Editor’s note: There were an overwhelming amount of questions during the event, many of which went unanswered due to time constraints. In this post on Brookings’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog, panelists provided written responses to some of the most frequent queries.
In March, schools across the nation closed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The quick shift to remote learning created academic disruptions to millions of students—especially to low-income and minority students, and those who require special services (students with IEP and English learners). As the federal government urges for reopening, states and local governments must weigh options to address children’s learning needs while keeping students and staff safe.
On May 21, the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings hosted a webinar that addressed how the United States should approach reopening schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael Hansen led a discussion with a panel of education experts to analyze schools’ move to distance learning and the challenges school leaders will face as they try to get students back to schools.
Remote learning during school closures
The transition to remote learning varied widely across school districts, exposing deep inequalities in K-12 education. Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, noted that well-resourced districts provided students with devices and offered trainings to teachers to ease children’s transition to virtual education; meanwhile, less-affluent districts struggled to implement distance learning and many students have not engaged with instruction. In addition to disparities in technology access, differences in curriculum and instruction also emerged.
Emiliana Vegas, co-director of Brookings’s Center for Universal Education, said that responses to school closures also varied across countries. In countries with lower resources and lower rates of internet connectivity, the transition to remote learning was even harder, leaving many students without education for months on end. Conversely, in countries like Australia, the government made sure that all students would have access to internet and devices needed for remote learning, and trained teachers in ways to effectively engage students.
Considerations for reopening schools
As school districts consider multiple scenarios to reopen their campuses—including fully in-person classes, hybrid models, and remote learning only—panelists discussed factors that policymakers and education leaders need to ponder in planning for next year.
First, schools will face major budgetary challenges to meet the social distancing requirements demanded in the recent guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Heather Hough, executive director at the education policy and research group PACE, detailed some of the costly implications of faithfully adopting CDC guidelines, and she expressed that many school districts in California will simply not be able to reopen in the fall. There are too few dollars under current school budget proposals to safely reopen and serve all students.
Second, education at home will continue in some form for at least some students during the fall. Estimates suggest that about a third of teachers are at risk of illness and many parents have expressed their willingness to continue with home education rather than putting their kids at risk. Schools need to understand and accommodate the preferences of parents and teachers in their decision to return to school. Vegas pointed out that other countries have let parents choose whether to send their children back to school or continue educating them at home.
Lastly, schools need to implement a system to identify the specific needs of students once they return to school. Hough suggested that schools use diagnostic assessments to gauge the academic, emotional, and health needs of each student and use evidence-based practices to address them. “We need to think about what does every kid need, whether that’s child care, whether that’s direct targeted support, whether that’s school mental health services … and design around that.”
How education will look in the near future
The panelists agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a catalyst for changing education in the U.S. Many changes involve flexibility related to English learners and IEP services, seat requirements, changes in the calendar year, and more emphasis in personalized learning. Although the pandemic has opened an opportunity to be creative and to implement practices that accelerate learning, it is critical that any transformation in education prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged students.