When Schools Reopen, Will You Be Prepared?

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THE COVID CRISIS:

The rise of COVID-19 has brought about some unprecedented times in just about all aspects of our daily lives. It has impacted healthcare, economics, government, and education, in ways that will have implications well beyond the quarantine period. 

For millions of Americans, COVID-19 has resulted in unemployment. In a matter of weeks, we transitioned from an economy that was seeing record low unemployment numbers to one that is reporting rapidly rising numbers of unemployment applications and requests for financial assistance. 

Our education system is facing the unenviable task of trying to address a scenario that most education leaders have never been asked to plan for; “What do we do to try and teach students, and support them emotionally – remotely – for an extended period of time?” For many districts the COVID-19 crisis has presented an opportunity to leverage a variety of technology and online learning platforms to support not only distance learning, but personalized learning as well. Many EdTech companies have developed resources that leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create individualized learning pathways for students and help students learn within their target zone of proximal development, or “instructional range”, as it is often referred. These resources can help mitigate the impact caused by extended time off, but there isn’t any substitute for a qualified teacher in a traditional classroom setting. Students learn best when they are in school, with a daily routine, with a caring teacher that not only provides academic support, but social-emotional support that is also important for a child’s development. 

Recently, former secretary of education for Massachusetts, Paul Reville was interviewed by The Harvard Gazette. During the interview Mr. Reville was asked, “What lessons did school districts around the country learn from school closures in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and other similar school closings?” Reville responded by saying, “I think the lessons we’ve learned are that it’s good [for school districts] to have a backup system…Most of our big systems don’t have this sort of backup. Now, however, we’re not only going to have to construct a backup to get through this crisis, but we’re going to have to develop new, permanent systems, redesigned to meet the needs which have been so glaringly exposed in this crisis.” 

There will come a day when schools reopen their doors, teachers return to teach, and students return to learn. One of the many questions that we should be asking as education leaders is, “Will we be ready?” 

PLANNING FOR A POST-COVID RETURN:

It was once said by Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” As we look ahead toward the reopening of schools there are a myriad of scenarios and priority focus areas that need to be considered. Academically speaking there is the obvious; achievement gaps, learning loss, grade level standards, and standardized testing. Identifying the gap between where students are, and where they need to be, will no doubt be a tremendous undertaking. The next obvious step is how to best provide remediation to help students get caught up. 

Another area that will garner a lot of attention from district leaders, government officials, parents, and members of the community, are budgets. From a societal investment point of view, education is our largest state budgetary line item ranging from 32.1% (New Hampshire) of the budget to as much as 90.3% (Vermont). As a result of COVID-19, tax revenue will be down across the board at each of the Federal, State, and local municipal levels, and given that education is such a significant percentage of overall spend it stands to reason that our education system will experience funding cuts. With regard to education spending, like most other industries, payroll and employee benefits is the most significant expense that district leaders must manage. As tax revenues decrease, and funding cuts are made, it is likely that districts will be faced with making some very difficult staffing cuts. 

In this scenario, we have a situation in which achievement gaps have widened and districts are faced with a [possible] reduction in their workforce. As a result, district leaders and teachers will once again be required to “do more with less”. On top academic concerns, budget cuts, and staffing uncertainty, we then have compliance mandates. The reality is, however, that regardless of budgetary limitations, districts are still required to maintain staffing ratios based on their state education code. 

POST-COVID LEADERSHIP TAKEAWAY:

Identify what is most important to the overall success of your district and find creative solutions to support and address lower level priorities. Areas that are worthy of outsourcing consideration are, of course, non-academic functions such as janitorial services, building and grounds and facility maintenance, busing, and I.T. functions. Outsourcing non-academic functions such as these can take responsibilities off of your own internal plate, transfer them over to firms that are experts in these areas, and free up internal capacity for initiatives that have a greater impact on student achievement and teacher satisfaction. Another benefit to outsourcing non-academic functions is that oftentimes, when contracts are negotiated well by district leadership, outsourcing can provide a significant cost savings for the district as well, which can help with budgetary constraints and help districts retain a greater number of teachers and support staff. 

Other areas that leaders may consider are substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, and clerical staffing support. According to a 2017 Teacher Shortage Survey developed by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS) and analyzed by Goshen Education Consulting, 78% of the districts surveyed identified either a minor or serious problem with teacher shortages. Over half (53%) of the surveyed districts indicated that they have a serious problem with substitute teacher shortages which means as many as 16,500 subs are needed daily. Paraprofessionals are another staffing area in high demand, and Illinois Administrative Code, Section 226, clearly defines staffing guidelines in order for districts to maintain compliance as it relates to both teacher and paraprofessional numbers. 

As leaders consider staffing ratios, and compliance guidelines, these considerations lead to another question which is, “What will a “return to school” even look like?” We face the very real possibility that a post-COVID return to school may be anything but normal. We could be looking at a scenario that continues some degree of social distancing, smaller class sizes, staggered starts, and non-traditional schedules, in order to continue to reduce the spread of the virus. In a non-traditional environment, what does staffing and support look like? What do teaching schedules look like for FTE teachers, support staff personnel, and substitutes? If schools are concerned with more teacher guided conversation amongst students, engaging small group student dynamics, and 1:1 support for our most struggling and vulnerable populations, wouldn’t that mean that we need more qualified support – not less? 

In reality, finding, onboarding, and retaining substitute teachers can take as much time, effort, and resources, as it does to fill FTE positions. Furthermore, there is the daily challenge of contacting substitute teachers and support staff personnel to make sure that they are available to cover teacher absences and placed accordingly. For many districts, addressing substitute teacher challenges is a perpetual problem that has existed for many years even before the COVID-19 school closures. Even districts that are able to cover the majority of daily vacancies day-to-day face challenges with last minute absences, coverage for professional development days, and/or staffing challenges for before and after school programs, summer school programs, and extended learning opportunities. Working with a proven and respected third-party provider can address these types of challenges, and again free up time and attention to support other initiatives as well as provide another opportunity for districts to save money while still addressing an area of need. 

As we look ahead to and prepare for the reopening of our buildings, it is certainly worth considering different options that will address a variety of academic, budgetary, and operational, challenges that will no doubt be waiting for us when we return. 

 

Brian A. Peters, M.Ed., M.S.A., M.B.A.  Professor, Rader School of Business 

Brian currently heads Swing Education’s school partnerships in Chicago, Illinois.  Brian has worked in various roles in education from school administrator, teacher, and consultant, as well as in the private sector as a business development manager for both education publishing and education technology companies. He has authored domestic and international award-winning books in education and personnel and professional growth.

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