In the last few weeks, schools have rightfully been focused on student nutrition, health, and the transition to distance learning. But flying under the radar—and of increasing importance to schools’ ability to serve students well—are teacher policy issues. How has the pandemic affected current and aspiring teachers, and what are states and local districts doing to respond?
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has been collecting, analyzing, and comparing teacher policies since 2007, so it should come as no surprise that they’ve been gathering data on how COVID-19 closures are impacting educators. In two recent blog posts, Nicole Gerber and Patricia Saenz-Armstrong share information on teacher work policies, student teaching, and initial licensure in the age of coronavirus. Their findings are summarized here.
First up, teacher contracts. Gerber and NCTQ staff analyzed existing agreements on teacher work expectations, pay, and leave in forty-one large districts across the nation to determine if and how they addressed these issues in the event of emergency school closures. Only six had policies that addressed work expectations for teachers, such as not requiring them to report during emergencies or requesting that they volunteer for additional duties. Eight had policies which affirmed that teachers would continue to be paid, and only one district—Anchorage—had a policy that allowed teachers to work remotely. Only two districts, Broward County (FL) and Wichita, had policies in place to grant additional leave to teachers during local, state, or national emergencies.
The majority of teacher work policies are determined through collective bargaining. Thirty-three districts from the sample collectively bargain, but Orange County (FL) is the only district with a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that requires the district and union to establish new policies in the wake of an emergency closure. Another four districts have CBAs that require districts to consult or negotiate with unions prior to making emergency-related school calendar changes. As of NCTQ’s publication date, seven districts had entered into formal agreements with their teachers’ unions, two were in the process of bargaining, and another five were informally cooperating with their unions to address work policies during the pandemic.
To determine how districts are addressing the day-to-day work of teachers, NCTQ reviewed memorandums of understanding, online communication to teachers, and distance learning transition plans. Thirty-six districts have officially stated that their teachers will be paid during the emergency closures. The vast majority of districts in the sample have set clear work expectations, such as requiring educators to plan lessons and communicate regularly with students. Determining how to grade student work during distance learning appears to be one of the most controversial decisions. As of NCTQ’s publication date, sixteen districts announced that teachers in some grades would still evaluate student work. The exact details of grading policies vary. Minneapolis and Newark, for example, have said that teachers should maintain regular expectations. But Los Angeles, San Diego, and the District of Columbia have opted to implement “no penalty” grading, which means completed work during the shutdown can only be used to increase a student’s grade.
Current teachers aren’t the only ones affected by COVID-19 school closures. Prospective teachers, many of whom were in the process of completing student teaching and earning their initial licensure when schools suddenly closed, are also struggling to adjust. Unlike teacher work policies, which are mostly determined at the district level, licensure decisions are made at the state level.
Saenz-Armstrong identified two broad approaches that states are taking in response to student teaching. The first is to make student teaching experiences more flexible and accept non-traditional instruction, such as distance learning, as clinical experience. This approach is being used in California, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York. The second is to waive length requirements. States like Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont are asking student teaching supervisors to assess teacher candidates based on information they already have. Other states, such as Virginia and Ohio, have adopted a modified version of the second approach and are allowing teacher preparation programs to apply for discretion in waiving certain student teaching requirements.
As for the certification exams and performance-based assessments needed to obtain initial licensure, some testing vendors are working on making it possible for candidates to take their exams at home. States, meanwhile, are taking two approaches to licensing. The first is to waive exam requirements and allow candidates to apply for licenses at the discretion of their preparation programs. Mississippi, for example, has suspended licensing criteria for a year and a half and is permitting teacher candidates who have not passed certification exams to apply for a five-year standard license. The second approach is to allow candidates who have completed most of their licensure requirements to obtain a one-year emergency license. This approach is being used in Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, and Washington.
In the coming weeks, districts and states will continue to adopt and implement policies regarding teacher work expectations, pay, and licensure. Interested parties would be wise to keep an eye on NCTQ’s blog for more analysis.
Sources: Nicole Gerber, “How are school districts adapting teacher work policies for emergency closures?” NCTQ (April 2020); and Patricia Saenz-Armstrong, “Student teaching and initial licensure in the times of coronavirus,” NCTQ (April 2020).