It is now week 22 of our new education reality and most large school systems across the country have announced that, at least for the beginning of the school year, classes will be held entirely virtually.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that the distance learning programs that districts offered in the spring led to huge learning losses and increased inequality. Parents are understandably searching for other options, with families who can afford to do so looking to private schools, microschools and learning pods to provide their children with in-person instruction.

Last time in the New Reality Roundup, we looked at how we can support parent innovation and talked with the new executive director of DelawareCAN in a video interview.

This week, we look at the learning losses students will likely experience this fall and the need for an emergency response to our education problems.

Shine a spotlight on the real cost of learning losses

“Covid-19 related school closures are forcing countries even further off track in achieving their learning goals,” reports Brookings. “The students currently in school stand to lose $10 trillion in labor earnings over their work life. To get a sense of the magnitude, this sum is one-tenth of global GDP … or twice the global annual public expenditure on primary and secondary education.”

Looking specifically at the United States, a study from McKinsey finds that learning losses and higher dropout rates “are not likely to be temporary shocks easily erased in the next academic year. On the contrary, we believe that they may translate into long-term harm for individuals and society.” World Bank Vice President for Human Development, Annette Dixon makes it plain: “Without rapid, decisive, and coordinated action, the crisis threatens to pose a huge setback to hard-won gains in human capital, irreversibly damaging the lifelong opportunities of millions of children.”

With the country grappling over how and when to open schools, we must also not ignore the very real consequences of keeping students out of school, particularly if the problems of student engagement with distance learning in the spring are replicated this fall. As Maria Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit VELA that helps parents navigate special education for their kids, told Vox: For a lot of families of kids with disabilities, virtual learning this spring “meant nothing … It meant one phone call; it meant one packet.”

The immensity of learning loss is not something that can be solved by students and teachers working a little bit harder once schools are cleared to reopen. We have to do much better this fall than we did last spring, starting with the choices we make over the next few weeks.

  • The task this week is to elevate the cost of learning losses into national and local conversations and to demand a robust policy plan to combat it.

Bring an emergency mindset to student learning 

“While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer,” writes Ed Yong in The Atlantic. “The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer … Far from being a ‘great equalizer,’ the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.”

This is particularly true in education as a K-12 system that has never served low-income students and students of color particularly well in good times failed to adapt to a world without school buildings. While many school leaders hoped for a return to normal in the fall, it is clear that the challenges we confronted in the spring will return.

According to CRPE, in the past few weeks there has been a dramatic shift among the country’s largest school districts away from plans to reopen their school buildings. A similar analysis by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity finds 71 of the 120 largest school districts will start the year with a completely online program. At the same time, CRPE found that only 11 states “expect districts to put in place specific practices to support students in remote or blended learning models.”

In the spring, during the initial wave of school buildings closures, we argued for bridging the digital divide and dramatically improving distance learning through leadership and innovation. It is clear that many districts struggled to do so and will continue to struggle to provide quality distance learning this fall. While we must bring an emergency mindset to a new wave of federal, state and local investments in online learning programs, it is also essential that we support parents who are looking for different options.

That means looking beyond districts’ online programs to also support approaches that allow for small-group, in-person programs for the students who need it most: low-income students, those who are already below grade level, English Language Learners, and special education students. Districts should strive to provide this support but we should also embrace more entrepreneurial responses including private schools, microschools, pods, community centers, and homeschooling.

  • The task this week is to acknowledge normal isn’t coming back soon and to bring a greater sense of urgency to our response with a new wave of investments in distance learning and support for more in-person learning opportunities with a focus on equity.

“Public health guidelines will rightly impact the manner in which education can be delivered in Connecticut this fall, but that is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of concerns. As advocates focused on equity, we’re concerned about the lack of socialization, learning loss, low engagement, inequitable access to technology and food insecurity,” writes ConnCAN Executive Director Subira Gordon in an op-ed for the CT Mirror, which also touts their work compiling an inventory of district reopening plans across the state. Subira is one of several critical voices across the 50CAN network that is speaking out about the need for greater urgency in our approach to the coming school year.

Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN spoke to the Albuquerque Journal about how the system had to do more for kids, while HawaiiKidsCAN’s David Miyashiro testified before the board of education. In Colorado, Transform Education Now has continued to advocate for innovative policies that would empower and fund parents seeking options.

Elsewhere, our state campaigns are focusing on amplifying the voices of parents and grassroots supporters, including in TennesseeCAN where they have continued to connect lawmakers with parents through a series of forums. And in Georgia, the first state in our network to reopen schools, the GeorgiaCAN team has been collecting and sharing parents’ experiences throughout the week.

Meanwhile, JerseyCAN released the second report in their Educator Workforce series, promoting 11 innovative ideas to strengthen and re-imagine the teaching force in the wake of the pandemic. The WAVE program from HawaiiKidsCAN has garnered recent press coverage after the student advocates created a candidate voter guide.

  • The 74 Million is out with a new analysis showing that preschool participation has fallen by half since the start of Covid-19, with devastating implications for learning loss.

  • AEI published a new report focused on building effective school and community career pathways that recommends integrating students with employers.

  • yes. every kid has published a new playbook of policy solutions including recommendations around school credit for lessons outside the classroom.

  • New Classrooms is offering a free diagnostic math assessment and personalized academic road map this fall.

  • Bellwether presents five recommendations to make learning pods more equitable and five strategies for serving students with disabilities during Covid-19.

  • NPR’s Morning Edition released a new survey of American teachers, finding that two-thirds prefer to start the school year online.

  • Martin West, writing for Education Next, looks at the system-wide implications if more private schools are permanently shuttered.

  • In a very busy week for education reporting, Alexander Russo provides a roundup of all the top articles in The Grade.

“I am radically student-centered because I’m constantly trying to be who I needed when I was younger,” shares Qorsho Hassan, who was recently named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year. The first Somali educator to win the award, Hassan was praised for the way she kept her student-centered approach to teaching going through the transition into distance learning this spring.

Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.


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