The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted every sector of life in Kentucky. For families who have students in, or who work in, P-12 education, the closure of schools has presented a unique set of challenges. How will students learn, and how will education policy shift as a result? The following post summarizes what has happened so far and what this means for P-12 students, parents, and educators moving forward.
Schools close, move to “non-traditional instruction”
In early March, a handful of school districts began voluntarily closing to prevent the spread of the virus until Governor Andy Beshear recommended a statewide shutdown of all P-12 schools, a closure that has now been extended until April 20. Districts that closed early on were already participating in the state’s NTI (non-traditional instruction) program, a provision that was originally developed to deal with weather- and health-related closures and allow schools to engage in online and remote instruction so that those days do not have to be “made up” at the end of the year.
The Kentucky Board of Education moved quickly to approve NTI waivers for all 172 public school districts. The state legislature quickly passed a new law that the Governor signed to allow districts to use an unlimited number of NTI days, all in anticipation that schools may need to remain closed, possibly for the remainder of the academic year.
Non-traditional instruction looks different in every district, as teachers and local school leaders try to figure out how to make learning possible online or where students do not have access to the internet or to computers at home. In many districts this means developing packets of school work that are, in some cases, being delivered directly to students’ homes.
Parents now face the challenge of not just making sure their children are supervised during the day but also ensuring they have the support and structure needed to complete their NTI school work. Teachers are making themselves available to respond to emails, texts, and phone calls when students or their parents have questions or need further assistance with coursework. Where technology is available, many teachers are providing virtual online class sessions to offer additional help.
“I know this is difficult for all of our families, especially since daycares and other gathering spots also are closed for the time being,” Interim Commissioner of Education Kevin Brown said in a letter to Kentucky families, but the NTI program “means that regardless of how long this medical emergency lasts, your child’s education will continue.”
Schools are responsible for providing more than just academic services to students, of course. Districts have scrambled to make sure that children who rely on school breakfast and lunch can still have access to these meals. The Kentucky Department of Education established a website documenting locations in each district where students can access free meals while schools are closed. KDE has planned webinars for helping schools continue counseling services and support for students during the shutdown, among other strategies for tending to students’ social and emotional needs.
The United States Department of Education has offered to waive all federal testing requirements this year. Kentucky requested such a waiver and has been given verbal approval that it will be granted, with formal notification expected in coming days. This means that the state’s annual K-PREP assessments, normally carried out during the last few weeks of school, will not happen this year.
The rationale for this change is two-fold. If schools remain closed through the rest of the year, effective administration of the tests would be difficult or impossible. Second, online and non-traditional instruction simply do not afford teachers the opportunity to provide the same level of intervention and support for students who are struggling to reach proficiency, so accountability results this year would not be representative of what happens when students are at school with their teachers all day.
This means that schools will keep their state 5-star rating from the 2018-2019 school year for another year. No new schools will be identified in 2019-2020 under federal guidelines for CSI (comprehensive supports and interventions) or ATSI (additional targeted supports and interventions).
Meanwhile, the spring ACT and SAT test administrations have been postponed, and Advanced Placement (AP) exams will be offered to students in a shorter, online format.
Special challenges and an uncertain future
The long-term closure of schools presents many challenges for parents, educators, and policy-makers. Research suggests that students who struggle with learning in traditional settings will struggle even more with online and remote learning. Educators have to be especially mindful of how they address the needs of students with disabilities and English language learners.
Other logistical challenges have emerged, like what to do with student teachers, who are supposed to complete their training this semester (many student teachers are assisting their mentor teacher with NTI lessons and grading student work), or classified school staff, who might otherwise be laid off during a shutdown (in some districts they are attempting to work remotely).
Finally, it is still uncertain how the coronavirus and the economic slowdown that is expected in its wake will affect P-12 spending in the 2-year Kentucky budget, which is still slated for approval by state legislators when they resume their work on March 26. Significant differences exist between the House and Senate budget proposals, with the latter offering more per pupil state education funding, but eliminating the $2,000 annual salary increase for teachers that Governor Beshear had originally sought.
It is too soon to tell what the COVID-19 crisis will mean for P-12 education in the long-term, but parents are probably more engaged than ever with what their children are learning, and educators are challenged more than ever to think critically about how they engage with students, families, and their communities. Perhaps innovative new instructional models will emerge, and policy-makers will find ways to increase flexibility for schools and districts to provide their vital services to students, especially those with the most critical learning needs.
Dr. Gary Houchens is a professor of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research at Western Kentucky University and a Senior Fellow at Pegasus Institute