remote learning, or launch a hybrid approach.

“Teachers are notoriously planners by nature, so we want to have everything in place to be sure that our students are getting the best possible outcome,” said Barbara Marano, a middle school social studies teacher from Middlebury, Conn., who participated in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey on educator sentiment. “That’s what I’m concerned about at this point: planning for the possible scenarios and what [the next school year] will look like.”

See Also: Teachers Work an Hour Less Per Day During COVID-19: 8 Key EdWeek Survey Findings

Though much attention has been paid to the federal response to the pandemic, many teachers and administrators have set their sights closer to home, relying on guidance from local and state officials to navigate their roles amid ongoing uncertainty.

Thirty-three percent of teachers and administrators responding to an April 22 EdWeek Research Center survey said their opinion of their governor has become “a lot more favorable” as a result of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic and K-12 schools, and 24 percent said it is “somewhat more favorable.” The EdWeek Research Center conducts biweekly surveys to track the effects of the pandemic on educators, students, and schools.

By contrast, 35 percent of respondents said their view of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is “much less favorable” as a result of how she’s addressed issues related to K-12 schools during the pandemic. Ten percent said their views have become “somewhat less favorable” than they were before.

In interviews with Education Week, educators from states with varying approaches to stay-home orders, school closures, and emergency response largely approved of their governors’ work.

“She’s following data,” Lansing, Mich., elementary school teacher Jill Walker said of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who was among the first to order statewide school closures and who has faced public demonstrations over her continued restrictions on businesses. “She was one of the first governors to take some drastic steps.”

But educators also acknowledged that the more complicated work is to come as leaders navigate potentially massive state budget cuts and chart plans to reopen schools in the fall. When is it safe to go back? How will schools protect medically vulnerable teachers and students? What indicators would trigger another closure?

Educators say they are looking to state leaders and local school boards for those answers, not DeVos.

“I am surrounded by really strong leaders locally, in my community, in my county and then at the state level,” said Cherie Foraker, a school counselor from Pine Valley, Calif. “I feel like we have such strong leadership that the secretary of education gets in the way more than she is helpful.”

Seeking Clarity

Leaders in states as varied as Kansas, Maryland, and Washington have cautioned school closures may continue into the fall, especially if rates of the virus resurge in their regions. And many plans—anticipating changing public health data-- are still tentative, providing little certainty for teachers and families who seek it.

There is no “one-size-fits-all approach,” cautioned a task force of former state and district school administrators in a report released May 4 by the American Enterprise Institute. And, because a vaccine isn’t likely for at least 18 months, plans need to account for both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, the report said.

“Governors will need to work closely with state school chiefs, state health officials, mayors, local community leaders, superintendents, and unions to develop and implement plans best tailored to their needs,” the AEI task force’s recommendations said.

As governors and education officials go about that work, they should do it with as much openness and clarity as possible, educators say.

Rochelle Loewen, a high school history teacher in Fort Smith, Ark., said her view of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has improved because of his virus response. Hutchinson received some national attention early on when Arkansas was among a handful of states without stay-home or shelter-in-place orders. But Loewen credited him with listening to educators’ concerns when he opted to close school buildings shortly before spring break, later extending those closures for the remainder of the academic year on April 6.

“The virus was spreading in the schools, and there was no way to really keep kids safe,” Loewen said.

Loewen hopes state leaders will take the same approach, consulting with educators, when they plan for the next school year.

The 63-year-old cancer survivor is more vulnerable to severe illness if she contracts the disease. Recent analyses suggest that as many as a third of teachers are at similar higher risk because of their age, and groups like AEI have urged schools to plan for accommodations, including remote work, to protect vulnerable staff. As the “grandma” of her school, Loewen wants clear state instructions about how she can safely return, how she can protect her students, and when it will be safe to hug them, a frequent occurrence in her classroom.

Varied Approaches

Governors have taken varying approaches to seeking educator input and providing guidance or directives about how to reopen schools.

Some have continued a pattern of deferring heavily to local authorities. A handful of schools in Idaho and Montana have even reopened for the end of the current school year after their governors lifted closure orders. And states like Nebraska have created websites to share up-to-date information on planning for the next school year.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, faced some criticism from teachers’ unions after he announced work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” during the pandemic, providing few details. He faced additional pushback when he announced a state education task force that did not include representatives from New York City schools.

Teachers told Education Week they want as much information as they can get about their future roles so they can begin preparing for possible online work, which can come with a steep learning curve.

That clarity may be hard to find for some. Twenty-six percent of respondents to a May 6 and 7 EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers and district administrators said their schools had “not yet planned for any scenarios related to opening schools during the 2020-21 school year.” Seventy percent said their schools were “planning for multiple scenarios, depending on advice of federal/state/local public health officials.”

Marano, the Connecticut teacher, said teachers want time to prepare for a year that will almost certainly not include a full return to the “normal” routines of school. She favors a proposal by some Connecticut teachers to end remote teaching for the current year early so that educators can train for and design a fuller approach to remote teaching for the fall.

“We’ve been told by our district that they have the whole summer to figure it out, but we want to be proactive rather than reactive,” she said.

Walker, the Michigan teacher, wants to prepare for sudden closures in the next school year if the virus flares up again and the possibility that students may go home one day unaware that they won’t be able to return the next. In anticipation of possible closures this spring, she had her students spend mid-March writing down every password they used for school websites and carrying materials in their backpacks for their parents. Whitmer initially announced statewide closures March 12, and Walker valued her students’ preparations when the governor extended that shutdown for the remainder of the school year.

“Who knows where we will be,” she said of the coming school year. “I know, educationally, it’s going to be rough.”

Foraker, the California school counselor, said she appreciates state planning that accounts for a variety of possibilities, which is important in a state the size of a country with varying district and community needs. In California, each local district will decide when to reopen, how to mix in-person and online instruction, and whether to keep its previously set 2020-21 calendar. Superintendent Tony Thurmond has convened a working group that will issue guidance on what factors districts should consider before reopening.

“They are really looking at multiple options,” Foraker said. “I feel reassured that our students are going to have options, our parents are going to have options. We are going to have lots of tools.”

Troy Bomgardner, a school counselor in the rural Custer County, Colo., district, said it’s hard to criticize state and local officials because the pandemic situation has been so unpredictable and unprecedented.

While he’s generally pleased with the way Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has handled the crisis, Bomgardner hopes that Polis will be more decisive about reopening schools than he was about closing them.

Polis took longer than other governors to commit to extending the closures for the full school year, Bomgardner said, and that created some frustration for teachers and families. While it’s tough to anticipate what the fall will look like, educators want to know as much as possible as soon as possible.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Bomgardner said. “To criticize decisions is not the right mode to be in because we are all making them for the first time. There are going to be mistakes, and we just have to try to learn from that.”


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