Welcome back. It’s week 38 of our new education reality and we hope you had a restful Thanksgiving break.

It is clear that the next few months are going to be particularly hard on America’s students, teachers and families. This is a moment to double down on doing everything we can to adapt our education system to put the needs of kids first.

“Some teachers’ unions have refused to return to buildings until the virus abates, ostracizing colleagues who dare break with them,” writes Erica Green in a powerful new article for the New York Times. “On the other hand, the country’s most vulnerable children have sustained severe academic and social harm from the remote-learning experiment. Parents, navigating their own economic and work struggles, are increasingly desperate.”

Last time in the New Reality Roundup we looked at the results of 2020 state and local elections across the country and heard from some of 50CAN’s local leaders on their policy priorities to address the immediate needs of families.

This week we focus on two ways that our schools can maximize learning in the coming months: improve the way we are engaging with students through distance learning and prioritize making in-person instruction accessible for the students who need it most.

Make distance learning work better for all kids

How are most students doing with distance learning? “The data is profound–and by that, I mean profoundly bad,” “Teach Like a Champion” author Doug Lemov told me in a new video interview. “This is going to be a terrible year… so people are going to have to work hard, and I would love to do everything I can to help them be successful.” It’s for that reason that Lemov and his team have authored a new book for educators, “Teaching in the Online Classroom.”

The first and most important step, Lemov advises, is to be “intentional about the human side of the interaction” between teachers and students. “In schools and classrooms, the thing that drives us is a sense of belonging… the message to students must be, ‘You belong in this class, you’re important.’ I don’t have any easy answers, but if it’s painful to you as a teacher right now, do everything you can to connect. Connect through the work.”

  • The task this week is to redouble our efforts to make distance learning work better for the tens of millions of kids that are struggling right now with this new remote form of education.

Bring our most vulnerable students back in-person 

“In-person connection, many educators and parents say, is often the linchpin for academic success,” Erin Richards writes for USA Today, in a new piece exploring the tension for districts in bringing students back, even with rising infection rates. “It’s why, despite the pandemic, a growing number of districts are requiring students struggling online to attend class in-person, if that’s an option.”

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute finds that while parents overall provide their schools with higher marks now than they did in the spring, this is mostly driven by the grades given by parents whose children have returned to in-person learning. “In fact,” the authors write, “among those whose children are still remote, parent grades for the overall quality of education and for keeping students engaged are much closer to where they were during spring shutdowns.”

That is one of the reasons school districts are looking for ways to get their most vulnerable students back into the classroom. In Texas, the state education agency is empowering districts to bring students back to school buildings if they are having academic difficulty or have multiple unexcused absences. Similarly, prioritizing struggling students is a core part of the plan in Baltimore. “We can do this and we can do it safely,” says Peter Kannam, a Baltimore principal. In Washington D.C., district officials are so eager to get some struggling students back to school buildings that they’re moving forward, despite opposition from the teachers union, by tapping college students, after-school employees and other support staff to lead classrooms. Finally, in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course on Sunday by announcing that elementary schools will reopen for in-person learning and parents who opted for in-person learning will now be able to send their children to school five days a week.

  • The task this week is to push all districts for a plan to give families of the most vulnerable children in a community the option of returning to full-time, in-person schooling.

JerseyCAN and The New Jersey Children’s Foundation published the results of a new poll showing vast disparities in the additional educational opportunities afforded to low-income students during the pandemic. In a blog announcing the results, JerseyCAN senior advisor Janellen Duffy explained: “Based on this poll, parents’ top concern is ensuring that their children do not fall behind academically, and parents want more access to their children’s teachers, as well information about whether their children are on grade level. We need a bold state policy agenda to address these concerns and get students back on track academically and provide the right social and emotional supports as well.” The poll has already begun making waves with local media.

In the Land of Enchantment, NewMexicoKidsCAN is seeing dividends after pushing earlier this year for school-level financial transparency to ensure that it was clear how resources are or are not getting to the students that need them most. That process is moving forward, with the Legislative Education Study Committee recently discussing the implementation of the School Budget Transparency bill.

Executive Director David Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN sat down with Hawaii Public Radio to discuss several of his 2021 priorities, including computer science in education. The organization continues to receive support for expanding WiFi access across the islands, with recent features in West Hawaii Today and Hawaii Business Magazine.

GeorgiaCAN was proud to welcome 50 new powerful women advocates to its growing grassroot movement after graduating the first cohort of EPIC–Empowered Parents Invested in Change–a program that has earned rave reviews from participants. They also hosted a pre-Thanksgiving webinar on the future of education in the Peach State.

  • CRPE updated their analysis of district reopening plans, finding a significant urban-rural divide and concluding that public health fears are creating a “reopening treadmill.”

  • FutureED, TeachPlus and Educators 4 Excellence hosted a roundtable discussion with six educators on the challenges of teaching during the Covid crisis.

  • The US Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools program released a collection of effective distance learning strategies for educators.

  • Colorin Colorado created a guide of best practices for educating ELL students virtually–a subgroup that has struggled extensively during the pandemic.

  • EdSurge and ISTE launched the “Learning Keeps Going” resource hub, featuring strategies and professional development for teachers, including tech training and e-learning resources.

  • EdWeek looked at efforts to train racial bias out of educators, finding the efforts have been largely ineffective thus far.

  • The University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform released a new study showing vast disparities between charter and district funding in cities across the country.

  • Teach For America and several other partners launched a series of webinars, “What We’re Learning About Distance Learning,” to assist educators.

Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore Public Schools, visits with teachers at one of the 27 schools the district reopened for in-person instruction this month to better serve Baltimore’s most vulnerable students. In total, 1,200 students will be included in the initial program, with priority given to students with special needs and students without internet access.


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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