With fall right around the corner, the discussion in Columbus has turned from the spring closures to what school will look like come September. Last week, Governor DeWine said that he thinks schools will be open this fall, a Senate committee heard from education groups about reopening, and the Ohio Department of Education released draft guidance for restarting schools. Of course, no one can be sure at this point what the fall will hold. But one thing’s for certain: Schools need to be ready to hit the ground running.
Because of continuing health uncertainties, most analysts agree that schools must have plans for remote learning in the coming year. These “continuity of education” plans would address how teaching and learning happens if children do not physically attend schools, whether by health order or by student and parent choice. To reduce safety risks in facilities—e.g., practicing social distancing—schools also need to be ready to educate students via hybrid learning models in which time is split between traditional classrooms and home.
While learning plans themselves can’t guarantee results—execution is vital, too—the past few months have taught us that having a plan is absolutely essential to being prepared in the midst of uncertainty. Understandably, most schools lacked plans this spring to turn on a dime and transition to distance learning. But this ill-preparedness surely explains the jumbled response across many schools. In Cincinnati, for instance, the district struggled to make contact with thousands of students, much less engage them in rigorous academic work. Several districts—Lakewood, Elida, Revere, and Solon—threw in the towel on remote learning and cut their school years short. Various news reports have spotlighted schools that have all but given up on grading student work during the building closures.
Of course, much like the pandemic itself, these problems haven’t been confined to Ohio. The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a national organization, reported in May that one-third of the districts they’ve been tracking still “do not set consistent expectations for teachers to provide meaningful remote instruction.” Deeply troubling also is that it identified a few districts that don’t even require their teachers to give feedback on student assignments. A national survey from Education Week earlier this month likewise paints a bleak picture: Almost a quarter of students are MIA, pupil engagement has fallen, and teachers are working fewer hours.
Again, what happened this spring is pardonable given the unforeseen circumstances. But getting caught flat-footed can’t happen again. Experts are already predicting substantial learning losses due to the out-of-school time. Tragically, Ohio’s neediest students—low-income, special education, English learning learners among them—have likely suffered the most damage.
To tackle these immense educational challenges, all Ohio schools, without exception, need a game plan for the fall. One certainly hopes that schools are already busy crafting these plans with the input of parents and students, community groups, health officials, and education experts. But it would be naïve to assume that each and every school is undertaking such robust preparations.
State policymakers, therefore, have a responsibility to act and ensure that all schools are ready and able to provide instruction this fall. Governor DeWine should ask every school district and charter school to submit “continuity of education” plans that should be made publicly available. Pennsylvania required its schools—this spring!—to create plans that include descriptions of expectations for teachers and students, grading and attendance practices, access to devices, and supports for special education students during the prolonged closure. Importantly, these plans are posted on district websites, so that families and communities have a common understanding of what to expect when students are learning at home. Some of the plans are refreshingly concise and reader-friendly. (Check out a few here, here, and here).
By failing to require continuity of education plans earlier this year, Ohio is already behind the eight ball. But it should absolutely follow in Pennsylvania’s footsteps for the coming fall. To be sure, policymakers shouldn’t make this yet another exercise in state bureaucracy. There need not, for example, be an approval process. But these plans would provide much-needed transparency and ensure that every school has given thought to educating students if and when they have to learn remotely.
A replay of this spring would be inexcusable. Districts and schools around the nation and in Ohio are figuring out ways to make remote education work, and leaders have three months to plan for next year. Parents and students are counting on schools to deliver an excellent education this coming fall, no matter what. State policymakers need to ensure that schools are ready to reopen.