This post was written by former Director of State Policy Terrance Sullivan.
Traditional education systems have been disrupted and at the heart of all the disruption and uncertainty, are students. While COVID-19 and its resulting impact have been felt around the globe, students are being hit by unprecedented challenges few could have prepared for. The lasting impact of this pandemic will be felt for years to come, and, as students, parents and teachers look for guidance moving forward, the present has proven to be challenging and especially for groups of students who may have been underserved before all of this began.
The sudden shift to solely remote learning has exacerbated existing academic inequities that have been fueled by mostly economic access reasons. Millions of students have been disconnected from their social safety nets and as this crisis is prolonged, students in the most need will only see the gaps in access grow. While stimulus funds and waivers have offered temporary solutions, more planning and thought needs to go into how to sustain attempts at rectifying a vastly inequitable system.
With this in mind, some states have begun to focus on strengthening and growing in the realm of human capital and infrastructure. That means states and policymakers have started the process of taking steps aimed at increasing access, creating a sustainable infrastructure that will allow for a more equitable continuation of learning and equipping districts with tools to withstand the current pandemic while also preparing for the next one.
South Carolina, New Hampshire, Minnesota, New Jersey
This can be implemented in a myriad of ways. States could allocate funding or create programs for districts to grow access. It could also be reallocation of existing resources, possibly some going unused at the present moment.
In South Carolina, facing the challenge of connectivity for students, especially those in poorer or rural areas of the state, education officials announced plans to start placing hundreds of school buses equipped with Wi-Fi in low-income neighborhoods around the state to serve as mobile hotspots for students.
The Governor of New Hampshire recently signed an Executive Order allowing districts to, outside of regular budgetary planning processes, redistribute funding to help meet the needs created around accessible remote learning.
In states like Minnesota and New Jersey, state legislatures are considering measures that would provide grant relief to districts to be able to increase the broadband access. Recognizing that many students don’t have access to a computer or reliable internet, these states are working quickly to address the issues of infrastructure that may serve as a detriment to some of the students in most need.
Establishing support systems
Tennessee, Hawaii, Pennsylvania
Money and grants, however, are not the only solution. In Tennessee, the Department of Education has released a public survey seeking feedback from all stakeholders on the most effective ways to help school districts address immediate needs to respond to COVID-19. Hawaii Department of Education has begun “Peer-to-Peer Power Sessions” for teachers to connect with one another virtually to support each other’s work as they seek to continually offer quality instruction for students. Lastly, in Pennsylvania provisions in a comprehensive new law would require all schools, including charter schools, to communicate to the families of students with disabilities the school’s plan to ensure special education services continue.
With the significant upheaval created by COVID-19 and the shift to solely remote learning and instruction, careful attention needs to be paid to the potential for students to be left behind. Equity demands that those at the most academic risk during this pandemic be handled with care and thoughtful solutions that boost both districts and teachers’ abilities to reach students, while being mindful of the diverse situations students may be facing during this time. States, districts and schools will need to think differently about how and where learning happens and how to ensure every student has the ability to access new and innovative learning experiences regardless of present or future circumstances.
Increasing capacity with equity
Aside from taking similar steps to the actions taken in Minnesota or New Jersey, or any other state mentioned, states must find ways to increase the capacity for learning communities to meet the needs of each student, anytime and anyplace.
“States must find ways to increase the capacity for learning communities to meet the needs of each student, anytime and anyplace.”
Some immediate actions that states could take to better serve students in these times would be to locate funding sources to either allocate or redistribute funding to districts to ensure universal access to broadband services and devices. Another worthwhile endeavor would be for districts to conduct an assessment of students who have been unreachable during remote learning to identify possible reasons and solutions that could inform future planning to ensure students are not left out.
Looking forward, states could convene stakeholders to reflect on the future of learning in light of the weaknesses exposed by COVID-19 and develop strategies and action plans to create a more resilient and equitable system.
These are trying times for all who are parties within the education system. States should work to ensure students who are at the heart of this pandemic are not left behind but can instead emerge from this period thriving.