6 steps to take before reopening schools

Ensuring a quality, safe and equitable education for all learners
Long-time educator Eugene Butler Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent (Tucson Unified School District in Arizona).
Longtime educator Eugene Butler Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent of Tucson Unified School District in Arizona.

The effects of the coronavirus will likely cascade across school districts for at least the next two years—or until viable therapeutics and/or a safe and proven vaccine can be developed and mass produced—and then the vaccination protocol can commence.

Until then, a pathway to successfully educate America’s students must be established by both internal and external community stakeholders. Financial resources from the private sector, local municipalities, and state and national governments is warranted to assist with mitigating this pandemic crisis. It is imperative that this alliance take into consideration specific state academic requirements, social-emotional needs and stepping stones that will allow the successful matriculation to college or career and technical education training.

What are the next steps to ensure a quality and equitable education for today’s learners in this climate? And what is the contingency plan to educate students with an uncertain future ahead of them? While I do not have all the answers, here are six key steps for moving forward until anecdotal evidence, case studies and peer-reviewed best practice research can guide districts and communities to a new state of normalcy.

Read: Updated: 304 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

1. Establish a communication plan

A coalition of district personnel and members from local municipalities, faith-based organizations, the media and parents must develop a database of contact information for all students. This will allow district personnel to accurately disseminate current and reliable news, districtwide expectations, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines for reopening schools. In addition, students with unstable housing (homeless learners) must receive the same granular information through homeless shelters, community agencies, nonprofit organizations, social media platforms and public service announcements.

It is important that districts and communities work together and be prepared to make changes and adjustments going forward based on objective qualitative and quantitative data.

A dashboard should also be created by a team of experts from within the local coalition to identify hot spots and/or to provide a snapshot in time pertaining to specific schools, student demographics or identified communities where additional support or mitigation can be provided.

Read: How wide will classroom skills gaps get by fall 2020?

2. Create and empower an emergency action strategic team

This team should be headed by the superintendent of schools or a designee. A compact should be drafted and signed (electronically if necessary). This document will serve as an agreement between the previously referenced parties to ensure a future-focused approach to leveraging essential resources and human capital. This group should also be tasked with creating and articulating SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals to ensure positive outcomes for the students and the community. This group may also generate additional funds to purchase masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, plexiglass shields for labs and cafeterias, and other supplemental health-related supplies and materials.

3. Consider adjusting calendars and/or bell schedules to proactively plan for another wave of the virus

This issue is more nuanced than just revisiting the school calendar and ensuring that the students meet their respective state requirements for daily attendance and the full-time equivalency.

One option is a hybrid or blended instruction model for older secondary students, who may be better equipped to handle a more individualized combined distance-learning program with some traditional face-to-face instruction, or an online learning program for the first semester. On the other hand, elementary school learners must have hands-on Tier I instruction by highly qualified teachers at the school site. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to expect grade school youngsters not to mingle, touch and playfully invade the space of their classmates. This is when the social distancing protocol would be implemented.

Read: How Miami-Dade aims to tackle the ‘COVID slide’

Every school district is unique; therefore, the social distancing strategic blueprint will vary based on the design and layout of individual school sites. District personnel must empower site-level administrators to have autonomous leadership in ensuring the safety of students and staff. However, the district must also monitor and verify that appropriate safety nets are in place.

District leaders should also consider a year-round school model that may include establishing vacations or breaks during the expected height of the flu season and the next wave of the coronavirus. There are three prominent models, with the 45-15 model (45 consecutive days in school and 15 days off) being the most popular and widely adopted. However, there are 60-20 and 90-30 models.

I know. I hear you loudly and clearly: What about the unions? What about the parents who have children in different grade levels and at different schools? What about the students’ attention spans? I do not have all the answers. However, I will say that it is not a viable option to shelter in place for two or three years until a vaccine may be developed. Eventually, the pupils are going to have to return to school. Such options can help prevent learners from falling behind their global peers.

Read: Easing the transition back to school for students with disabilities

4. Establish trauma and Tier III mental health supports

Tier III interventions provided by counselors, psychologists and social workers serve as safeguards to ensure that all children can receive help. Research suggests that a holistic approach to educating young people may lead to improved self-efficacy and more positive academic outcomes. Students from K-16 may need internal and supplemental external Tier III counseling related to coronavirus fears, stress from the long period of being out of school, and any other trauma or violence they may have experienced or observed during the time they were out of school or class.

An intentional and targeted effort must also be made to address the specific interests of learners with IEPs. Provisions outlined in IDEA will surely be out of compliance, therefore requiring meetings to revisit learning interventions, educational needs, and possible inclusive education opportunities in the least restrictive environments. These diverse students may require the strongest foundational support upon their return to school.

Read: Digital equity: Solving the technology issue through collaboration

5. Expand broadband and bandwidth to accommodate all students

The coronavirus exposed learner inequities based on socioeconomic status—including access to high-speed and high-capacity internet connections, and the ability to complete comparable assignments from their teachers. As digital textbooks and e-books supplant traditional textbooks, workbooks and classroom libraries, marginalized and under-resourced learners in urban and rural communities must be provided with the same tools for success as their more wealthy peers. Moreover, a stockpile of tablets, iPads and laptop computers must be secured for those less fortunate learners as well as other students who may need upgraded technologies.

Read: CDC releases more extensive safety guidelines for schools

6. Provide a private, designated area for students and staff testing

Work with local health organizations to identify and secure trained professionals to administer on-site testing and temperature checks when deemed appropriate. This ongoing monitoring process will be comparable to a continuous improvement model plan, with mitigation taking the place of instructional interventions.

Working together

It is important that districts and communities work together on these measures and be prepared to make changes and adjustments going forward based on objective qualitative and quantitative data. Since the misconception that children cannot contract this disease has been debunked, responsible and high-integrity mandates must be administered, while educators simultaneously establish achievable benchmarks and redefine learning.

Officials in some states and, more specifically, in some local municipalities may believe that they are prepared to receive and protect students and staff members according to their regular schedules. However, short-term expediency over science-supported data and deductive reasoning may ultimately hinder progress in the long run.

Longtime educator Eugene Butler Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent of Tucson Unified School District in Arizona.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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