Expert panel weighs in on the pandemic’s devastating impact on students, how we should respond, and the practical challenges involved in reopening schools
The large number of high school graduates who did not enroll in college last fall worries Tom Kane, a professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
A study by the National Student Clearinghouse shows a 4% decline in enrollment in two-year and four-year public institutions. Approximately 70% of post-secondary students attend those schools.
“Right now, there’s no adult whose job it is to watch out for those kids,” Kane said. “They left high school, and they’ve not shown up in a college yet.”
Schools closed in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is around the time many high school seniors would have been nailing down college plans.
For first-generation college students and those from economically disadvantaged families who rely on teachers and school counselors to navigate the complex college application process, the disruption could not have come at a worse time.
“Remember, last year, they would have been getting help submitting college applications or maybe getting help submitting student financial aid applications through their high schools,” Kane said. “Now that they’re out there on their own. How are we going to get those kinds of supports to them in applying to schools in the future to get their careers back on track?”
Kane is especially concerned about Black and Latinx students in what he calls the “lost group” from the Class of 2020.
There was a 28% decline in Black and Latinx students enrolled as first-year students in two-year colleges, Kane said. Enrollment in four-year colleges dipped 11% for Blacks and 15% for Latinx students, he said.
“That’s a lot of kids and they’re in sort of a no man’s land right now,” Kane said.
Kane made his remarks Tuesday during a panel discussion held by the Hunt Institute, a nonpartisan, Raleigh-based education think tank that seeks to drive improvements in public education and guide political leaders to best practices and policy. The institute is named in honor of former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.
Kane also worries about students who never logged on to attend remote classes after school districts closed for in-person instruction.
Students who struggled academically prior to March of last year have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, Kane said, and will need additional services and resources to catch up.
“I sure hope districts challenge their data and accountability teams to go through the data of which kids have been logging in and which ones haven’t and identify the ones who have been least engaged this school year and prioritize them for outreach this summer and for services next year,” Kane said.
The panel included Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools; Cade Brumley, superintendent of education in Louisiana and moderator Robert Jagers, vice president of research for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
Panelists were asked to discuss what states and districts can do to track students impacted by non-academic challenges and to make sure they receive needed services.
“In looking at the data, we understand that students need more than academic support,” Contreras said.
Soon after schools closed for in-person instruction, Contreras said the district began to support families by making sure food was available and advocating at the local, state and federal level for more robust broadband access so students could connect to remote instruction.
Contreras said her school district has created “at-risk reports” to identify students who are in danger of failing academically or dropping out of school. Students who need additional support are directed to “learning hubs,” she said.
“Data is key for the public to understand what the needs are and to compel them to support us in the ways that we need to be supported,” Contreras said.
The district has also worked with law enforcement officials to study data on juvenile crime rates, Contreras said
“The one that we have noticed that is increasing the most is burglary, home burglary, since schools closed,” Contreras said.
Meanwhile, Cade Brumley said only about 75% of students in Louisiana have internet access at home.
“With the [federal] stimulus proposal coming from the government, if there’s not investment in broadband, it’s a miss,” Brumley said. “In many ways, like the interstate highway system so many decades back, we can look as this as an opportunity that will help us in the short-term, but it will also have long-term benefits.”
Brumley said access to coronavirus vaccines is the “game changer” for reopening schools.
“We have advocated for our state government to prioritize not just teachers but support staff as well,” Brumley said. “Once we can have confidence of access to the vaccine for employees, that will be the game changer in terms of having some degree of normalcy in returning to full face-to-face instruction.”
GCS is open for in-person instruction for K-5 students, but Contreras said the district struggles to remain open due to staffing shortages, particularly among bus drivers.
“I know so many are dependent on us to get these schools reopened safely as soon as possible but the logistics of doing so when there is so much fear out there, it’s difficult,” Contreras said.
She said educators must become a vaccination priority in every state.
“The fear our staff has, it’s been difficult to overcome that barrier for superintendents,” Contreras said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that schools can safely reopen without teachers being vaccinated.
Education Week reported that teachers in at least 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
The N.C. Association of Educators has called on Gov. Roy Cooper to move teachers up on the state’s vaccination priority list.
Last week, Cooper urged school districts to reopen for in-person instruction. But the governor has balked at moving teachers up on the priority list for vaccinations. He said Tuesday that specific dates for vaccinations for essential workers such as teacher and policemen will be shared by his administration this week.
Many believe that a comprehensive testing plan for educators would help to ease the fears teachers and staff have about becoming infected with the coronavirus.
“That would make staff feel a lot more comfortable about returning to the workplace,” Contreras said.