Four Reasons Why Public Schools Won’t Return to “Normal” Anytime Soon

Yogi Berra proclaimed (perhaps apocryphally), “predictions are difficult, especially about the future.” I have no crystal ball but, whenever this pandemic subsides, I think we’re a long way out from returning to “normal” schooling. Why? Here are four reasons.

Human Behavior: 

My  husband is an avid sports fan. I’m not but tried to be supportive when he contemplated a summer without his season ticket to the Trenton Thunder, our local AA team. I said, “maybe they’ll just have a late start.” He said, “do you really think I’m going to go from this lock-down to sitting elbow-to-elbow in a stadium full of people?”

My husband is in good company. Tyler Cowen, economics professor and blogger at Marginal Revolution, predicts on “Future Social and Political Implications of COVID-19 that we’ll behave in radically different ways, at least short-term. Even once we’re not required to wear masks, he says,  “no one knows how long social-distancing will last.” 

“When will you go back to an NBA game? This could be very grim. You have to trust your buddies. Social-distancing norms aren’t permanent but they will fade very slowly.” Service sectors, he says, will mimic a “war-time model…I’m not going to CVS. I’m not going to the movies.” 

He adds, “people react to risk in funny ways. At first they underrate the risk and then they overreact. That’s the pattern we’ll see with this.”

In other words, social-distancing won’t magically disappear just because your governor tells you it’s safe to go to work, to go to the mall—and to send your kids back to school. Maybe your elderly mother lives with you or your child has asthma or your husband has diabetes. What is your threshold for acceptable risk? (A new Monmouth poll says 87% of New Jersey residents approve of Governor Murphy’s school closures.) 

Increased Interest in Home-Schooling, Online Education, and Public Charter Schools

Back in February Kevin Carey of the New America think tank and contributor to the New York Times’s Upshot column, suggested that  coronavirus in the US could lead to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling.” (Indeed, that’s what’s happened. For some students, especially those from low-income communities, this experiment has been a disaster, 12 million without internet access.)

And, to return to Cowen, once schools reopen some parents may, indeed, “overreact,”  perhaps because of predictions of new outbreaks. (See here for a working paper that speculates there is a 30% chance “in which near-ubiquitous testing is difficult to achieve, infected individuals’ antibodies do not lead to immunity, anti-viral treatments take longer to develop, and vaccines never arrive.”)  

For some families, probably those with higher incomes, homeschooling or hiring private tutors may seem like the best way to protect their children. Other parents may be disappointed by their district’s home instruction plans and wonder if typical school learning is relatively ineffective. Some may find that their kids thrive with online resources like Khan Academy. Other may seek out “microschools,” that one operator describes as “small, home-based, multi-age learning environments that act like a one-room schoolhouse, typically with no more than 8 to 12 students.”

There may also be increased interest in online charter schools like K12, which already enrolls over one million US students, as well as brick-and-mortar charter schools. For example, Trenton City Public Schools is currently offering the most cursory form of remote instruction while students at this Trenton charter school have a full array of instructional and technological support. 

In an article published today in Education Week, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggests that this is a time to “reimagine education and to think in a much more broad way … My goal, frankly, is not to return back to normal.”

I think he’s on to something.

School Funding:

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has wrought havoc with state and federal revenue and budget projections. There will be lots of cutbacks, including funding for public schools. The most prescient forecaster of this new reality is Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. In an interview with Rick Hess she makes the following points:

  • States will be forced to eliminate new educational initiatives.
  • States may be forced to delay “promised pay raises.”
  • In states with “holes in their pension funds,” shortfalls will increase.

Then there’s this:

The sooner districts realize the predicament they are in, the better. First, leaders need to shed the mindset that we’re facing a widespread teacher shortage in this country, other than in high-demand niches like special education. With widespread layoffs in other sectors, it is unlikely that we’ll see the same level of voluntary teacher turnover that we’ve had in recent years. That shortage mindset has been baked into labor contracts designed to attract and retain teachers. So, districts may have committed to things like across-the-board pay raises that now they won’t be able to afford. Given that it is so difficult to do teacher layoffs, I suggest districts stop hiring, stop making promotions, and, where possible, protect their reserves. You don’t want to raise spending through hiring that only works to force deeper layoffs next year.

Roza also notes that “antiquated policies that dictate layoffs by seniority can do a lot of damage,” that some schools might elect to have a four-day week, with the fifth day filled with online instruction, and “hiring one computer science teacher to cover courses across several schools could be a more financially sustainable way to ensure all students have access to technology course.”

Speaking of holes in pension systems, John Bury predicts that without “any substantial benefit cuts or cash infusions,” the New Jersey Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund will run out of money in four years.  (See chart below.) I don’t know where this goes, except districts and lobbyists will fight (inevitable) state aid cuts and teachers and lobbyists will fight for the deferred compensation they were promised. Yet, barring some sea change in revenue, every sector will feel pain.

Increased  Need for Social-Emotional Learning and Trauma-Informed Instruction:

We’re all victims here, even for those lucky enough (as of yet) to remain unscathed by the virus itself. We all know people who have it. If you don’t yet, you will. Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP,  wrote in the Daily News,

Schools always expect to support some students who experience trauma. But they’ve never faced a situation where nearly all students will be coping with trauma from extended social isolation, the loss of loved ones, or increased poverty and economic instability. Asian-American students will be at greater risk of bullying on top of it all. And teachers’ personal and professional lives will be upended.

Weisberg predicts (accurately, I think) that “the toll of the pandemic will exacerbate inequities that schools already face.” He links to these charts from EdWeek that show the “Covid Slide,” the amount of learning lost from months without meaningful instruction. If students were to return to school in the fall without interventions in the summer they would retain 70% of academic growth in reading from the previous year and only 50% in math.

“As has always been the case,” Weisberg writes, “ in our education system, the most vulnerable students — students of color, from low-income families, who are learning English, or with disabilities — will suffer the most. They’re less likely to receive high-quality distance learning, more likely to experience trauma, and more likely to attend schools that struggle to recruit and keep effective teachers.”

What to do? Weisberg recommends that schools immediately create a strategy for recruiting and hiring teachers. TNTP has had success with online recruiting campaigns but schools must start now. In order to help students “catch up,” schools should have all students take no-stakes formative assessments in place of the cancelled standardized state assessments so “teachers and students can hit the ground running in the fall.” He also recommends extending the school day and the school year, with appropriate professional development for teachers.

Finally, districts must also not neglect supporting teachers, who have endured their own traumas. All schools will need more social workers and “other mental health supports for children and families, so students have the best possible chance to learn as they recover from these difficult months.”

Yet to truly recover, the adults in the room must act realistically and proactively to avert the worst educational outcomes of this pandemic for our children. The time to start is now.

What do you think?

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