By Dr. Robert Avossa, February 9, 2021
This article is the first in a series, developed in partnership with Dr. Avossa, to help schools address pressing issues for their students now—and plan for ongoing uncertainty (and maybe even some opportunities) in the upcoming school year. Avossa is a former superintendent and founder of K-12 Leadership Matters, LLC.
The “No Child Left Behind” policy had good intentions, but some findings show it did not necessarily have the desired effect in closing the achievement gap (and in some states may have even widened the gap for Black and Hispanic children and children living in poverty). One of the greatest fears our educational community has now is that, due to COVID-19, those gaps have grown even more dramatically. Why? The students who rely so greatly on all of the “wraparound services” that a school provides currently do not have access to those services. They no longer have, for example, their school’s daily food services, a consistent teacher relationship, and regular peer support. Some children are living with significant challenges in their home life, made worse during the pandemic. They cannot count on the teacher to look at them each morning, check in with them, and really know what’s happening. Most students are falling behind, including those who had previously tracked on grade-level; but vulnerable children are struggling even more.
The reasons for this vary. On the one hand, there has been a substantial disparity in Internet quality and equipment among children during distance learning, with children living in poverty suffering the most. On the other hand, there are parents with greater means who are supplementing their child’s learning with private tutors. So the disparity is real, and it’s growing. The urgency is that we need to get kids back into a familiar school routine and need to get them the services they need. We need to tackle the mental health issues in particular, including especially the increase in suicide ideation and attempts during COVID-19. And we also need to make up for the issue of learning loss. These are our two most pressing issues as school leaders, and they will continue to create a balancing act for schools. We also can’t push kids too hard when they are back in a more regular school environment, as many will return to us in a more vulnerable state.
My practical tip for superintendents is that they consider creating (now) a school improvement plan, including a comprehensive learning loss and learning acceleration plan for an extended school year (this summer) and for the 2021–22 school year. The plan should cover how their district has learned from the technologies and methods they’ve used during the pandemic. Consider which ones have really worked well for their general education and special education students—and figure out how to optimize those for future school planning and how to deploy them to accelerate learning in the upcoming school year. Those tools should be geared toward helping to make learning fun and engaging and not overwhelming students.
There is a really high potential right now for burnout among teaching staff and providers and potential for an even greater problem longer term. Morale is low. Right now there are also political concerns with prominent unions, such as the ones we are seeing in Chicago, who are fighting for schools to remain remote. Educators are being pulled in many directions, and their profession is under significant pressure. What I’m hearing from the field is that superintendents need to make sure they aren’t pushing too fast or too hard.
Superintendents should think ahead toward summer programming to help fill some of the critical gaps, but be as careful as possible in using that time. Educators and students will likely be feeling burned out to varying degrees. They may need summer largely to recharge. School principals will need to be extra understanding with their teachers. They are required to conduct teacher evaluations by the end of this school year, but they may need to design those evaluations differently and include more casual check ins and one-on-one approaches that really focus first and foremost on providing positive reinforcement and a culture of care. Some schools have been able to maintain that culture for their teachers, while others have not. And when teachers are not being cared for, their students feel that effect as well.
My tip for superintendent colleagues looking ahead is to get started now on designing calendars for next year—and design them in a way that will help teachers regain their footing. Cultivate a culture of care that sets the tone for the year. Build schedules for teachers and calendars with more breaks in place during the school year, both for their own downtime and professional learning time. Share these with them and with your principals and reassure them that you will help to ensure that the coming year takes their needs into account, too.
Special education related services is a leading concern right now for schools and parents. One of the greatest concerns is that a lot of students may not have received the services that were explicitly outlined for them in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). For instance kids may have been assigned three hours of speech and language services each week, but schools may not have been able to accomplish that as they found that Zoom did not work well enough. So they will need to make up for those lost services. Another emerging issue I am hearing from the field relates to “child find.” Children in the 0 to 3 age range are not getting the early intervention assessment and services they need, and this will be a compounding problem in the near future.
There are also significant legal ramifications here that are not a concern for general education. In special education, compensatory services will be a huge challenge for schools and parents alike. (I will go into that topic much more deeply in my next article.) Parents are asking for additional hours to make up for lost time. And schools need to find a way to pay for all of that so that when August comes they can start back fresh and be caught up and not owing hours. Summer and extended school year programs may well be essential for accomplishing compensatory services. Superintendents will need to look at ways to draw upon IDEA funds and Title II funds that can be used to help support students in making up some of their learning loss.
Superintendents and their directors of special education should consider online services, which can help open up access to services immediately. They can also help school teams in dealing with their backlogs and meeting their requirements (both in terms of assessment and support services). A solution like PresenceLearning can support your in-school team in delivering services remotely. They also have a clinical network of providers who can extend the capacity of your school team and help to support students in school or at home. I am a big believer in the value of a public-private partnership, both as a near-term and long-term solution, and think this could be vital in the larger effort to close the achievement gap, too.
A large part of a child’s identity comes from spending time with friends and the nurture they get from those interactions. Yet a lot of clubs and other activities have stopped (including casual hangouts), and these so often provide a key avenue for bringing kids together. There are still some schools holding clubs online, and that’s a valuable solution right now. Kids need to be interacting in any form so they can catch up with old friends, share their challenges, and have time to meet new friends as well. Many superintendents are concerned about the possibility of suicide ideation and attempts increasing among kids in their communities.
But what schools really want to do of course is try to get ahead of these issues with their students and provide appropriate services to help mitigate them. Providing psychoeducational assessment in school and mental health services are critical. Online services may help schools fill gaps in their current program or multi-tiered support system and meet the level of need that exists right now. A program like PresenceLearning’s Finding Your Power in Uncertain Times can help schools bring students together with common concerns, such as anxiety or coping skills, and know they’re not alone.
The scale of this problem among adolescents today means that parents need help and school teams need help too. Rather than assuming that the school social worker or counselor should manage this area alone, however, superintendents and principals should consider working with their teachers to build support into the general education curriculum. I like to say that the act of learning itself is SEL. Teachers, for instance, can assign stories about characters grappling with their feelings or working through feelings of being stressed. My tip is that superintendents really encourage the “academic side” of the school to support this important topic too.
During the first two rounds of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) under President Trump, the focus was on helping districts to purchase Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cleaning equipment, physical barriers around desks, air quality purifiers, adaptations for helping windows remain open, and providing computers for all students. In large part these funds were directed toward ensuring safe schools for our children.
The third round of investment proposed under President Biden is focused on expanding supports for schools to increase safety measures, but also promises more funding to help underserved students and broadly address the learning loss of the last several months. The funds can also be used toward addressing the SEL impact of the pandemic and mental health needs.
States and superintendents should work together to ensure they know what’s available to them and how those funds can be used. Can the funds be rolled over? And will there be additional state funding to supplement federal funding? These are essential questions they will need to figure out for their districts. States will need to help give guidance, and superintendents will need to stay on top of this, particularly when it comes to special education funding and some of the legal ramifications that they face.
If your school or district is interested in partnering with PresenceLearning to provide live, online special education or mental health services to all your students, please schedule a free consultation today.
Following a long career in public education, Dr. Robert Avossa founded K-12 Leadership Matters, LLC. He was formerly school superintendent of Palm Beach County, a district with student enrollment of approximately 200,000 students. Avossa had previously served as superintendent of Fulton County and has also served as a principal and teacher.