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Coronavirus Is a Chance for Schools to Rethink Systems and Spending

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Karen Hawley Miles is the president and executive director of Education Resource Strategies. ERS, a Boston-based non-profit, has worked with more than 40 school systems nationwide to analyze and improve their funding systems, resource use, and human-capital and professional-development systems. I reached out to Karen to see what she's thinking the coronavirus might mean for school finance and resource use. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: What are districts spending money on right now? What are some of the expenses that schools and districts are dealing with that people might not be thinking about?

Karen: Right now, districts are still scrambling to provide food for children and outfit them to enable access to teachers, classmates, and coursework through technology. Most districts haven't had the luxury yet of thinking about how spending will change next school year or even what summer school could look like in response to the new reality. One important thing to recognize is that though school isn't happening in buildings, most of the costs don't go away. Districts are continuing to pay their teachers, administrators, and many of their operational staff. That said, there are things districts won't have to spend on, such as substitutes, some utility costs, and in some cases, bus drivers and hourly workers.    

Rick: How should they be spending their money? What do we know about what works for schools and students?

Karen: Until now, we've had so little evidence about how remote and technology-based learning is done well. Now we have an incredible opportunity to learn more about what works and what doesn't through this unprecedented natural experiment. Approaches range from daily schedules with homework assignments sent by e-mail to daily video programming targeted by grade and subject taught by great district teachers to more sophisticated online courses developed over years with millions of dollars. Spending money to learn what works would pay back big. 

Rick: We're hearing a lot of numbers thrown around—what is the right ballpark for what students and schools actually need to handle this crisis?

Karen: It's too soon to tell specific numbers, but the crisis has three dimensions. First, student need will increase. We will have lost a trimester of education on top of the typical loss of learning that happens over the summer. Many students will come back to school with huge social-emotional needs that will range from figuring out how to readjust to school routines and work with peers to coping with tragedy and economic hardship. Second, it's important to remember that in the last recession, districts experienced single-year revenue losses of 5 percent to 10 percent, which is a huge drop for districts with largely fixed costs. Third, there is incredible uncertainty that districts need to plan for, even in the fall. Districts need to prepare for a return to school that enables "educational recovery." They will need to make plans for handling a potential resurgence of the virus including isolation rooms and more routine, effective ways to keep learning going if we must return to remote learning. 

Rick: Looking ahead, how is all this likely to change how schools approach learning going forward?

Karen: While it's hard to feel optimistic in this moment, when we get through it, we will have new ways of working that were unimaginable even three weeks ago. The prevalence and comfort with technology will have burgeoned; the idea of working and taking classes remotely will be old news; and parents, students, and teachers will be empowered. We will not be able to make up the loss of learning by doing school the same old way. We will have to pay closer attention to what each and every student knows and can do and how ready they are to learn. We will then need to design approaches to help them reach high learning standards. This will be a moment to retool who does what, when, and how in schools. 

Rick: What federal rules or requirements are getting in the way right now that should be looked at or waived for the time being?

Karen: The CARES Act provides some important waivers already. It enables more carryover of federal dollars. It makes it easier to spend Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment dollars to meet current needs, including removing the limits on how much can be spent on technology. One thing to look out for is misguided equity efforts—where if we can't provide educational access for everyone, we can't do it for anyone. We can't solve the achievement gap by pulling all students down. We need to double- and triple-down on creative ways to serve those students hardest to reach. This will take time to figure out. 

Rick: OK, last question. If you had one piece of advice for federal, state, or school leaders worried about money right now, what would it be?

Karen: Sock away what you can right now, but it will be less than you think. Use the moment to revisit the structural drivers of spending—things like one-size-fits-all class and group sizes, the organization of student and teacher schedules and calendar year, the structure of teacher compensation and jobs, and the number of school buildings and the role they serve. Innovation and solutions that may have been off the table in a world in a more steady state will be an essential part of the go-forward solution now.

This post has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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