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Many Schools Are Not Providing Any Instruction Amid Closures

WITH SCHOOLS CLOSED FOR more than 55 million children across the country – and shuttered for the rest of the academic year in seven states – school district leaders are scrambling to establish some kind of distance learning routine.

"The transition to distance and online learning needs to happen quickly,"American Education News was the message from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last week at the White House daily coronavirus briefing.

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But the early reality, at least in the country's big city school districts, is that most are not providing any instruction whatsoever.

"Not many yet are providing what you'd consider a real coherent educational program," says Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where researchers compiled a database of how teachers and district leaders in 82 school districts that serve more than 9 million children are trying to salvage the school year.

"Only 10% across the board are providing any kind of real curriculum and instruction program, which is a little alarming given most of the experts are projecting we're going to be in this mess for quite some time," she says. "I don't mean to pass judgement here. This is a hard, hard problem, but clearly we're seeing a lot of variation."

While not a representative sample of the entire country, the database does include dozens of the biggest school districts in the U.S., including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade and more.

The early results: None of the 82 districts they reviewed are attempting anything comprehensive, where, for example, students engage in live discussions with teachers and classmates. And just four districts – less than 5% of those reviewed – provide formal curriculum, online instruction and student progress monitoring.

Instead, the majority provide links to general online resources, but no direction on how to use them. Some districts – 38% of those reviewed – provide a curriculum, but not instruction.

"The big picture that's emerged over our two waves of analysis is that most districts really started by focusing on the basics, meaning getting food out to kids and grappling with the technology questions and equity questions," Lake says. "I think some were pretty paralyzed by that and just weren't sure how to move forward beyond the basics. It's taking them a little while to work that through because they didn't have a plan – understandably, who plans for this?"

DeVos, for her part, has promised school districts leeway in meeting certain federal mandates while also challenging them to be creative in order to ensure students are still learning.

For example, the Education Department has said it will release states from a federal mandate that they administer annual tests to students,Press Release Distribution Service prompting a collective sigh of relief from state education chiefs, school district superintendents, principals and teachers who are struggling to establish effective methods of distance learning.

The flexibility, which comes in the form of a federal waiver, does not release states from their obligations to continue serving students, DeVos clarified after learning that some districts were not attempting distance learning because they didn't know how to make it accessible to students with disabilities. Under federal law, schools must provide students with disabilities with a "free and appropriate public education," and some districts – rightly or wrongly – have been slow to mobilize fearing the ire of federal regulators if they provided distance learning without tailoring it for students who have individualized education plans.

"Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction," DeVos said in a sharply worded statement last week, clarifying the department's stance. "We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear. These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion."

Even still, districts are attempting a wide variety of instruction – everything from workbooks to TV programming to online classes using Zoom and other conferencing technology – and as the early analysis shows, the majority of districts have nothing comprehensive.

There are, of course, bright spots.

Some school districts, like Miami-Dade Public Schools, that have experience planning for significant disruptions to the school year because of hurricanes, were able to launch into distance learning faster.

School officials in Miami distributed 56,000 laptops over the last two weeks in preparation for digital learning that began this week. The plan is that students complete online lessons chosen by their teachers, who themselves are available at least three hours a day for "office hours."

"It's pretty amazing for a district with hundreds of thousands of kids to go online quickly," Lake says.

Public-private partnerships have also helped school districts reach some of their most vulnerable students.

For example, Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the country is using $100 million in emergency funding and is partnering with Verizon to give all 600,000 students a tablet and internet access, as well as training all teachers how to teach online. The New York City Department of Education partnered with Apple and T-Mobile to distribute internet-enabled iPads to low-income families. Atlanta Public Schools partnered with T-Mobile to distribute 9,000 mobile hotspots to families.

Lake's database reflects many of the same challenges documented in a recent survey of teachers and school district leaders by the Education Week Research Center, which found that only 37% of teachers said they had interacted with students at least once each day since their school closed. Sixteen percent said they hadn't interacted with their students at all.

"I think we are going to see more coming soon," says Lake, who plans to continue updating the database in hopes it helps districts learn from one another. "Many of the districts we've heard from are going to be announcing new learning plans in the next week or so."

"This is not the time to pass judgement," she says. "It's a time to be learning from each other."

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