By Elise Gurney
Governments and school districts across the country are determining how to effectively adapt to COVID-19 and mitigate its effects on student learning and well-being. In particular, they are determining how to design and implement distance learning that meets the needs of all students, including traditionally underserved students who are facing even greater obstacles to learning amid COVID-19. This includes working to provide students with the resources they need to engage in remote learning; supporting teachers in their remote instruction; and addressing the additional social and emotional challenges students may face as a result of the pandemic. While these efforts require engagement and coordination across a range of stakeholders, there are particular areas that benefit most from coordinated state government action, as opposed to piecemeal local initiatives.
In particular, states are well-positioned to develop policies and programs that help (1) close the digital divide, (2) strengthen distance and blended learning, and (3) prepare educators for reinventing schools. These are three of ten focus areas identified in a recent report “Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond.” The report, published by the Learning Policy Institute, presents a framework for policymakers and districts to consider when designing and delivering educational services during COVID-19 and beyond. LPI, a nonpartisan research and policy organization based in Palo Alto, CA, developed the framework based on literature reviews, metanalyses, and prior research it had conducted.
Below is a summary of the three key areas where states may consider engaging, as they both adapt to COVID-19 and create a strong K-12 education system for the future.
- Closing the Digital Divide. Roughly 30% of K-12 students across the country – totaling 15 to 16 million students – lack the internet access or devices they need for distance learning. States can play a large role in helping students access necessary digital resources, by developing cohesive strategies for purchasing technology and expanding broadband access.
Many states have applied CARES Act funding and/or appropriated state funds to close the digital divide. California has developed a Bridging the Digital Divide Fund, a public-private collaboration designed to equip schools with the devices, hotspots, and other resources they need to implement distance learning during COVID-19. Kansas has applied $50 million in CARES Act funding, along with an additional $85 million in state funds, to improve statewide internet access, including through its Broadband Infrastructure Construction Grant Fund. Ohio has created a connectivity map to show where state residents remain underserved, and has used $50 million of its CARES Act funding to provide hotspots and internet-enabled devices to students.
2. Strengthening Distance and Blended Learning. States and districts can refine their delivery of high-quality remote learning by identifying and sharing best practices, and by updating policies to reflect the new realities of remote learning. State governments are uniquely positioned to engage in each of these areas. In particular, they have the reach and resources to identify and scale successful local initiatives, develop consistent teacher training tools and standards, and adjust attendance laws to prioritize engagement over seat time.
Wyoming’s Digital Learning Plan seeks to aid educators in “fully utilizing” technological resources, including through professional development and idea sharing. In response to COVID-19, many additional states have developed resources to support educators in their remote teaching, including Arizona, Maine, and New Mexico. With regard to attendance laws, Kentucky has updated its Non-Traditional Instruction Program guidance, which allows districts to determine what constitutes student participation (whether that’s “accessing online course work, completing a project or paper assignment, or other method[s] of participating in instructional activities”).
3. Preparing Educators for Reinventing Schools. Teachers and administrators play a key role in responding to COVID-19 and implementing longer-term strategic changes to state educational systems. States have the reach to recruit, develop, and retain the educator workforce that can support those shifts, including by implementing Grow Your Own programs and revising teacher certification, training, and retraining standards.
Hawaii and Illinois both offer Grow Your Own programs, which aim to address teacher shortages by funding candidates who want to obtain teaching licenses and who commit to teaching in the state for a specified number of years. Tennessee has issued Diversity Innovation Implementation Grants to support the development of a diverse educator workforce, and has used its CARES Act funding to expand Grow Your Own programs (with a focus on developing special education and ESOL teachers). Louisiana reformed its teacher preparation policies to include yearlong residencies and competency-based curricula, based on the results of a pilot program designed to provide more intensive mentoring and support for teachers. Connecticut formed an Education Preparation Advisory Council, which reformed its teacher preparation programs by raising program entry and completion standards, improving clinical experience requirements, and building supports and partnerships.