During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.
Deficiencies in Spring and Summer Point to Where Districts Must Put Their Attention This Fall
School systems face a monumental challenge preparing for fall amid a public health and fiscal crisis. Vulnerable students can ill afford to repeat this spring, when the initial virus outbreaks and sudden closures caught schools unprepared.
Gaps in spring and summer planning can point districts to the critical issues they must attend to in the coming school year. These are some of the crucial practices we will track in our upcoming analysis of districts’ fall reopening plans.
1. Younger students have been less likely to receive robust instruction than older students.
- This spring, high school students were more likely than elementary students to receive robust instruction using online platforms.
- The trend extended into summer. While 62 percent of districts offered credit recovery for high school students, only 35 percent offered academic review for elementary school students (see table 1).
Table 1: Percent of Districts Offering Summer Programming by Type
Source: CRPE analysis of 100 districts' summer plans.
Note: Categories are not mutually exclusive.
This is concerning because younger students typically do not perform as well in remote learning environments. And elementary students and beginner readers benefit most from the kind of review and skill development they would have received if in-person classes had continued into the fourth quarter.
2. Districts are not attending to the needs of graduating students.
- In the spring, 16 percent of 82 districts offered specialized supports for current and rising seniors. These ranged from connecting every student to a counselor to developing detailed web pages with guidance for meeting graduation requirements or applying for financial aid.
- In the summer, many high school students had access to credit recovery programs, but attendance was typically left to their discretion—potentially increasing a student’s risk of not graduating on time and dropping out. Of those districts that offered elementary summer school, most (80 percent) assigned students based on grades or teacher referral. But among high school programs, nearly half (56 percent) left enrollment up to the individual student.
The School District of Philadelphia’s summer programming outlines what specialized supports could look like. Entering 9th grade students took part in a bridge program that helped them prepare for the rigors of high school. Graduating and rising seniors made up lost credits and prepared for life after high school.
Secondary schools have an obligation this fall to ensure that all high school students are on track to earn a meaningful diploma that puts them on the path to a college degree or a rewarding career. Students will likely need specialized counseling and courses to make up for content missed in the spring.
3. Districts offer limited programming for students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
- This spring, districts communicated little information about how students with disabilities and English language learners would receive support.
- In the summer, about a third of all districts offered programs for students with disabilities and English language learners (see table 2), and these appeared to be unchanged from what would have been offered in a typical year.
Table 2: Summer Programming for Students Receiving IEP and English Language Services
Source: CRPE analysis of 100 districts' summer plans.
To prevent students from falling further behind this fall, it is critical that districts commit to personalized and highly effective therapeutic and academic strategies for students who qualify for special services. Districts must plan for how to do this within a remote and hybrid environment.
4. Districts offer little detail about social-emotional supports for students.
- CRPE did not code for social-emotional supports in spring remote learning plans.
- In the summer, none of the 100 districts in our review offered a specific social-emotional curriculum.
We know students returning to school in the fall will be changed by their experiences in the spring and summer. Illness, death, and loss of employment due to COVID-19 have disproportionately impacted families of color and families in poverty. In the fall, districts must create new ways to structure and deliver nonacademic supports, especially for remote and hybrid learning environments.
5. Districts do not communicate how teachers are being supported in new learning environments.
- This spring, fewer than half of districts we reviewed—45 percent of 82—communicated that teachers received training in remote learning. And that training was minimal, lasting anywhere from one day to two weeks.
- This summer, just 5 percent of 100 districts we reviewed communicated options for summer professional development.
In 2020-21, teachers, coaches, and leadership need time built into the week to make sense of diagnostic and formative assessments and to co-plan. Teachers and staff will need training and feedback to deliver instruction in remote and hybrid environments, especially for vulnerable populations and young students. They can’t afford to be caught unprepared a second time.
6. Districts are relying on families to reach out for help.
- In the spring, only 60 percent of the 82 districts in our initial review provided resources or training to support families in their role of co-teachers, primarily in the form of online tips for remote learning and hotlines. But supporting parents as co-teachers requires more than passive resources. Historically marginalized and under resourced families are more likely to cite barriers when navigating school information.
- No district communicated an expectation that staff contact families over the summer.
Some districts this spring did set expectations for staff to conduct individual check-ins with families—such as Aurora, Colo.; El Paso, Tx.; and Kansas City, Mo.—or offered virtual office hours with families, such as Chicago and Baltimore. Even before the school year starts, districts and schools should require teachers to reach out to families individually and maintain regular check-ins throughout the year.
Implications for Fall Planning
The data we’ve tracked in the spring and summer imply that districts have already missed critical opportunities to prepare students, educators, and families for what promises to be a very challenging fall. In particular, districts should consider the following set of priorities:
- Zero in on critical skills for younger learners.
- Ensure that all students are on track to graduate and are receiving effective college and career counseling.
- Prioritize students receiving specialized services and therapies.
- Ensure both teachers and parents have access to ongoing, targeted supports.
Districts must ensure all schools deliver quality instruction this fall, regardless of format, and prioritize those students who have fallen furthest behind. To do so, they must give schools flexibility to reallocate teachers, hire new support staff, and adjust schedules to accommodate students’ diverse learning needs. The intensity of need also calls for creative community partnerships so schools can focus on learning.
By not setting high expectations for learning in the spring and summer, some school systems have likely reinforced historic inequities along the dimensions of income, race, and ability and widened gaps for students already below grade level. Those gaps could increase this fall if schools do not take action. In the coming weeks, we’ll be watching to make sure districts don’t let that happen.
For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.
States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).