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Navigating schools through crisis

Photo of a dark school hallway opening into the light
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Navigating schools through crisis

Education policy expert Heather Hough discusses the decisions facing local leaders as they consider when and how to reopen schools.

With the end of a chaotic school year now in sight, district leaders are beginning to shift their focus to making plans for students’ re-entry in the fall. But the continuing uncertainty makes it difficult to plan just a few months ahead.

“Every day is a new crisis, a new piece of information and then new questions,” says Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a research center led by faculty at Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles.

On this episode of School’s In, Hough joins Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to talk about how school policymakers have navigated their way through the COVID-19 crisis, and the decisions they now face as they consider when and how to reopen in the fall.

Hough says that school leaders are now grappling with three “buckets” of scenarios as they look to fall: students return full-time, not at all or in some kind of hybrid arrangement between the two. “But within that hybrid there are so many options,” she says, including myriad ways of limiting the number of students in class at one time—and each scenario involves intricate logistics around necessities such as staffing, technology, food service and sanitation.

Complicating the scenario-planning further is the uncertainty of how the pandemic will play out economically.

“Taxes were pushed back from April to July, which means that state policymakers don't actually know how much money they're going to have to allocate to public services,” says Hough. “We can look back at what's happened in the past to try to develop an educated guess as to what it might look like, but there are many reasons to believe that this impact will be worse than what we've experienced in the past.”

But for schools, “this isn't just a financial crisis,” she says. “This is also a learning crisis.” School closures have likely diminished student learning significantly and exacerbated the achievement gap: The level of instruction each student is getting varies enormously, along with family and household conditions. “Many are experiencing crisis, trauma and perhaps even abuse in the most dire cases,” she says.

When school restarts in the fall, local leaders need to have systems in place to meet students’ individual needs—academic, psychological and social-emotional—in a concrete way, Hough says. That means not “being constrained by some of the things that have constrained us in the past, like class sizes or instructional minutes.”

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

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