Closing Schools for Coronavirus Was Hard; Reopening Them Will Be Harder

| New York Daily News | Daniel Weisberg

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, more than 15 states and now New York City have decided to keep schools closed for the rest of the academic year. The news means teachers, principals and school support staff will redouble their heroic efforts to offer stability during this crisis by providing meals, home learning resources, and online instruction.

But it also means an even tougher task awaits schools across the country when they reopen this fall — one that will require much more than resuming business as usual. As difficult as it is to think beyond the immediate crisis, school systems need to start planning for the new school year right now.

Months of missed classes and the toll of the pandemic will exacerbate inequities schools already face. It’s difficult enough for teachers to adapt their instruction for students who are far ahead or behind the rest of the class. They’ll now see an even wider range of academic levels in their classrooms, because individual students had vastly different learning opportunities while schools were closed. Overall, students will be much farther behind grade level than usual.

Schools always expect to support some students who experience trauma. But they’ve never faced a situation where nearly all students will be coping with trauma from extended social isolation, the loss of loved ones, or increased poverty and economic instability. Asian-American students will be at greater risk of bullying on top of it all. And teachers’ personal and professional lives will be upended.

As has always been the case in our education system, the most vulnerable students — students of color, from low-income families, who are learning English, or with disabilities — will suffer the most. They’re less likely to receive high-quality distance learning, more likely to experience trauma, and more likely to attend schools that struggle to recruit and keep effective teachers.

None of these challenges will be easy to overcome. Some are unprecedented. They’re happening just as a recession will begin, devastating the state budget before federal funding can help close the gap. But here’s the good news: school systems still have enough time to find solutions if they start right now.

First, they need a strategy for recruiting and hiring using virtual tools to avoid a disastrous shortage of teachers when students can least afford one. My organization has been training educators for more than two decades, and we’ve found that online recruitment campaigns, applications, and interviews can create a strong pool of talented, diverse teachers, school leaders, and other staff. But hiring as early in the year as possible is crucial — which means schools don’t have time to wait and see whether in-person recruiting will be practical a few months from now.

Second, systems need to decide how they’ll replace lost learning time. Most students will need to fit far more than a year of learning into a single school year just to keep up, which means teachers need quick information on the size of those learning gaps. Systems should start gathering that data now, and should consider replacing the reading and math tests they canceled this spring with a no-stakes diagnostic assessment — administered virtually — so teachers and students can hit the ground running in the fall. School days and years will likely need to be extended to allow time for review and re-teaching of last year’s material. And teachers will need additional training and support to do all this effectively.

Finally, systems need to prepare to support students who have been affected most by this calamity. Teachers, whose own lives have been upended, will need additional training and collaboration time to ensure they can reach students who’ve suffered trauma. Schools will need to make time specifically for social and emotional learning, giving teachers a strong curriculum and support to deliver it effectively. School systems will also need to reallocate resources to fund more social workers and other mental health supports for children and families, so students have the best possible chance to learn as they recover from these difficult months.

This would be a daunting list of priorities for most systems to tackle in five years, much less five months. As is so often the case, our society will ask schools to shoulder an outsized burden. But with the right planning — right now — systems can ensure that they’re ready to welcome students back in the fall, at a time when they’ll need a positive experience in school more than ever.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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