Reopening plan review: 4 promising practices

An analysis of school district response plans to COVID reveals strong, replicable practices from reopening and recovery plans that other systems can model, even where schools have already opened.

This school year likely involves more curiosity from district leaders and staff than ever before about how other districts are handling reopenings. Creative solutions are may be difficult to uncover, especially in the midst of all the logistics to manage at the new school year’s beginning.

Using a tool developed in June by the Collaborative for Student Success and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a panel of 16 peer review experts has taken a close look at plans from 20 school districts of varying location and size to uncover innovative, clear and helpful strategies that others can model, even after the school year has begun. Selected from a larger pool representing more than half of the states in the U.S., the individuals hail from diverse backgrounds, including parent and community advocacy, education and public health.

Their just-released analysis focuses on the following best practices, highlighting specific district plans and actions as well as what makes each stand out:

1. Support for staff, students and parents

The best plans offer intentional supports, demonstrating an understanding of the critical role that community partners play throughout recovery, the impact the pandemic has on student and staff mental health, and meaningful engagement with parents as partners.

Kansas City Public Schools (Mo.) stood out for the recognition that children in families facing crises like eviction, foreclosure and job loss are likely to struggle academically, and for partnering with a number of local organizations to address current and anticipated student needs. KCPS families and staff can access free childcare for school-age children, thanks to one partnership.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools created a series of videos and established a Parent Academy to provide support in eight areas, including how to navigate student and parent portals, what wellness resources are available and how to help students study and stay organized. One reviewer applauded Miami-Dade for recognizing that high-quality leaning can’t happen during a pandemic without the buy-in, support and technical skill of families.

Jefferson County Public Schools (Colo.) also maximized video, in this case to convey information about the many nuances and subtleties of mental health challenges. Its COVID-19 Mental Health Supports webpage—which a reviewer said other school districts should link to if they can’t replicate—features these videos and other resources.

2. Academic program and data use

Creativity in this area involves learning technology, school schedules being rethought, and plans to track essential data on individual students’ needs and progress.

San Antonio Independent School District (Texas) got reviewers’ attention for its student interaction tracker app, which logs every time a teacher or support staff member interacts with a student, plus whether students are participating in class and submitting assignments. Educators developed a fall plan for each student using the data, and the Branching Minds platform will help identify the root challenges individuals are facing and the most appropriate evidence-based intervention. Parents got to tour socially distant classrooms this summer to help them make informed decisions about whether to send their child to school.

Tulsa Public Schools (Okla.), which opened the year with full distance learning, is offering six “intersessions” this school year, where prioritized groups of students, such as those with special needs, can receive in-person interventions. Distinct populations of students—such as high school seniors in need of college and career advising—are targeted using specific practices developed by the district.

Prince George’s County Public Schools (Md.) was highlighted for clearly describing its assessment program and how student performance data will assist staff in identifying student learning needs. Students continuing with distance learning this year can take assessments online, and the district outlined how it will evaluate the effectiveness of its distance learning program.

Building plans with flexibility

Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, says one big challenge for district leaders has been building plans that are flexible enough to respond to changing circumstances while remaining unyielding on core values such as equity.

Lake points to Baltimore City Public Schools as a model for flexible planning.

“Before the pandemic, Baltimore City had invested in a strong core of teaching and learning. The pandemic forced leaders in the district to think differently about how they could hold fast to that core, but also adapt,” she says. “Baltimore City has been able to make adjustments to meet the moment, like setting aside time early in the school year for racial healing, while also delivering on its commitment to ensure all students have access to meaningful, live instruction from their teachers. We know districts will have to make course corrections as the year goes on. Infection rates and public health guidelines will shift, and leaders will get feedback from parents. By building a plan grounded in its core values, Baltimore City’s leaders are in a position to adjust course without losing their bearings.”

3. Expectations and resource transparency

This practice aims to help districts earn parent and community trust—being clear about explicit about how funding is used, how staff are being deployed and what steps are being taken to create a more equitable system.

The reopening plan for Milwaukee Public Schools (Wis.) included a comprehensive and detailed budgetary analysis of cost projections across 10 categories, such as transportation and nutrition. Parents and community members can see, at a glance, the cost implications of providing lunches in classrooms instead of a cafeteria, or on enforcing social distancing on buses.

Houston Independent School District (Texas) is ensuring parents stay informed by pushing communication out via social media, news media, parent guides (released in four languages), blog posts and meetings (in-person and virtual) to reach every parent. Its Twitter account is used not just for regular updates but also for in-the-moment tech troubleshooting.

Baltimore City Public Schools (Md.) references the school board’s equity policy throughout its reopening plan, making it one of the few examples of a strong focus on equity among plans reviewed. Several pages of its plan are dedicated to budget, including a breakdown of how its using CARES Act funds.

4. Connectivity and technology

It’s about more than just devices and broadband access, the report points out. Reopening plans should take into consideration the sweat equity and support it takes to have smooth learning experiences.

Guilford County Schools (N.C.), for example, has purchased devices for every student, teacher and instructional staff member and is deploying 125 “smart buses” to high-need communities to help bridge the digital divide. The district invested in 3,500 self-owned hotspots and secured partnerships with the city to identify more locations for WiFi, such as recreation centers. Free or low-cost learning centers are offered for students participating in remote learning.

Parent support centers help with online learning, technology and instructional material questions in Prince George’s County Public Schools (Md.). Parent engagement assistants can offer in-person or virtual support two days per week, and a distance learning hotline supports students on any day.

The Collaborative for Student Success and the Center on Reinventing Public Education will present the full expert panel analysis and progress updates in the coming months. Learn more about their project here.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

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