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During Coronavirus Shutdown, CRPE Tracks District Responses in Real Time

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.

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which is tracking district responses to school closures in real time, and making that data publicly available. This effort has been widely praised for shedding light on how districts are tackling challenges like providing meals, solving internet connectivity issues, and rolling out distance learning plans. I recently chatted with Robin about that database and what they've learned so far. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about the database that you've built? How extensive is it, and how does it work?

Robin: As of this week, the database has 82 districts serving nearly 9 million students. We've summarized each district's plan, and provided a link to their website. We've also categorized the plans so that users can find out what kind of strategies districts are using to make sure their students are safe and fed, how districts are dealing with technology access, and get information on the details of each learning plan. In a series of blog posts, we'll be highlighting unique approaches and going deep into some of the more promising examples.

Rick What sparked the idea to build this?

Robin: People are hungry for examples of who has good, creative approaches, and this is a treasure trove for that. Here in Seattle, one of the epicenters of coronavirus in the United States, we saw some districts proactively move toward food delivery, special education supports, and remote learning in anticipation of closure. But others were paralyzed by concerns they wouldn't be able to educate students equitably. The idea behind the database was simple: share information quickly and broadly about how districts are responding across the country.

Rick: Who will find it most useful?

Robin: Our goal is to help school boards, school districts, charter school management organizations, and state education agencies. We want to provide a hub of information so they can understand, in as close to real time as possible, how other school systems are overcoming common challenges. That said, we've been amazed at how many media and policy people are using the database. I suppose when education suddenly ceases across the country people are pretty eager to learn how to start it back up again.

Rick: How are you doing the data collection? And how often is it being updated?

Robin: We searched for as many district publicly posted plans as we could find via the Council of the Great City Schools, Chiefs for Change, and crowdscourced recommendations. We have a team of researchers who are regularly scanning school system websites, which are changing quickly. We'll have full weekly updates and will try to keep the data as current as possible. In the weeks to come, we will be adding information from a representative sample of districts around the country, as well as leading charter school management organizations.

Rick: Besides creating a representative sample, how else are you hoping to build out the database in coming weeks?

Robin: Our general approach, Rick, is to let the field tell us what info is most needed and try to deliver the information. We'll soon provide more detail on different approaches to online learning. We're hoping to tackle teacher work rules as well. We're also hoping to partner with other organizations to do deep dives into critical topics, starting with data on how districts are trying to meet the needs of students with disabilities, a particularly tough issue, but one where we're seeing a lot of innovation.

Rick: What are a couple of key findings that you've seen come out of the project so far?

Robin: In the first week of our analysis, basic needs like student health, safety, and nutrition took priority for districts. Right now, districts are still developing their distance learning plans, and what exists varies widely. Over half of the 82 districts we reviewed either provided no online learning information at all, or were only sharing links to optional assignments or learning activities on publicly available websites, such as Khan Academy. Some committed to providing more robust curricula at a future date.

Rick: We're hearing a lot about distance learning. What does that look like? How many of the districts you looked at have actually rolled out robust distance learning curriculums? 

Robin: None of the districts we reviewed say they are attempting "synchronous" learning, where students engage in live discussions with teachers and classmates. However, a small number of those reviewed appear to be engaging in "asynchronous" or "hybrid" remote learning, where students view daily instructional videos from their teachers, or receive daily assignments and feedback.

Only four districts that we reviewed say they are providing formal curriculum, online instruction, and student progress monitoring, but that group does include Miami-Dade Public Schools and the New York City Department of Education—two of the five largest school districts in the country. 

Rick: Okay, and what's going on with students with disabilities?

Robin: Meeting the needs of students with disabilities and other special populations remains a big missing piece for many school systems, but a handful of districts are already showing it's possible to meet their obligations to these students in remote classrooms. Boulder Valley Public Schools in Colorado, for example, will provide full online instruction and IEP services for all students by video or phone.

Rick: Okay, last question. Based on everything you've seen, what're some suggestions that you are sharing with districts?

Robin: We're seeing a huge range of approaches and to be honest, no one knows what's the best approach yet. In the meantime, though, we're struck by how there are often very simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. Some districts are using TV to broadcast lessons. Others provide a list of curated curriculum. Many are sending worksheets home. And yet, few have set up maybe the simplest solution: connecting a classroom of kids to a great teacher and have them carry on with their lessons where they left off. We're telling districts: Don't overcomplicate this. Give your teachers some planning time, expect it to take a while to work out kinks. Get creative when you need to. Get local businesses and city leaders to help. But most of all, start trying things. The most inequitable thing a school district can do right now is nothing. Affluent families who can hire private tutors or buy online programs for their kids are compensating for public school leaders' inaction. Our most vulnerable students have the most to lose if school system leaders don't make efforts to support every student. Hopefully, there will be a quick end to this crisis, and kids can be back in school soon. But it may last a while or come in waves. And we need to be prepared for the next emergency. Here's hoping our database and research can help.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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