It is now the fifth week of our new educational reality in America and for the first time since the crisis began, every state in the union has now closed their schools. Right now 19 states have ordered or recommended that schools stay closed through the end of the academic year, nearly double the number from just one week ago.
At the same time, while many schools and school districts were able to quickly make the transition to distance learning and connect with all of their students, a number of America’s largest school districts continue to lag behind with either no distance learning program or a program that is too limited to meet their students’ needs.
Last week we shined a spotlight on the hundreds of thousands of children who had lost their connection to their school and on the ways proven instructional techniques could be adapted to the world of distance learning. This week we focus on the logistics needed to make distance learning work for kids and how we can respond to this crisis in ways that will lead to a stronger tomorrow.
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Professionals Talk Logistics
“Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics,” Gen. Omar Bradley once remarked when asked what leaders must focus on to reach their goals. This observation is one we could also make about the type of leadership that is required in American education today. It’s one thing to talk about the strategy of moving schools into the world of distance learning, but getting the logistics right is what will determine whether it actually works for kids.
We sat down with Doug McCurry, the Co-CEO and Superintendent of Achievement First, to understand what it took to transform the 37 brick and mortar schools in his network into a vibrant online learning community before many districts had even formally named distance learning as a goal. Clearing the logistical hurdles, McCurry shared in our video interview, meant asking and answering a huge number of questions.
“We had to figure out how to safely get into our buildings with great social distancing,” McCurry shares about the first few days. “Our Chromebooks were all configured just to work on our AF network. So we not only had to get them. Then we had to figure out who on our IT team could then reconfigure them. We had to call every single one of our families and inventory what they had both for a device and WiFi. We had to then connect them to WiFi carriers, get MiFis. Literally, Chromebooks were arriving at my house, Dacia, our co-CEO’s house, and two other houses were our Chromebook depots … And I heard some districts say, ‘Well, we can’t do remote learning because the kids don’t have devices.’ We had that problem, but we rallied.”
Now that the first month of the transition is over, McCurry and Achievement First are busy tackling a new set of logistical challenges with a mindset that these challenges can serve as an opportunity to drive innovation. “I think we could do virtual summer academies in a way that we’ve never thought of before, which could save us time and money. We’re having to do some of our trainings remotely this summer, and that’s saving us time and money as well and maybe could be higher impact,” McCurry shared. “We’re leveraging our best teachers for lead planning and videos in a way that I think could be incredibly helpful, especially for newer teachers … And so I just think we all can use this as an opportunity to ask how can we do better-quality programming at a lower cost?”
The task this week is to focus on explicitly identifying the key logistical challenges that stand in the way of delivering the high-quality education our kids deserve and to explore these challenges as opportunities for innovation.
Building for a Stronger Tomorrow
“Are we trying to solve a two-week, four-week, six-week issue, or are we actually going to try to tackle the greater disparities that exist in our country?” asks Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School district in Arizona, in our video interview. Before COVID-19 shut down his district’s school buildings, Gestson had earned a reputation as one of America’s most innovative superintendents. In the past few weeks, his promise to call “every student every day” inspired a movement to ensure that the connection between schools and students stays open after the school buildings close.
The driver for Phoenix Union’s success has been a unified focus by the educators in the district on the needs of students. “Our hands are open, our hearts are open and we will continue to serve our students and families… we won’t give up on our kids.”
Having successfully transitioned his district into the world of online learning out of necessity, Gestson is determined to aim higher for what is possible as we seek to rebuild education in America. How can we respond to this crisis in a way that rights historic wrongs? “Don’t send me any more hotspots, I want WiFi towers and fiber in every poor community in America,” Gestson answers. “Don’t send me any more laptops, I want appropriately resourced schools in America. Don’t send me money to run a summer program, I want adequate funding to do free clubs and free sports and free activities and free arts for poor kids all throughout our nation… it is time to really think about long-term solutions around funding, around infrastructure, around support for students and schools and families.”
The task this week is to aim higher in our response to this crisis so that solutions don’t just meet the short-term needs of our students but pave the way for a more effective and more just education system for the years ahead.
“The empty feeling all students are experiencing now as they are blocked from classrooms, from prom, and from connecting with the teachers they know and love is a small taste of what it feels like on a daily basis for black students to be in schools that lock them out from their history, teachers that look like them, their culture and their community,” DelawareCAN Executive Director Atnre Alleyne writes for Citizen Education. It’s a reminder that the deep inequities being experienced by communities across the country are not simply a result of the pandemic but are, in fact, driven forward by the structural problems that preceded them.
Across the country, our local teams have raised their collective voices to ensure that our response to the crisis in our schools not only tackles immediate problems but focuses on building a more just future for all kids. GeorgiaCAN and ConnCAN have launched surveys to collect information from parents about their experiences since school buildings have shuttered. NewMexicoKidsCAN has issued a report on distance learning plans for every district in the state. JerseyCAN launch a new initiative to collect stories of heroic educators going above and beyond to help students. HawaiiKidsCAN has hosted numerous community virtual events, including community forums, virtual educator gatherings to discuss how to aid students, “Spark and Inspire” conferences and even a film contest to elevate the voices of kids. DelawareCAN executive director Atnre Alleyene was added to the state’s remote learning taskforce and the team has graded each school’s distance learning plans. And both Transform Education Now and HawaiiKidsCAN’s David Miyashiro have leveraged the power of local press to keep the needs of students at the forefront of their state’s conversation about schools.
EdTrust is out with a new poll that states an overwhelming majority (89%) of New York parents are concerned about their students falling behind academically during the school closure.
Parents have a right to be concerned. A study conducted by NWEA finds that without action, COVID-19 will have a devastating effect on student learning, with students entering the fall with less than 50% of typical learning gains.
Common Sense Media teamed up with Survey Monkey to find out how America’s teenagers are coping with the nationwide school closures.
The American Enterprise Institute has launched a project to track how states and districts are adapting to this new education reality.
Instruction Partners has studied early distance learning plans from districts and provides guidance for decision makers in what is and isn’t working.
CRPE’s Robin Lake provides an overview of new survey results on what CMOs and districts are doing to meet students’ needs.
In collaboration with the FCC, wireless and broadband carriers have agreed to provide free WiFi hotspots and additional internet access during the pandemic.
Transcend Education has worked with other groups to identify the key problems that must be solved during the pandemic.
50CAN’s Derrell Bradford provides an analysis of the federal education stimulus funds and what’s missing from where the money is directed.
Teach For America has created a list of free resources developed for educators engaging in distance learning.
Ms. Snyder, a middle school math teacher at Berner Middle School in upstate New York, is thinking creatively to maximize student environments in the time of distance learning. While teaching a lesson on calculating volume, she had her students find objects in their homes matching three-dimensional shapes. It’s a reminder that the challenges of distance learning can also open up innovative new ways of thinking and educating–and spark student engagement in unexpected ways.