States Need to Step Up on Equity and COVID

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

July 23, 2020

The complications of restarting instruction for the 2020-21 school year in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will require comprehensive and clear planning, especially as it relates to ensuring equitable access to a high-quality public education. This past spring, districts had to put together plans for remote instruction and homeschooling on the fly with results that were, to say the least, extremely uneven, This time around, it is more essential than ever that States step up and resume their historic role of remedying, or at least ameliorating, inter-district inequities in the coming weeks and months. For that reason, we’ve gathered every state’s guidance on fall reopening plans as of July 20th.

While many inventories of state guidance are centered around important health and safety provisions, our review of state reopening guidance focuses on how states are addressing academics and instruction, as well as other key provisions within Recommendations for Prioritizing Equity in the Response to COVID-19, co-released earlier this summer by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Education Reform Now, and 12 other organizations.

Unfortunately, thus far, we’ve seen wide variation in the quality of homeschooling and distance education and gross inequities in the quality of education provided to students from historically disadvantaged groups as compared to their more advantaged peers. To meet this unprecedented challenge, it is critical that states provide strong leadership by issuing clear guidance for districts, providing support to school leaders, and setting policies that provide every student—regardless of zip code, family income, or race—the opportunity to learn to his or her highest potential. States need to have clear requirements for instruction and academics —not simply recommendations—just as they do for health and safety provisions.  At a minimum, states should be requiring districts to identify learning opportunity gaps as a result of school closures and launch bold and creative ways to accelerate learning for those who had limited access to distance learning in the spring. Right now, only a handful of states are showing even a modicum of such initiative.

Fall Reopening

Reflecting the uncertainty of COVID-19’s trajectory, only six states—Arkansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—have settled on the extent to which students will return to the classroom, all committing to have a combination of virtual and in-person instruction to start the year. Additionally, Minnesota has committed to selecting the least restrictive reopening strategy districts will be allowed to adopt by the end of July. Unfortunately, rather than fostering consistency through requirements for districts, most states are leaving districts largely to their own devices.

Tennessee’s reopening guidance stands out as one of the most comprehensive guides. In addition to its main guidance document, the state has released 22 supplemental documents covering areas such as finance, student assessment, technology, and professional development. This guidance, however, is almost entirely non-binding. Similarly, Iowa’s Return-to-School Support Document contains an extensive, but well-organized checklist, that district administrators can use to identify and address the various needs of students, families, and staff, with different considerations based on whether districts will be having remote, hybrid, or in-person instruction. Again, here, the state is not requiring that each district check off everything on the list.

Colorado and Oregon make clear distinctions between what parts of their planning documents are requirements, guidance, or considerations, minimizing confusion for districts. Maryland’s guidance introduction provides links to relevant research that support its recommendations. Arkansas clearly differentiates between district and school considerations and makes clear what must be completely prior to the start of the next school year. And Arizona has separate documents addressing the specific needs districts should address for school leaders, teachers, students, and families.

We understand the need for flexibility now but what troubles us is that states will continue to give districts too little support and too much leeway when it comes time to make final decisions and take action. Right now, rather than providing districts with definitive requirements, states are focused on allowing districts and schools to consider various options for the 2020-21 school year based on local conditions. Given the exact conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are constantly in flux, and the recent uptick in cases in many parts of the country, that makes a certain degree of sense.

The problem is that the myriad options may make it difficult for districts to implement a specific strategy as fall reopening approaches with district capacity spread thin across various contingencies and states requiring little to nothing in the way of ensuring an opportunity to learn for every student. The apparent lack of willingness on the part of virtually every state to demand equitable educational supports and instructional practices when final decisions are made does not bode well for students from historically disadvantaged groups whose communities are already bearing a disproportionate brunt of the COVID health crisis.

Equity Priorities for Reopening

Additionally, we look at the extent to which state recommendations align with Recommendations for Prioritizing Equity in the Response to COVID-19, co-released by Alliance of Excellence in Education, Education Reform Now, and 12 other organizations focused on educational equity. Overall, we find that states’ guidance needs significant revisions to fully prioritize equity, and most of the aligned provisions are simply recommendations, rather than requirements, thus minimizing their impact.

A vast majority of states also include guidance for expanding and improving distance learning. In particular, 41 states focused on providing professional development for teachers and 38 plan to improve access to connectivity. This is likely a strong focus since teachers were largely thrust into distance learning with little if any preparation, while digital divide has been a consistent barrier to implementing distance learning. We’re also seeing increased focus on families, with 34 states recommending increased family resources and supports with distance learning.

Of provisions related to extending learning time, states tended to focus on providing teacher and staff received ample training on new procedures to ensure a smooth transition as well as expanding remote instructional capabilities with 41 and 29 states recommending these actions for districts, respectively.

Encouragingly, 35 states suggest that states conduct diagnostic assessments to determine students’ academic needs as soon as school starts—though only Arkansas and Louisiana are requiring them. Maryland and Virginia are also requiring that districts identify learning gaps due to closures but don’t specifically specify using diagnostics. However, just 14 also urge states to provide professional development to help teachers interpret and use assessment data to inform instruction.

We also find that very few states provide recommendations related to easing the transition to postsecondary education. Only seven states—Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—address more than one criterion in this area, with each of these states pushing districts to conduct remote college counseling with seniors and coordinate with nearby public universities to ease students’ transition. Oklahoma’s plan was particularly strong here, with an entire subsection of their guidance dedicated to college and career planning and transitioning, while Tennessee issued a separate document on postsecondary transitions. But, again, these are simply recommendations and not requirements.

Right now, most states have issued reopening guidance for districts, and many currently have documents in development or are working on additional guidance. We would encourage states to use the equity priorities to anchor their recommendations to ensure students most affected by COVID-19 receive the resources they need to access high-quality curriculum and reverse learning loss incurred during extended school closures. Additionally, states need to provide more concrete criteria for states as the plan amid continued uncertainty.  While most states are focused on providing districts with flexibility to adapt to local conditions, they risk leaving district leaders with more questions than answers and deepening inequities exposed during spring distance learning.