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Why School Districts Are Unprepared for COVID-19 Disruptions, Again

Exhaustion, misplaced optimism, bad state policies, and a rush to open full-time virtual schools led districts to shelve last year’s hybrid learning models
By Benjamin Herold — September 14, 2021 11 min read
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As August vanished and the new school year loomed, Principal Delonna Halliday lay coughing in her bed, recovering from a breakthrough case of COVID-19, which she and her husband had both contracted despite being vaccinated.

The highly contagious Delta variant was all over the news. More than 300 people in Pierce County, Wash., were testing positive for the virus each day. Children under 12 were still ineligible for vaccines, leading to a spike in pediatric COVID cases around scenic Gig Harbor, the affluent suburb on Puget Sound where Halliday heads Discovery Elementary School.

But misplaced early-summer optimism and the sometimes-dubious priorities of state education officials left Halliday among the thousands of U.S. school leaders whose focus was elsewhere as the pandemic shifted and surged, threatening to derail a third consecutive academic year. Rather than refining the complicated, two-days-in-person-and-three-days-at-home hybrid-learning model that Discovery used last year to limit the virus’s spread, Halliday spent her summer implementing plans to welcome hundreds of children back to fully in-person learning while also scrambling to open a new full-time online school.

“We’re going full speed ahead on in-person learning, with a virtual option for some families,” she said. “If at some point we have to go back to hybrid, we will tackle that as it comes.”

School systems all over the country have made similar choices. Just 10 percent of educators say their district started this school year using a hybrid-learning model that mixes in-person and remote instruction, compared with 69 percent of educators who said their district used such a model during 2020-21, according to a new nationally representative survey of 1,241 educators administered online by the EdWeek Research Center in late August and early September.

The early returns on that approach are alarming. By early September, at least 1,000 schools across 35 states had closed to in-person learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks, catching educators all over the country flat-footed. In Hillsborough County, Fla., about 5,000 children remain quarantined on any given day, but they can’t participate in their classrooms remotely because district officials scrapped last year’s hybrid learning model. The same dynamic was at play in San Antonio, Texas, where district leaders ditched hybrid learning just months after touting millions of dollars’ worth of new classroom technology as a long-term investment in the model’s future. Nationally, just 7 percent of teachers said they were teaching a mix of in-person and remote students at the start of 2021-22, according to the new EdWeek Research Center survey results.

Add it all up, said Michael K. Barbour, an expert on virtual learning at Touro University California, and many of America’s K-12 leaders were somewhere between foolish and irresponsible in preparing for this academic year.

“The fact that school systems haven’t been making plans for continued disruption boggles the mind,” he said.

Early optimism prompted districts to ditch hybrid learning models

At any given point during the 2020-21 school year, about two-thirds of U.S. district leaders said their schools were using a hybrid learning model, according to regular surveys administered by the EdWeek Research Center. Split-schedule approaches in which children alternated between in-person and online learning were more popular in the fall. By spring, more districts were forcing families to choose between fully-in-person and fully-remote options, with teachers sometimes instructing both groups of children simultaneously.

The variety of approaches was made possible by state education departments granting districts emergency flexibility around such issues as attendance, funding, and seat-time requirements.

In Gig Harbor, for example, Peninsula School District 401 took advantage of Washington state’s earlier “Continuous Learning 2.0” guidance, which urged districts during the 2020-21 school year to focus on flexibility and “plans for rapid transitions between face-to-face and continuous remote learning.”

Discovery Elementary responded by limiting most 3rd through 5th graders to four half-days of in-person instruction per week. One group of children received face-to-face instruction in the morning, then had “asynchronous time” for independent work at home in the afternoons. The other group did the opposite, and all students learned remotely on Wednesdays. The setup allowed the school to keep children six feet apart while giving staff time to continually review state academic standards to ensure that the most important material was being taught.

“We really pared things down to the essentials,” Halliday said.

All things considered, the results were positive. Ninety-plus percent of Discovery students regularly logged in and submitted work last year, and the rate of children 11 or younger in Pierce County testing positive for COVID-19 mostly remained below 20 cases per 100,000 people.

The downside, though, was that hybrid learning was widely regarded as a pale imitation of regular school. It also placed extraordinary new burdens on both educators and families.

The resulting exhaustion was one reason why momentum for a return to fully in-person learning began to grow in early summer. Relaxed social-distancing guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also contributed. So did the optimism generated by rising vaccination rates and plummeting case counts, both of which helped fuel national determination to return children to their physical classrooms full-time for the 2021-22 school year.

By early June, only about 3 percent of educators were saying their districts planned to use a split-schedule hybrid-learning model this year.

Instead, survey respondents indicated, a new approach was taking root: As they prepared for five days a week of fully in-person instruction, educators in districts like PSD401 were also rushing to stand up full-time virtual schools. The idea was to invest in building a long-term option for families who preferred remote learning, rather than preparing short-term strategies to accommodate COVID-19 outbreaks and other emergencies.

“We started our summer planning with the premise that we were in a different place in the pandemic,” said Superintendent Krestin Bahr.

That view was consistent with the new Continuous Learning 2.0+ guidance issued in late May by Washington’s Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, which represented a significant shift in direction from the state’s earlier advice.

But the new guidance contained a glaring hole.

In early September, a week before Discovery Elementary was slated to reopen, as the highly contagious Delta variant raged and vaccine hesitancy among some adults lingered and fights about making children wear masks to school broke out all over the nation, Education Week asked the state education department how it was advising Washington districts to keep learning going in the event of fresh COVID-19 outbreaks.

“That’s a good question that I don’t have an answer for,” said Rhett Nelson, the director of alternative learning for the state education department.

How bad state policies and guidance undermined preparation for new COVID outbreaks

Such poor guidance from states led to choppy planning all over the country.

South Carolina was one of several states to cut funding for students receiving virtual instruction. In Florida and eight other states, leaders initially pressed districts to return to full-time in-person learning while prohibiting mask mandates, creating conditions that potentially encouraged the spread of the virus. Texas lawmakers missed a summer deadline to provide districts money for online learning, then passed legislation in the fall that critics derided as racist because it limited remote learning opportunities to children who passed state standardized tests.

“Those [state policies] are the biggest challenges to standing up hybrid options,” maintained Raymond C. Hart, the executive director of the Council for Great City Schools, a coalition of the country’s 75 largest urban school systems.

Districts themselves, however, were hardly blameless. In New York City, local leaders made their own decision to eliminate remote and hybrid learning options for more than 1 million students. In Chicago and Washington, D.C., education leaders limited such options to children with medical waivers.

And even when districts did embrace remote learning, they often fixated on creating full-time virtual schools—a model with an extremely spotty track record that is generally ill-suited to help with emergency COVID-19 outbreaks and quarantines, in part because such schools often require students to be enrolled for an entire semester or academic year.

The widespread planning failures started to become evident in mid-August, nearly as soon as the nation’s schools began reopening.

In Columbia, S.C., 142 students and 26 staff members tested positive for COVID during the first nine days of school, causing the 15,000-student Pickens County school system to shift to remote learning despite the risk of losing state funding.

In San Antonio, about 1,600 new camera-and-microphone rigs to support hybrid learning were instead being used for teacher professional development. Just months after Superintendent Pedro Martinez told Education Week that there was “no going back” from hybrid instruction, the San Antonio district has eliminated the model altogether, instead paying for-profit company Pearson to provide a full-time remote learning option for roughly 450 children this school year. Students who are quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure will be limited to entirely asynchronous online instruction, a district spokeswoman said.

In Tampa, Fla., meanwhile, teachers were mostly on their own when it came to figuring out how to keep as many as 11,000 quarantined students connected to their classrooms. Despite a robust hybrid learning program last school year, the 220,000-student Hillsborough County Public Schools crafted a reopening plan for 2021-22 that contained just 201 words on how schools should handle instruction during quarantine, essentially advising educators to send assignments home for students affected by COVID-19 outbreaks, the same as they would for students dealing with any other illness.

It felt like the entire state was sticking its head in the sand and pretending the pandemic was over, said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the executive director of the Hillsborough teachers union.

“I actually called the district’s chief of staff and asked if they had a plan to go back to e-learning that I was unaware of,” she said. “They don’t, because the governor’s office essentially said they can’t.”

Districts that crafted flexible plans are prepared to pivot

There are some bright spots.

In Ohio, for example, the state department of education invited districts to offer both full-time remote schools and blended or hybrid learning programs. Both models received the same level of funding as fully in-person learning.

For the 34,000-student Cleveland Metropolitan Schools, that meant the chance to continue operating its existing Virtual Academy, which provides mostly asynchronous instruction and this year enrolls 154 children; opening a new remote school, which prioritizes synchronous online instruction and now enrolls 1,182 children; and crafting a detailed, 15-page plan to guide schools on a possible return to emergency hybrid instruction.

To make sure everyone is ready for COVID-related outbreaks and quarantines, teachers are expected to run their in-person classrooms through Schoology, the district’s online learning-management system. They’re also supposed to have schedules and plans drawn up for moving lessons onto Zoom should the need arise. The focus is on maintaining strong relationships between teachers and individual students while also providing educators with consistent, predictable schedules to reduce burnout.

“We feel like we’re going to be much more nimble and able to pivot when necessary,” said longtime superintendent Eric Gordon.

It’s that combination of planning and flexibility that states and school systems alike should be prioritizing, said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, an advocacy group that promotes personalized learning.

Most immediately, being adaptable is likely a good way to respond to parent demand and reverse the alarming enrollment drops that many public school systems have experienced over the past 16 months, Patrick said. Nearly 36,000 students now attend Cleveland schools, roughly 1,500 more than at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Such an approach also reflects the reality of an increasingly uncertain world.

“This pandemic is far from over,” Patrick said. “Too many schools are essentially boiling everything down to either fully in person or all-remote.”

In Gig Harbor, Wash., however, that die was already cast.

When Discovery Elementary opened its doors on Sept. 7, Delonna Halliday was there, recovered from COVID-19 and greeting eager students in masks as they scrambled past the two-story pirate ship in the school’s library.

But the national picture of school reopening had turned cloudy, and Halliday was reminding her staff to make sure their students knew how to log into Discovery’s digital learning management system.

Like most principals, Halliday said, she loved a good plan. But she was still waiting for guidance from above on what the strategy would be in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak or mass quarantine.

“I’m not in those conversations,” she said. “But I know they’re happening.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as Why School Districts Are Unprepared For COVID-19 Disruptions, Again


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