While the annual National Principals Conference, hosted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), wasn’t able to take place as usual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, its headline session still took place in a virtual environment. Topics ran the gamut from reopening schools and equity issues to budget woes and teacher attrition.  

During a Wednesday afternoon Zoom webinar hosted by Education Week Associate Editor Christina Samuels, experts gathered to discuss the state of American education. The panelists were:

  • Melissa Provenzano, an Oklahoma state representative and a former teacher and administrator
  • Kathryn Procope, head of school at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington, D.C.
  • Doug Williams, superintendent of Sunnyvale Independent School District in Texas
  • Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers 

Equity in the spotlight

Samuels began by asking panelists how equity is being considered as schools are reopening and what it means for them in light of issues created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Procope, a 2020 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, said there has to be a focus on alleviating what she refers to as “digital poverty,” noting she has seen situations where parents had to sell a home device because they needed food. But access to a device is also now a requirement in a remote learning environment.

“If it’s difficult in an urban setting, I can’t even imagine what it looks like in a rural setting,” she said, adding if you can get broadband in a fast food restaurant, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be available throughout neighborhoods.

Provenzano said districts were relegated to sending home worksheets for the significant percentage of Oklahoma kids who didn’t have devices. Efforts to rectify that problem look different across the state, though urban areas have been more successful.

“In our rural areas, we don’t have the broadband access in our state yet,” Provenzano said. They’re working toward it, she added, “but we need it now.”

Another equity divide is also forming between parents who can afford to stay home with their kids and those who can’t afford to leave them home alone for distance learning.

Distance learning equity, Williams said, has to go beyond just making sure students have devices and connectivity. “It’s incumbent on our lawmakers to make sure we have resources there to put devices in kids hands … but it also has to be about addressing individual students’ needs.”

Fall remains a concern

As conversation shifted to preparation for fall, Williams noted his 2,000-student district is offering three learning models: full virtual, in-person all-day, and a blended learning approach where students come in the morning and are home in the afternoon, or vice-versa.

These models were designed to keep class sizes small and provide social distancing. One principal told him, for example, his largest class size is 16 students.

The district sent a registration form to parents, and by the time the Aug. 19 deadline to decide on a model rolled around, some had changed their minds three times, indicating how much they’re struggling with these decisions.

Provenzano is seeing a mix of models across the multiple districts she represents. Tulsa Public Schools is going with distance learning the first nine weeks of the academic year, while a neighboring district is going fully in-person.

“It’s been fascinating because they all have different reopening plans,” she said while adding the population when they’re not in school “cross-pollinates.”

Procope said her D.C. charter school is making sure they have a contact point for children, as they’re reopening all-virtual and some students’ parents have to go back to work.

How did reopening become political? 

Provenzano credited a lack of decisive leadership and inconsistent messaging from local, state and federal levels of government for complicating matters. Conflicting guidelines on masks, social distancing and other safety measures, and the politicization thereof, have created confusion and polarization.

Williams added it’s a shame kids are being used as political pawns, and said Sunnyvale looked at data in its decision-making for the return to school instead.

Among measures in place: A mask policy that will be strictly enforced for in-person students. “We are looking at maybe some exceptions for our elementary kids,” he added, citing plexiglass shields as one tool being installed for those grades.

Procope said decision-making for her school came down to what’s safest for teachers and students. Even with plexiglass, masks, “NASA-level” disinfecting and other protocols, she noted some parents are still not ready for in-person return. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has autonomy in charter decisions, was also focused on what would keep everyone safe, she said, leading to the all-virtual decision.

A trying year for communities of color

Citing the pronounced impact of coronavirus on communities of color, Samuels asked panelists what they’ve seen in regard to parents of color being more averse to a return to school.

Provenano said Tulsa Public Schools did a parent survey that, while not broken down by demographics, found significant concern. “The level of risk is different from family to family,” she said.

Samuels noted how well students have adjusted to these changes in some ways. Her 2nd-grader, for example, quickly got used to wearing a mask despite the discomfort. “Kids will follow our lead if we give them a lead to follow,” she said.

Procope said her school community has really struggled, as 96% of students are from Black families, and many have lost grandparents and other relatives to coronavirus. Social-emotional learning will be key, she said, because students are going to need those supports.

On that note, Samuels transitioned the conversation to the educational impact of the summer’s racial justice demonstrations, fueled by the police-involved deaths of Black Americans. 

Williams said his district reached out to the community and formed a diversity and inclusion team. Its first order of business? Identifying the needs of the community.

“In relation to this, you have to really peel it back and know this: Schools are about teaching kids, and I think we have a responsibility to teach kids and really work with kids on inclusivity…[and] on awareness,” he said.

With the curriculum regulated by a state board, he said there also needs to be some frank conversation on what’s being taught in social studies classes.

“I was a social studies major and I did not know about the Tulsa Massacre until a couple months ago,” Williams said. “That fact hammered home to me that we need to do some analysis about what’s being taught,” he said, adding school leaders can’t hide behind the difficulty of having these conversations. 

Procope said the Tulsa Massacre wasn’t taught when she was in school, either. Her parents had to teach her about it.

But it’s not enough to teach students something in school if they’re hearing something entirely different at home, she said. Parents and the community must also be included in “honest” and “brutal” conversations about antiracism, what educators are thinking, and what’s being told to children.

Provenzano added that up until two years ago, the Tulsa Massacre was still called a “riot,” further highlighting the need for these discussions.

Budget nightmares, educator attrition on the horizon

Williams said schools may not see the true impact of COVID-19 on budgets until the 2021-22 academic year. “There’s going to be an impact, and I think we’re going to see a dramatic cut in funding from the state,” he said.

Texas received $1.2 billion in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds and distributed it to districts, Williams said, but it also cut the funding amounts district foundations were set to receive. He compared it to the idea of employers cutting $1,200 from salaries if they found out employees were receiving $1,200 in stimulus funds.

“We have to advocate” about the impact cuts will have on kids and education, he said, adding it’s creating tough conversations in districts “we should not have to have” on cutting teaching units, increasing class sizes and more.

“This is about the children. Funding shouldn’t be political,” Procope said, suggesting educators take it to congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. 

The conversation shifted to virus-related teacher and principal attrition as Weingarten joined the webinar. She shared a story about a Florida teacher who began crying during testimony in a hearing to block a state order on in-person instruction. The teacher said they’re resigning tomorrow because they take care of their mother and don’t want to put her in a situation where they may bring coronavirus home and kill her.

“That’s the kind of anguish I’m hearing,” Weingarten said. “Because it’s been so mishandled at the federal level in the United States, you have no good solutions anywhere. I think what you’re going to see … is far more people retiring, resigning, taking leaves at the very same time kids actually need experienced people who understand how to deal with a stressful situation.”

Getting substitute teachers will be difficult, and new teachers are dealing with three crises at the same time — recession, pandemic and civil unrest.

Provenzano added 17% of Oklahoma’s teacher population is eligible to retire. Many previously decided to stay onboard three more years because of a teacher raise negotiated during demonstrations in 2018.

Williams highlighted attrition concerns as another area where advocacy is needed, stating what’s best for students is quality teachers and expressing concern for what this will look like if it isn’t addressed soon. While ground was gained in Texas on raises and other issues, he said, “if we’re not very, very active coming out, we’re going to lose the ground we had.”

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