With Philly schools closed for nearly a third of a school year, students face the prospect of a devastating “COVID-19 slide,” an exaggerated form of the summer learning loss that leaves many of our most vulnerable students behind when they return to school each fall. As former U.S. Education Secretary John King warned, “The risk is that in some schools next year, you are going to have a kid with parents who were able to provide high-quality supplemental instruction at home, sitting next to a kid who hasn’t received meaningful instruction since February.”
New research suggests that students will learn 30% to 50% less this school year than in a normal year, and existing inequities will be widened for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners. On top of that, teachers will be welcoming back students who have experienced unprecedented trauma, lost loved ones, experienced economic insecurity, and missed crucial socialization opportunities for months. We are potentially facing a lost generation of students, whose learning could be irrevocably derailed without a no-holds-barred academic recovery effort this fall that allows them to make up more than a year’s worth of learning in one school year.
Are our schools ready for such a massive and crucial undertaking?
When schools closed, School District of Philadelphia leaders rightly focused first on meeting students’ basic needs by setting up food distribution operations. Weeks later, the district shifted to ensuring students had access to devices and internet, and schools are now preparing to transition to online instruction. While focusing on immediate needs first made sense, it is critical that schools and districts begin thinking and planning now for how school needs to look different in the fall, given that most students have lost weeks of instruction already, and some polling suggests that half of students are not tuning in for online learning.
We’ve heard public health officials remind us that social distancing slows the spread of COVID-19, and we must use the extra time this buys us to ramp up testing and hospital capacity — otherwise, we will have squandered the time, and our health system will ultimately be overwhelmed when restrictions are relaxed. Our education system is facing a similar threat: If education leaders do not use the time while schools are closed to aggressively increase our schools’ capacities to personalize and accelerate learning for all students, especially our most vulnerable, then our schools will be overwhelmed in the fall, and our teachers will be forced to make heartbreaking triage decisions about which students can be caught up, and which are too far behind.
What does boosting schools’ capacity look like? Every school and district in the region should be exploring options such as an extended school year and day, stimulus funding to add staff capacity in schools, expanded support for students recovering from trauma, and strategic deployment of our most effective teachers to work with our furthest-behind students. We should be planning for diagnostic testing in the fall, adjusting curricula to cover more of the previous grade’s content, and experimenting with flexible grouping and technology to differentiate instruction.
And we should be thinking about opportunities the shutdown presents: with shorter instructional blocks during the day, teachers may have more time to engage in the kinds of deep, ongoing professional learning that is hard to fit in during the regular school year. What if every elementary school teacher came back in the fall with a deeper understanding of the science of reading that they could put into practice with students? And could some of the self-directed virtual learning and digital tools introduced this spring be continued into the fall, giving teachers more bandwidth to focus on students with the most unfinished learning? Are there opportunities to explore virtual tutoring and reading buddies as a way to boost schools’ capacities to individualize learning?
Ultimately, we don’t yet know what all the solutions are: this is an unprecedented challenge and will require unprecedented creativity. And that’s why we need all our top education leaders — and that includes teachers —collaborating now around bold, innovative ways to restructure schools and reshape teaching and learning post-COVID. As our country’s scientists race against the clock to find a coronavirus vaccine, our country’s educators must race to reimagine learning for our students.