As educators, we must not permit the educational gap to widen so significantly during this pandemic, especially considering the recent injustices and promises of social reform in our country.
Part 1 of this article presented the results of an educator survey conducted at the beginning of the pandemic and highlighted critical areas of consideration for school leaders. Most pressing is the thorny issue of equity. In late August, researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education reviewed a nationally representative sample of school district reopening plans and found that an average of 26% of schools across the nation planned to start the year with a fully remote program (Gross et al. 2020). However, this figure rose to 41% in districts serving high poverty populations. Although some schools are providing laptops and internet, this practice is not universal and also does not address the availability of adult support at home. Participants in a panel discussion at the National Principals Conference in August placed considerable emphasis on the learning equity issues present between students whose parents are available to stay at home and facilitate instruction relative to those with parents who must work outside the home (Provenzano et al. 2020). Panelists also noted that many areas had limited broadband access and that the provision of devices alone would not meet the educational support needs of students. Unfortunately, these are only a few factors contributing to the deepening equity divide once we consider that families with more resources are organizing pandemic pods (Blum & Miller, 2020) or deciding to transfer their children to private schools that offer in-person instruction (Reilly, 2020).
This equity divide is especially evident when comparing my own private school setting to our neighboring public schools in New York City. When we closed in March, we had the resources to provide laptops to students in need, while many public school students waited months for devices. Our leadership team immediately formed subcommittees not only to enhance the virtual learning in progress but also to plan in earnest for reopening. When the state finally released school reopening guidance in July and provided mere days for schools to submit their plans, we found that we not only met but also exceeded requirements. We were able to open school on schedule in early September while the NYC public schools faced ongoing delays, pushing back the start date to October 1st for some students (NYC Department of Education, n.d.). The majority of our lower school learners engage in five full days of in-person instruction each week, whereas the reopening plan published on the NYC Department of Education website indicates that elementary students currently participate in only one to three days per week. In our setting, middle and upper school students attend school on a hybrid schedule and alternate between full days of in-person and live virtual instruction. In contrast, the corresponding schedule for public school students in grades 6-12 provides only one to two days of in-person instruction per week. Even more concerning, when NYC public school students are learning at home, they have access to limited live instruction. Students in kindergarten through second grade are provided with only 65-95 minutes of synchronous instruction per day, and high school students are allocated a total of 100-120 minutes each day. Research suggests that the combination of a delayed start, limited opportunities to attend school in-person, and minimal live instruction while at home places these students at risk for missing the equivalent of months of learning (Garcia and Weiss, 2020).
It is clear that many other concerns initially highlighted by the educators surveyed in March continue to impact students negatively. The emotional and physical well-being and safety of students remain top considerations for educators, especially for the 26% of students across the nation who are learning remotely and the additional 12% participating in a hybrid model of instruction (Gross et al. 2020). Social-emotional concerns are also loudly echoed by parents. A recent survey conducted in September by Hart Research Associates for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens and NAACP found that 47% of participating parents associated remote learning with a significant negative impact on their child’s social and emotional health and well-being (Hart Research Associates, 2020). At-risk students are also likely to have limited access to vital nutrition programs, special education, ESOL services, and counseling support so these services must be a top priority for school reopening plans (Garcia & Weiss, 2020).
A third of the March educator survey participants referenced in Part 1 of this article indicated that they did not feel well prepared to teach online, and comments further revealed that teachers were feeling overwhelmed with trying to juggle their personal and professional demands. As highlighted during the panel discussion at the National Principals Conference, and in other policy forums, schools are now noting alarming levels of educator attrition and shortages (Educational Policy Institute, 2020; Kini, 2020; Provenzano et al. 2020). In addition, the recent survey conducted by Hart Research Associates revealed that 33% of the educators polled reported feeling more likely to leave teaching or retire early (Hart Research Associates, 2020). Teachers also overwhelmingly reported that both hybrid or full remote models resulted in more work for them and 36% further indicated that remote instruction has worked much less well for students relative to traditional instruction. Garcia and Weiss (2020) conducted a review of pandemic relevant research and succinctly captured the intersectionality of these issues in one of their key lessons, stating that “research regarding online learning and teaching shows that they are effective only if students have consistent access to the internet and computers and if teachers have received targeted training and supports for online instruction” (p.2). In this context, educational leaders face the challenge of supporting teachers and providing essential professional development to build online teaching skills while operating within reduced budgets that must prioritize safety measures.
As educators, we must not permit the educational gap to widen so significantly during this pandemic, especially considering the recent injustices and promises of social reform in our country. Although daunting, our response to the challenges created by COVID-19 presents an opportunity for schools to reconsider current practices and emerge stronger and more equitable, with enhanced skills to leverage technology and a continuum of supports to meet community needs. We are powerful agents of change and must respond to this call to action, for our students, our colleagues, ourselves, and our society.
Megan Storey Hallam is a school psychologist employed as the Director of Student Support Services at Leman Manhattan. She completed her Ed.S in School Psychology at William & Mary and is currently a doctoral student in the Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership program.