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National Connection Daily from NSBA:  US Braces For Mass School Closures As COVID-19 Infections Spike
National Connection Daily from NSBA: US Braces For Mass School Closures As COVID-19 Infections Spike
Mary Ellen Barrett
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

US Braces For Mass School Closures As COVID-19 Infections Spike

US News & World Report (11/17, Camera) reports, “Children, parents and educators are bracing for another round of mass school closures – if their schools had reopened for in-person learning at all – as coronavirus infections spike across the country with little to no additional guidance or support from the federal government.” Several cities and states have already announced plans to suspend in-person learning. The “rampant closures” are also occurring “against a backdrop of silence from the White House and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has said it’s not her responsibility to track coronavirus infections in schools and help them establish best practices for providing effective instruction during a pandemic.” The situation has become so “perilous that leaders from 18 different national education organizations, including many with sparring agendas, banded together to beg congressional leaders for additional federal relief.”

        Education Week’s (11/17, Sawchuk) “District Dossier” blog reports that in the past few weeks, “several major school systems, including Boston, Detroit, and Indianapolis, retreated from in-person learning. Others, like Philadelphia and Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, have pushed back plans to do so.” According to EdWeek, the “unsettling conclusion from these two trends – newer research and the frightening uptick in coronavirus cases – is that many districts were probably overly cautious about in-person learning in the beginning of the school year, when COVID-19 rates were far lower. Now the recent wave of closures raises the specter that much of the rest of the school year could be lost.” What’s more, there is “no clear consensus on the health metrics that should signify shifting to remote teaching.”

TEACHING & LEARNING

COVID-19 Learning Loss In Memphis District Less Than Anticipated

Chalkbeat Tennessee (11/17, Kebede) reports that “more Memphis elementary and middle school students scored significantly below grade level on diagnostic tests compared with last year, but the numbers were more encouraging than the school district anticipated back when the coronavirus pandemic began.” On a separate test “meant to gauge student learning from last school year, a majority of first and second graders scored on grade level, but Shelby County Schools leaders suspect that adults monitoring students learning online helped boost results.” A district presentation to school board members Tuesday provided the first systemwide look at student learning loss in the months since school buildings closed due to the coronavirus crisis. In reading, 28% of Shelby County Schools students “in kindergarten through eighth grade scored two or more grade levels behind.” That’s up “from 27% the previous year.” In math, 29% “of K-8 students scored two or more grade levels behind, compared with 23% a year earlier.”

Research On Training Bias Out Of Teachers Shows Little Promise So Far

Education Week (11/17, Sparks) reports that “this summer, the Des Moines, Iowa, public schools held a series of anti-racist town hall meetings in the wake of the police-led killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on people of color in their community.” However, “the conversation rapidly turned to inequalities within in the school system.” More than 6 in 10 students “in the Des Moines district are students of color, while more than 9 in 10 school employees are white, and both students and staff of color reported a lack of diversity in staffing and curriculum, as well as inequitable school policies and practices.” Several large-scale analyses “of research on implicit-bias training suggest it more often changes short-term knowledge about the vocabulary of diversity than long-term changes in behavior.” Several specific common strategies “-- such as thinking positive thoughts about stereotyped groups, meditating or making decisions more ‘slowly’ to avoid stereotypes, or simply being aware of the possibility of implicit biases while making decisions – have all so far failed to show benefits that last even a day or two.”

OPERATIONS

California’s Reopening Rollbacks Due To COVID-19 Surge Will Likely Stall Efforts Of Schools

The Los Angeles Times (11/17, Newberry, Blume) reports, “An alarming rise in new coronavirus cases has prompted major reopening rollbacks that also will stall efforts to reopen campuses throughout Southern California and most of the state – and affect the education of millions of students.” The Times adds, “What happens at individual school districts and even schools will vary from county to county as officials grapple with complicated rules, evolving and expensive safety procedures, and infection rates in the communities they serve.” The Times then lists “various scenarios that will affect the vast majority of California’s more than 6 million students.”

        EdSource (11/16) reports California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday “applied what he called an ‘emergency brake’ on reopening schools and businesses in almost every part of the state, based on coronavirus rules announced months ago.” Newsom’s announcement “represents a severe setback for efforts to further reopen schools in California, as millions more students now attend schools in counties barred from offering face-to-face instruction in regular classes.” According to EdSource, tentative plans for many California districts to reopen schools in January now “seem unrealistic.”

NYC Schools Will Stay Open Wednesday

The Wall Street Journal (11/17, Honan, Brody, Subscription Publication) reports NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said public schools will remain open Wednesday because the city’s seven-day average positivity rate was 2.74%, below the 3% threshold that would require all students to transition to fully remote learning. The New York Post (11/17, Hicks, Musumeci) quotes de Blasio as saying during a Tuesday press conference: “New York City continues to hold on. New York City continues to fight back,” adding, “Schools will be open today and schools will be open tomorrow in New York City.”

        Opinion: Closing New York City Schools Would Be A Mistake. In a piece for Bloomberg Opinion (11/17), Chair of Business Journalism Andrea Gabor calls de Blasio’s “plans to close all of the city’s public schools” a “mistake,” arguing that “educators and public health specialists are better positioned now than in the early days of the pandemic to make an informed judgment weighing coronavirus risks against the costs to students of prolonged school shutdowns and a retreat to online education.” Gabor adds that “keeping schools safe will be harder to do as infection rates rise,” but “any calculation to shut schools must be balanced against abundant evidence of the academic and psychological damage inflicted on kids by online schooling.”

Chicago Public Schools Sets Jan. 11 Reopening Date For Some Students

The AP (11/17, McCann) reports Chicago Public Schools will allow “pre-kindergarten and students enrolled in intensive and moderate cluster classrooms” to begin in-person learning on Jan. 11, 2021. Kindergarten through 8th grade students will return on Feb. 1, while a return date for high school students remains under consideration, officials said. Parents will make the decision whether they want their children to return to school or continue with remote learning. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot “said in a statement that remote learning has allowed many students to continue their studies the past eight months. However, the district’s youngest and Black and Latinx students, and highest-need learners haven’t been equitably served.”

        Chalkbeat (11/17) reports that under the plan, Chicago teachers would return the week of Jan. 4. However, the Chicago Teachers Union strongly opposes reopening schools amid the pandemic. Union president Jesse Sharkey called the reopening dates “arbitrary” and “wholly de-linked” from public health data that show a surge in COVID-19 rates. “Just unilaterally picking an arbitrary date in the future and hoping everything works out is a recipe for disaster,” Sharkey said in a statement.

San Francisco School Board Sets Tentative Date For Reopening Classrooms

The San Francisco Chronicle (11/17) reports the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously approved a timeline Tuesday night to have students start returning to classrooms by Jan. 25. The date is “not a given,” as county health officials “would have to authorize the reopening, ensuring the district has met health and safety requirements, including ventilation, social distancing protocols and well stocked pandemic supplies.” The district has “yet to reach agreements with teachers and other staff about working conditions during a pandemic.” Nevertheless, district officials “said they wanted to provide some clarity on a target date to bring students back.” Notably, Mayor London Breed “took the unusual step of publicly expressing support for the board to set a reopening date.”

New Mexico Addresses Falling School Enrollment During Pandemic

The AP (11/17, Attanasio) reports New Mexico education and child welfare officials “are working to locate 12,000 students who have stopped attending public school and haven’t notified the state about their next move.” Approximately 21,000 students have “disenrolled since the spring, including those who have notified schools of a transfer to homeschooling, a private school, or to another school out of state.” The 12,000 students who are unaccounted for “reflect a 4.2% decline in enrollment for the 40-day ‘money count’ that determines public school funding, according to the Public Education Department.” The Public Education Department “is working with other state agencies like the Children, Youth and Families Department as well as school districts to try and identify the students and re-enroll them if possible.”

Districts Consider Purchasing Additional COVID Insurance Policies

The Seventy Four (11/17, Napolitano) reports that “jittery” school administrations nationwide “are taking a hard look at their insurance policies should someone claim to have contracted the virus on campus.” Most districts have general liability insurance, “which does not cover communicable diseases like COVID.” While some states offer some immunity defenses against lawsuits, “there’s nothing clear-cut about how it would apply to the coronavirus, said Loretta L. Worters of the Insurance Information Institute.” Some insurers are responding to these concerns by “offering riders on policies to extend liability coverage for the virus – at an additional cost.” For example, an Arizona nonprofit is charging school districts “between $5,000 and $150,000 for the added protection, depending on their size.”

As DC Public Schools Welcome Back Hundreds To School, Advocates Hope Safe Transportation Becomes A Top Priority

The Seventy Four (11/17, Swaak) reports that “after cancelling in-person instruction, DC Public Schools on Wednesday plans to welcome more than 400 students...back to 29 schools for monitored virtual learning in ‘CARE’ classrooms, though it hopes to bring hundreds more back in subsequent weeks.” As DC and other districts nationwide “think through a future, larger-scale return to in-person learning, student transportation ‘needs to be one of the first things that districts address and feel prepared to handle,’ Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, recently told education journalists.” In DC especially, “where yellow school busses serve special needs students and the majority of kids normally rely on public transportation to get to school, advocates said robust safety measures are going to be critical to a successful broader reopening.”

DIGITAL LEARNING

South Carolina Invests $50M In Broadband Expansion In Response To Pandemic

The Center Square (11/17, Jones) reports that South Carolina “has invested $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds in broadband expansion, providing mobile internet access to 92,000 student households and expanding broadband service to more than 25,000 homes, businesses and schools.” About 82% of South Carolina households “have access to the internet, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, leaving 18% of households in the state without access.” Only 28.2% of South Carolinians “have access to 1 gigabit broadband, according to Broadband Now, an organization that has ranked South Carolina 31st in the nation for broadband access.”

New Support Hubs Will Help Detroit Families With Technology, Community Resources

Chalkbeat (11/17, Catolico) reports that “as the Detroit district shifts to full-scale online learning, school officials will create technology support hubs to help families use, repair, and replace devices.” Beyond providing technology support, “the hubs will offer community resources.” They may serve “as the district’s meal distribution sites.” They also “will provide help with utility bills, mobile COVID-19 screenings, and resources for child care.” The hubs, “located at 13 locations in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, will open starting Dec. 1.” Because of the large number “of COVID-19 cases across the city, the district decided to switch to remote learning at least until January.” In addition, “on Sunday the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ordered all in-person learning at high schools to end for at least three weeks.”

SCHOOL FINANCE

Indiana House Speaker Vows To Fully Fund K-12 Remote Learning

Chalkbeat Indiana (11/17) reports Indiana Speaker of the House Todd Huston “said Tuesday that lawmakers will move quickly to provide full state funding for K-12 students who are educated virtually – a crucial step to prevent schools across the state from losing revenue this spring.” The Indiana State Board of Education earlier this year “suspended rules that limited payments to districts for virtual students to 85% of the state’s per-pupil allocation” and opted to fully fund “students whom districts were educating online due to the pandemic. But to continue full funding for the spring, lawmakers must take action when they return.” According to Chalkbeat, districts across Indiana “regard maintaining full funding for virtual students as essential” as more school systems are “returning to virtual instruction as the virus makes its second surge.”

University Of Pennsylvania Announces $100 Million Contribution To Fix Philadelphia School Building Hazards

The AP (11/17) reports, “The University of Pennsylvania has announced that it will contribute $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia over the next decade to deal with environmental hazards such as asbestos and lead in school buildings.” University officials said the contribution of $10 million annually for 10 years “represents that largest private contribution to the school district in its history.” City officials said the school district “has since 2018 fully stabilized lead paint in 54 elementary schools, completed work to certify an additional 25 schools as lead-safe and invested more than $23 million to complete asbestos-related projects.”

        Chalkbeat (11/17) reports the donation comes “after years of pressure, including from a group of Penn’s own students and faculty, to contribute to the district in the form of ‘payments in lieu of taxes’ or PILOTS.” The advocates said the gift was welcome, but just a “first step.” They had “proposed that Penn pay 40% of what it would owe” if the school wasn’t exempt from paying property taxes, “or about $40 million annually. It also proposed that all the money go into an educational equity fund dedicated to the school district.” With that said, the school district “has estimated that it needs $500 million to remediate all its buildings of flaking asbestos and other hazards, including mold, peeling lead paint, and outdated or ineffective ventilation systems – an issue that has become more urgent with the coronavirus pandemic.”

National Education Association Wants Changes In Education Funding To Combat Systemic Racism

Axios (11/17, Chen) reports that “inequities in education funding require a hard look as students of color struggle with lack of access to high-quality education, National Education Association (NEA) president Becky Pringle said at a virtual Axios event Tuesday.” Systemic racism “is embedded in the structures of American education, and it sets up a stark divide between white students and students of color, who often do not share access to the same resources.” The country’s most affluent schools “are often a mile away from the country’s poorest, Pringle said” and “at these public schools, a majority of students are often students of color.”

SAFETY & SECURITY

Illinois Schools Put Children Into Seclusion More Than 10,000 Times In A Single Year

A joint investigation by the Chicago Tribune (11/17, Smith Richards, Cohen) and ProPublica (11/17) found Illinois schools “reported putting students into seclusion at least 10,776 times in the 2017-18 school year – up more than 50% from the last time districts sent seclusion data to the federal government, two years earlier.” The number of school districts that reported using seclusion “also increased to 138 from 133, underscoring how entrenched the practice has been in the state.” Data from the US Department of Education on the use of physical constraint show “286 Illinois school districts reported restraining their students, also up from the 2015-16 school year.” Zena Naiditch, president and CEO of federally-appointed watchdog Equip for Equality, said, “Illinois already had the distinction as being the national leader for its extremely heavy reliance on these dangerous and traumatic practices. To see numbers increasing is a very serious development.”

Analysis: Barriers To COVID-19 Testing In Schools Remain

The Seventy Four (11/17, Ramirez) reports that “significant barriers to universal testing in schools remain,” despite the increased availability of COVID-19 tests “that are faster and more cost-effective.” The FDA’s approval of the Abbott BinaxNow $5 rapid antigen tests and HHS’ decision to “send 150 million of those tests to states to use at their discretion” prompted the CDC to “provide a framework for testing strategies in schools in late October.” However, schools still lack “the resources or capacity to implement universal COVID-19 testing.” For example, prior to testing, “schools need to design and implement processes to manage parental authorization for testing that meets privacy laws, capture testing data and securely manage it, and identify personnel to administer the tests – all of which present significant logistical challenges for overstretched district and school leaders.” States “must lead on school-based testing issues,” and should train “local public health departments to support schools on those new rapid test protocols.”

Survey: Most Michigan Educators Have Safety Concerns About In-Person Learning

The AP (11/17, Nichols) reports a survey by the Michigan Education Association shows the majority of educators “have safety concerns and don’t believe they’ll be able to return to in-person learning in January, according to a study from the state teachers’ union.” The survey found 84% of responding educators “reported safety concerns over a return to full in-person learning and 68% reported that they weren’t confident that schools will be able to return to in-person instruction in January.” In addition, 74% said they “prefer some level of virtual learning now,” but 41% “reported that remote learning has been somewhat ineffective or not effective at all.”

        Chalkbeat (11/17) reports Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbert on Tuesday called on the state to “add K-8 classes to its new directive that requires high schools to halt in-person learning for three weeks because of rising COVID-19 cases in communities across the state.” Herbert said, “With cases of COVID-19 on the rise…it has never been more important for our frontline educators to be involved in any decisions about a safe return to school.”

        In an opinion piece for the Detroit News (11/18), Herbert writes that she and her union “appreciate the steps Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced on Sunday to protect the public, students and school employees, but educators have made it clear they want and need further steps to be taken by state government and local school districts to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.” Herbert says policymakers “must support efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus until such time that a vaccine can be widely distributed.” To Herbert, this means “embracing virtual learning,” suspending in-person learning at all levels “while cases are skyrocketing, and delaying decisions to transition to greater levels of in-person learning until infection rates are under control.”

Tennessee’s Largest Teachers Union Calls For Statewide Mask Mandate

Chalkbeat Tennessee (11/17) reports Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown urged Gov. Bill Lee Monday “to set firm guidance on when school buildings should close due to infection rates and ensure that all students and staff wear face coverings for those that remain open.” Brown also “called for emergency state funding to pay for high-quality protective gear, updated air quality systems, hazard duty pay, and extended sick leave for all staff directly involved with students.” Her “urgent appeal” is based on the union’s “ongoing review of local infection data showing that active COVID-19 case rates of school staff are consistently higher — sometimes double — the rates of the communities that their schools serve.”

        The Tennessean (11/17, Mangrum) reports Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn “have consistently urged school districts to reopen schools – and keep them open – despite hundreds of COVID-19 cases reported among school staff and students since the first schools opened their doors in July.”

Montgomery County Lawmakers Introduce Bill To Remove Police From Schools

The Washington Post (11/17, Tan) reports Montgomery County Council members Will Jawando and Hans Reimer “introduced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit the county police chief from implementing the school resource officer (SRO) program, which places armed officers in most public high schools and some middle schools in the county of 1 million people.” The lawmakers “say the $3 million that funds the officer program should instead be used to expand mental health resources and after-school activities for students, as well as train school employees in restorative justice.” Jawando and Riemer stated in a memo “they don’t think school resource officers should be laid off, but they want them reallocated to other vacancies within the Montgomery County Police Department.”

How School Discipline Has Changed While Distance Learning

EdSource (11/17, Jones) reports the California Department of Education “has not yet released suspension and expulsion data from the 2019-20 school year.” But teachers and advocates interviewed by EdSource “say school discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, is still happening during distance learning, although less frequently than when students attended school in person.” Among the more common offenses they have encountered include “cheating on online tests, disrupting online class, and drug and weapon violations.” Since “discipline strategies look different when students aren’t in a brick-and-mortar classroom,” teachers are “more likely to mute a student’s audio on Zoom or turn off a student’s video.” Advocates have also expressed concern that “if Black, Latino, Native American and special education students are being disproportionately disciplined compared to their peers, the trend will be masked by a lack of records of incidents.”