We are now at the beginning of the fourth week of our new educational reality. Here is where things stand: 10 states have ordered that all public school buildings must stay closed for the entire academic year and two additional states have recommended the same. That means that 15 million students, more than one-quarter of all public school students, will not be returning to school buildings until autumn, a number that is almost certain to continue to grow in the coming weeks.

We are faced with a clear choice: make distance learning work or lose the next three months, or more, of learning. This is education’s Apollo 13 moment. We can’t get distracted with a debate about what our schools were or were not designed to do. What we need to focus on now is how to meet the immediate needs of students. That means accepting we have a new mission, identifying the problems standing in the way of success, and rapidly trying out new solutions until we find the ones that help us achieve this mission.

Last week, we put a spotlight on the need to connect with every child every day and to put in place plans for innovative instruction and real learning. We are thrilled that starting today in Miami-Dade Public Schools, America’s fourth-largest school district, the district will be taking attendance for their distance learning classes and families will receive a phone call if their children haven’t logged in.

This week we focus on the most immediate needs that have surfaced: finding what is likely hundreds of thousands of children who have been lost by the education system in the wake of the pandemic, and adapting best practices in instruction to our new world of distance learning.

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Experiment, Observe and Adapt

“Everything’s the same and everything’s different,” Uncommon Schools managing director Doug Lemov shares in our inaugural New Reality Roundup video interview. We sat down with Lemov to understand how the author of the best-selling Teach like a Champion was adapting his classroom techniques in a world without classrooms.

What hasn’t changed according to Lemov is the underlying cognitive science about how kids learn. “In education generally, you can only learn about what you’re paying attention to,” Lemov explains. This is a bigger challenge in a distance learning setting because your students “are far away from you. They are insulated from social and cultural cues that you use to maintain their attention. And they’re in a setting on a screen where they are used to maintaining their attention for fleeting periods of time.”

Since the nationwide school building shutdown, Lemov and team have been doing in-depth reviews of online classes every single day to find out what it takes to keep students engaged and keep them learning. They are putting these videos online alongside expert analysis and practical advice.

One big conclusion: students need “pause points” to effectively absorb an online lesson. “You’re talking into the screen at people,” Lemov observes. “You have to pause every couple of minutes and insert an activity.” These can include accountability loops to test students’ knowledge, formative thinking exercises where students can make an idea their own and a simple check for understanding.

In this new environment, Lemov argues, teachers will need to figure out how to reach students “by making mistakes or being imperfect more than ever.” To learn by experimenting, schools need to be “super attentive to the data stream that student work provides.” That, in turn, means having “to constantly be gathering student work.”

  • The task this week is to fully commit to striving towards effective instruction in this new world of distance learning by experimenting, observing and adapting based on what we are learning works for the students we serve.

Watch the full interview here.

Find the Lost Children

“The first official data on student online participation reveal the massive challenge confronting the nation’s second-largest school district… 15,000 Los Angeles high school students are absent online and have failed to do any schoolwork while more than 40,000 have not been in daily contact with their teachers since March 16, when the coronavirus forced campus shutdowns,” Howard Blume and Sonali Kohli reported in the LA Times last week.

Los Angeles Unified has shown responsibility in tracking their missing students and releasing the numbers for public accountability, but that isn’t the case everywhere. Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones researched additional districts, writing in the New York Times, “Some school systems, like the District of Columbia Public Schools, have stopped taking formal attendance altogether. The nation’s largest school district, New York City, which is at the center of the coronavirus crisis, has not yet released data on the number of children participating in online learning.”

Most children not reached by their schools over the past three weeks are likely still in safe environments and the loss of connection is strictly educational. For other children, however, regular contact with teachers is a critical safety line for their physical and mental health and wellbeing. In a sign of the dangers of this new reality, the FBI issued a formal warning on the increased risk of child exploitation: “Due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially … be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk.”

At the same time, writing in the New York Times, author Tanya Selvaratnam warns that in homes with a history of abuse, stay at home orders could be especially dangerous. “During this global public health crisis, we have more of a responsibility to reach out” and serve as a lifeline to those most at risk.

What can be done? Emily Bailard, the CEO of EveryDayLabs, has been running pilot programs in California to test ways to reach more children. They estimate that 30 to 50 percent of low-income students may be out-of-contact with their school system. The main cause is out of date contact information. The initial pilots have shown that about 90 percent of missing students can be contacted via USPS mail. Their advice: districts and schools should immediately mail out contact cards and provide a call center and texting service that will allow families to simply and easily update contact information.

  • The task this week is for every district to immediately report out the number of students that are currently unreachable and to launch a comprehensive outreach plan to secure contact information on 100 percent of their students and initiate daily wellness calls.

“The educational efforts by schools nationwide are far too spotty,” the Los Angeles Times warned in a scathing editorial last week. “Today’s students shouldn’t become the lost cohort, left with less ability to succeed academically than those who came before or after them.” Ensuring that possibility doesn’t become a reality will take bold public policies driven forward by relentless local advocacy.

Across the 50CAN network, our local leaders are engaging with policymakers to make sure that the needs of students are front and center in our public response to this crisis. HawaiiKidsCAN’s David Miyashiro testified to the state board of education about equity and the digital divide. As noted by CBS News Denver, Transform Education Now (TEN) in Colorado built online parent communities to collaborate around common expectations for remote learning. This week they hosted a digital meeting with the Denver Public Schools superintendent where they asked for daily teacher check-ins and a plan for assessing student progress. Similarly, ConnCAN has hosted several distance learning discussions with parents and families. DelawareCAN’s Atnre Alleyne and Daniel Walker convened a people’s taskforce to provide community-driven feedback to policymakers and created a Facebook group to surface innovation and resources for distance learning. In Miami, PS 305’s Mina Hosseini zeroed in on ensuring the school board listens to parents’ needs, emerging as one of the most consistent conduits in driving information between parents and the district. NewMexicoKidsCAN’s Amanda Aragon called for equity in access to technology on local television alongside the implementation of learning plans that will work for all students.

  • Uncommon Schools released a comprehensive set of K-8 remote learning materials to help all schools make the transition to this new environment.
  • Education Reimagined launched a Distance Learning Resource Center with a focus on materials to support a broad variety of learning.
  • Ed Build added Covid-19 data to Dividing Lines, their highly regarded mapping tool.
  • Doug Harris at the Brookings Brown Center presents a multi-step strategy for schools during COVID-19: ramp up remote teaching, provide special education guidance, subsidize operation funding, waive rules, fund summer school, broaden access and fund tutoring.
  • The Education Trust released a new fact sheet on Covid-19 and childhood hunger.
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures has a comprehensive bill tracker of state responses to COVID-19. A crucial resource for advocates looking across state lines for ideas.
  • The Council of State Governments has compiled all state executive orders issues during the crisis.
  • Maggie Johnson at Partnership Schools explains how she is making phonics instruction work in a distance learning environment.
  • CRPE’s Robin Lake joined the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Show to talk about how districts are adjusting to the new educational reality.
  • Arianna Prothero interviews experts on social-emotional learning in EdWeek, seeking to determine what aspects can be advanced by educators and counselors without physical proximity.

Superintendent Chad Gestson stepped forward with a simple but powerful promise: “our commitment to our youth is that they will get a phone call every day.” How? His district office staff will be assigned to 8 and 12 students who they will be responsible for connecting with daily. As a result, the more than 27,000 students in the Phoenix United High School District will have the caring support of an adult who will serve as a connection point for all their needs.


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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