That includes 700,000 students in California alone. Come fall, these children won’t log on for school because they don’t have computers.
“I remember people speaking of the Fourth of July as if everything would be fine by the Fourth of July, and life would be back to normal,” said Casey Allen, superintendent of Ballard County Schools in Kentucky, which is offering parents a choice between in-person and online school.
Now, he said, “We will be building the plane while we fly it, on virtual learning.”
Complicating matters further was the politicization of school openings. President Trump insisted in all-caps tweets that schools must fully reopen in the fall so the economy could as well, even as coronavirus cases and deaths piled up throughout the country.
The leaders of the country’s more than 13,000 school districts found themselves caught between the warnings of health officials that nothing should reopen without proper safety measures, and demands from Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that schools start back up as normal. Education leaders warned politicians they would need billions of federal dollars in aid to reopen safely, but that money has yet to be approved by Congress. Pressure from teachers unions built as well, with some unions demanding an all-virtual program and threatening to strike if forced to step back inside the classroom.
“Unfortunately, we lost a lot of time in playing those political games,” said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the nonprofit National Association of Secondary School Principals. “There hasn’t been nearly enough conversation about what learning is really going to look like.”
Nonetheless, many school officials say they are still planning to grade students as they did before the pandemic, ditching the pass-fail system many adopted during school closures. Despite the device and Internet gaps, they plan to require attendance in classes. Federally mandated standardized testing is also still slated to take place near the end of the school year — unlike this past spring, when DeVos gave permission for all states to skip it.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said he feels good about the fall, despite everything. But he admitted that view has little basis in fact.
“I say that because I am by nature an optimistic person,” he said. “I don’t look for the negatives.”
‘Teachers are creative’
When the last school year ended, many people thought the worst for schools was over. It wasn’t.
As the coronavirus crisis worsened in many parts of the country, district leaders found themselves over the summer not focusing on improving instruction but instead playing logistical Jenga.
Required by state officials to provide learning options for parents, superintendents and their planning teams devised complicated, in-depth scenarios for three different modes of learning — all-virtual, 100 percent in-person and a hybrid method that combined both.
By late July, as spiking coronavirus rates led district after district to abandon plans to reopen schools for the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, school leaders said they had not found time to give much if any thought to the mechanics of online learning — even though they were giving parents the option of keeping their children home.
Politics, especially Trump’s interventions, made things worse.
In Wisconsin, Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Thompson said that many school officials had to spend precious time dealing with politically charged parent unrest. Almost any decision taken by school officials, he said — down to whether administrators recommended wearing masks in classrooms — was interpreted as siding with one political party or another.
That left educators less able to focus on more important matters, Thompson said, such as ensuring student and staff safety and developing strategies for fall learning.
“The politics making its way into this situation has made it harder for school districts . . . and divided communities,” he said. “And it was a difficult enough situation already.”
The extensive debate over in-person vs. online learning also limited some teachers’ ability to plot what their virtual schoolrooms could and should look like in September.
In Fairfax County, Va. — whose 189,000 students make it one of the largest school systems in the nation — Superintendent Scott Brabrand at first debuted a plan that asked parents and educators to choose between in-person and online education. Teachers spent weeks agonizing over the decision to return to classrooms. Then, a few days after staffers formally submitted their preferences, Brabrand reversed himself and announced the school system would start the fall fully online.
Now, thousands of Fairfax teachers are scrambling to get ready for the start of school, which was recently pushed back a week to Sept. 8.
In Philadelphia, things went even closer to the wire. The school board announced in late July that it was pivoting to an all-virtual model, after weeks of protest from parents and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who saw in-person instruction as unsafe. The teachers union there had been so consumed with advocating for teacher and student health, said Jordan, that many members had no time to ponder the details of online teaching.
“That is exactly our next focus,” he said, noting that he plans to meet with administrators to call for increased online training for staffers. “Although I can bet you money some teachers were already beginning to prepare on their own. . . . Teachers are creative.”
In Florida’s Duval County, where the Republican National Convention was set to take place in August until Trump canceled it, a top public schools official was planning to ask the Florida Department of Education for permission to begin the school year entirely online. Then he realized that was an impossible request: Of the district’s 130,000 students, more than 40,000 don’t have devices at home to do their work. So schools will have to open there for some students.
In his small, conservative slice of Kentucky, Ballard County’s Allen is also hoping teachers are making their own preparations for fall — especially if they will be teaching online, as some of the staff will do depending on demand. The district is offering families a choice between in-person and distance learning, and at least a quarter of the county’s 1,100 students have already picked the virtual option, more than Allen was expecting.
School staff are slated to return to campus in August, the superintendent said, and he plans to take stock of what teachers have accomplished then.
“I fully expect some people will have done a better job than we ever imagined,” he said. “But then I know there are going to be others we need to bring along.”
Allen, who describes himself as “technologically limited,” has tried to communicate his expectations to Ballard County teachers via YouTube videos throughout the summer. He knows how to film those but asks an assistant to post them on social media.
In the videos, the superintendent lists his one real requirement: That teachers do the best they can with what they have. Whatever that looks like.
“For instance I haven’t said, don’t post your lessons on Facebook,” Allen said. “If it’s a format that is working for students and teachers, I am going to leave it.”
‘Caught up by Christmas’
There are some bright spots in the education landscape — which now looks as though it will include some online learning in most places, to give parents options. The districts that say they are ready followed the same recipe: Early and lengthy preparations for online learning, coupled with an intense focus on teacher training.
That was the case in Atlanta, where the public school system will offer all-virtual school starting Aug. 24. On that day, 52,000 students will begin receiving 2½ to 5 hours of video instruction each day, as well as social and emotional learning to help them process pandemic-induced trauma. Teachers are attending optional professional training sessions on subjects ranging from Zoom to how to virtually reach students with disabilities, and all Atlanta educators will be required to take two-week seminars on similar topics in late August.
Atlanta waited until mid-July to announce formal plans to remain online-only for at least the first nine weeks of this academic year. But, said Superintendent Lisa Herring, the school division began girding for the likelihood of an all-virtual fall back in May.
“Unfortunately, we have . . . employees and students and families who’ve had loss and trauma and illness as a result of covid-19,” Herring said, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “That reality brought it to the forefront that our level of preparedness had to be executed sooner rather than later.”
A handful of other districts have made extensive preparations. In Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, which began building its online learning capabilities years ago, Superintendent Robert Runcie said teachers have been working for months to beef up their online academic lessons and train on the online Canvas platform that helps simulate in-class learning. To make it easier for parents of young children, there will be morning and afternoon/evening learning sessions for elementary school students.
The 147,000-student Charlottesville-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina spent the summer transferring its in-person courses onto a virtual platform in new ways that teachers hope will better capture students’ attention. In San Diego, officials unveiled a digital program July 30 that mimics a six-hour school day, with daily live interaction between students and teachers. In Wyoming, schools Superintendent Jillian Balow asked a virtual state school to give teachers tips on how to do their jobs online.
But levels of preparation vary drastically. In Seattle, for example, teachers had not started training for online education as of early August. And across the country, student engagement remains a challenge.
In Los Angeles, just 60 percent of students participated daily in online learning during the spring, according to Los Angeles Unified Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner. To boost attendance this fall, the state is requiring teachers to report absences and to develop outreach programs to locate students who lag in attendance.
Los Angeles mother Sharnell Blevins said she hopes the mandatory attendance, coupled with more live-video classes, will help. She recalled the spring as a disaster.
“My kids weren’t setting their alarm clocks to get up for class,” she said. “They would tell me, ‘Half the class isn’t there, Mom, I don’t have to go.’ ” And she also often watched students in her children’s high school classes teach their teachers how to use Zoom.
As for the federal funding that district leaders say they need to reopen school buildings when health conditions allow, Congress doesn’t appear close to a compromise. In March it provided $13.5 billion for K-12 education — but that isn’t anywhere near the more than $200 billion that school leaders say they need.
In late July, just weeks before the start of the school year, the U.S. Department of Education disbursed $180 million to 11 states to help them prepare for virtual learning. Recipients were chosen through an application process that asked states to propose “new, innovative ways to access education” online.
Texas was one of the winners. The state’s deputy commissioner of school programs, Lily Laux, said the money, totaling nearly $20 million, will go toward developing training for more than 300,000 teachers, as well as building out new virtual courses covering “core subjects” for prekindergarten through 12th grade, with a special focus on reading and math for English language learners.
Unfortunately, it came a little too late.
“We have shared with our superintendent [that the courses] are not going to be fully ready for this fall,” Laux said. “But we do hope to be caught up by Christmas.”