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More Than Masks: Researchers Call for Focus on Learning in School Reopening


Even if one of the promising vaccine candidates for the novel coronavirus proves successful, experts say it wouldn't be widely distributed until next year. That means U.S. schools must plan for more than an emergency response to the pandemic.

Amid a flurry of recent health-related guidance for schools in how to reopen without spreading COVID-19, a group of more than 200 education and policy researchers sent out an open letter on what research says about how schools can prevent a massive learning loss and educational inequity during the next year.

"We're trying to be practical here," said letter co-author Katharine Strunk of Michigan State University. "Given the health situation, and with the difficulty of logistics ... I think even if kids come back into schools, there's a good chance they're going to have to leave at some point. So how do we make sure that for all kids K-12, this is as good as possible?" 

The guidance calls for schools who opt for distance learning to prioritize "frequent, meaningful engagement between teachers and students and students and other students," and to start providing teacher coaching now to ensure educators know how to do that, particularly with students in younger grades.

"It can't just be the worst case scenario where we're going to post what would have been hard copy worksheets on your learning management system, tell you to do them, and then you could hand them in, and we're going to grade them," Strunk said. "That's what I think a lot of what happened last year was when people started, were flustered, and trying to get things online as quickly as possible."

The researchers also called on school districts to prioritize their most vulnerable students when making decisions about spending resources, including how to allot teachers during a time of widespread layoffs. The guidance calls for protecting teachers of special education students, English-language learners, and other students who are likely to have experienced larger than average learning losses this spring.

The guidance falls into seven general themes:

  • Emergency supplemental funding from state and federal agencies to avert school budget cuts and pay for the new health, safety, and instructional support needed. "If we do not pump money into the system, we will lose a generation of kids who will have lost a year or more of learning time, and it's not going to be equitably distributed," said Strunk.
  • Universal Internet and computer access
  • Resources prioritized for the most vulnerable students.
  • Personalized and engaging instruction provided in whichever mode is being used, in-person or online.
  • Attention to the learning lost already during the school closures through expanding learning time in challenging and engaging ways.
  • Personalized supports for each student that connect physical and social-emotional health and family well-being.
  • Decision-making about teachers that supports instructional quality and equity.

Photo: Teacher Jane Cooper uses a 2-meter (just over 6 feet) ruler and pipe to check seat spacings in her classroom at Lostock Hall Primary School in Poynton, England. Source: AP Photo/Jon Super

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