Over the past year, school and district leaders were confronted with the challenge of a lifetime. In March 2020, a global pandemic ground the K-12 public education system to a halt, sending educators scrambling to adapt to distance learning models alongside their students, and requiring administrators to strain to close gaps in access to devices and home internet while maintaining special education services, meal programs for high-needs students, plan for how to safely reopen when possible and more.
But alongside COVID-19, they also faced a dual crisis that required equal precision and speed: the nation’s reckoning with systemic racism, ignited by the police-involved deaths of Black Americans. And to top it all off, the year was capped by the most contentious presidential election and transition of power perhaps in modern history.
From changes in leadership approaches and pushes for funding reforms to efforts to close the digital divide and address learning loss, we examined the past year’s key areas of impact to get an idea of where things are headed.
Funding crunch and reforms on the horizon
School funding and spending typically flow in a mostly predictable cycle, but not in 2020 — and likely not for several more years.
Last spring, many school districts initially found they had spent less than budgeted as they realized savings through under-used transportation and decreased on-campus activities. But those savings were quickly absorbed by new spending on technology, as well as personal protective equipment and safety protocols for on-campus learning.
Education leaders and budget decision-makers are bracing for a difficult financial forecast for the next several years that includes spending for continual COVID-19 safety initiatives and increased expenses toward student learning recovery and mental well-being. Adding to those pressures is the prediction that local and state revenues have dipped significantly, leaving schools with less funding.
The multi-year specter of declining revenues and greater student need creates an imperative for comprehensive and flexible aid for next year and beyond.— Education Resource Strategies (@ERStrategies) February 28, 2021
Read our latest report, The Cost of COVID, to understand the full financial impact on schools: https://t.co/WzXCsLBkzk pic.twitter.com/RuhH6ZVwLL
For example, districts could lose, on average, $1,800 per pupil over three years due to declining state revenues and would need to spend an average of $12,000 per pupil over five years to address students’ learning loss and social-emotional needs, according to a report by Education Resource Strategies.
While the immediate financial outlook for K-12 is bleak, some are looking optimistically at the long-term and seeing this upheaval as an opportunity to redesign how schools are both funded and plan for expenses. For example, in Minnesota, an Education Roundtable has discussed improving equity in education through various methods, including school funding reforms like simplifying the funding system and increasing basic revenue per pupil statewide.
Some states are also rethinking school allocations based on in-person student attendance calculations.
Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois, told K-12 Dive last year that COVID-19 challenges may make funding approaches more entrepreneurial and creative. “What if we can still provide robust and rigorous public schooling at the highest level of quality for all children, yet we don’t need to put all that funding, public funding, into brick and mortar if we don’t really need it full time for everyone all the time?” he said.
Equity and learning loss loom large
The emergency transition to distance education resulting from the pandemic highlighted significant inequities in the education system. Shortly after closures, teachers reported having a difficult time reaching students who lacked proper housing and/or internet access, and the result is an expected opportunity gap, especially for low-income students and students of color, that could lead to long-lasting impacts on achievement.
While learning losses were feared steepest in math, a subject area test results have indeed shown lag in, performance in reading has also suffered. Experts have suggested the path forward is acceleration rather than remediation, which is likely to hold students back further. To do this, schools are putting in place summer programs that are sometimes expanded and made available to all students.
Other widely discussed methods include in-school and small-group tutoring, which researchers say shows promise and may be schools’ “best bet,” and extending the school year or day to make up for lost learning.
While schools are depending on benchmark data to inform and personalize instruction, educators worry about those students who will not test and are likely the most behind. In addition, students who are not showing up for online learning are contributing to enrollment issues and district funding concerns. Education finance experts suggested to K-12 Dive last fall that leaders plan as if those students will return so districts are not scrambling to provide support.
In addition, it is possible the the economic downturn will widen racial funding gaps between districts as wealthier schools fall back on property tax revenue and lower-income districts continue to depend heavily on state budgets.
Digital divide persists despite progress
Prior to the pandemic, awareness was growing around disadvantages created by the increasing presence of digital education resources and schoolwork dependent upon them. Many students lacked home access to reliable broadband internet or devices — often described as the “homework gap.”
As the onset of the pandemic forced most school districts to transition to virtual learning, the full scope of those disadvantages was placed center-stage. Low-income students and those living in remote rural areas lacking infrastructure to support connectivity were among those most impacted.
Through advocacy by school and district leaders, efforts at all levels of government, and service provider initiatives, much progress was made in bridging the divide — but an estimated 12 million students still lack connectivity.
An analysis of U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data released in December found the rate of limited home digital access fell from 42% in the spring to 31% in fall. Inequitable access to technology and connectivity was also more pronounced among Black and Hispanic students, who were 1.3 to 1.4 times as likely as their White peers to experience limited access.
It has been suggested that “Remote learning, in some form, is now permanent.” With school districts having made investments in devices, hotspots and other equipment to go 1:1 for pandemic-era learning, the pressure to fully capitalize on those expenses will also fall on lawmakers. Now that the homework gap is front-and-center, one area to watch going forward is the potential “modernization” of the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate funding program to help bridge the divide.
Curriculum analyzed for effectiveness
The pressure for digital access to curriculum resources for students and teachers will most certainly have long-term, positive impacts as schools expand technological knowledge and capabilities.
However, it’s really the pre-pandemic trend of rethinking curriculum design to allow for differentiated learning, project-based learning and cultural responsiveness that was pushed along by the pandemic, and that will have staying power for years to come, say education experts.
Increased attention to making curricula and instruction student-focused predates COVID-19, but as teachers struggled to keep remote students on target with learning standards, they became hyper-attentive to individuals' unique needs, circumstances and experiences.
To hit that balance, classroom teachers experimented in adjusting the sequence of lesson plans, the quantity and quality of required reading materials and grading approaches — not because of a predetermined plan, but because it was a necessary reaction to COVID-19's hardships.
Proponents of competency-based education hope the approach, which emphasizes skill mastery and individual student engagement rather than a one-size-fits-all method, will continue to spread post-pandemic with support from robust professional development.
One asset helping the mission for compelling and purposeful curriculum is the abundance of online and free materials allowing educators to share effective practices, supplement lessons or even provide fresh ideas for making curricula more exciting and accessible for all students. Another is the analysis educators are making about whether curriculum and accompanying lessons support efforts to get students to mastery levels.
In other words, curriculum specialists and teachers are now asking, “Is this worth the time?” and “Does this help this student gain critical knowledge?”
SEL critical as mental health hardships grow
While whole-child approaches were growing prior to COVID-19, the isolation that came with shutdowns led districts to prioritize students’ social-emotional well-being and, in some cases, expand or add programs.
The risk of student suicide and other mental health concerns have added to the push to return in-person. Mental Health America, a nonprofit focused on improving mental health and wellness, released a report showing young people between the ages of 11 and 17 are more likely than any other age group to score as anxious or depressed during screenings. A separate report shows elementary school students are increasingly involved in school safety incidents, highlighting the need for districts to incorporate K-5 students in safety and SEL initiatives.
District leaders have expressed greater interest in adopting and training for trauma-informed practices, due to the pandemic, the police-involved deaths of African Americans, and natural disasters such as wildfires on the West Coast and the snowstorm in Texas. Other paths forward include putting in place schoolwide mental health response plans, which are sometimes tiered and/or built into curriculum.
Key to these methods have been building and strengthening relationships with students and their parents. As Susan Enfield, superintendent of Washington’s Highline Public Schools, told K-12 Dive, “A student doesn't need a deep, meaningful relationship with every adult in their school. It just takes one."
School leadership practices evolve
Being an education leader during the pandemic is like taking a major test without having studied the material, say some administrators. The health crisis has left administrators vulnerable to admit they don’t have all the answers and open to criticism while balancing competing opinions regarding the safety of in-person learning.
Every school and district leader now has experience in crisis and change management as they address fluid situations requiring quick but thoughtful decisions, such as access to devices and WiFi for online learning and student mental health supports.
Administrators guiding school systems through pandemic recovery can’t be autocratic or bureaucratic, but must lead with their hearts, minds and hands, said Robert Avossa, founder of K-12 Leadership Matters and a former teacher, principal and superintendent.
The past 12 months have allowed school leaders to become knowledgeable about details that can be easily missed, such as a school’s airflow, and more purposeful about rituals that may have become automatic, such as Back to School Nights and high school graduations.
As difficult as this year has been, many administrators say the experience has made them stronger leaders, more attuned to students’ needs and more connected to their school boards, local governments, regional administrative groups, parents, staff, and community health and non-profit organizations. Instead of staying in their comfortable routines and predictable decision-making rhythms, education leaders who have embraced the challenges report being more prepared and determined to make their post-pandemic program better than before COVID-19.
To help share success stories and lessons learned about transformative leadership during the pandemic, AASA, The School Superintendents Association’s Transformational Leadership Consortium is categorizing, cataloguing and recording administrator’s experiences, said Lubelfeld.
“The future will be a far more equitable [and] one based upon lived experiences of this pandemic,” Lubelfeld wrote in an email.
School-community-parent partnerships blossom
One hopeful development during this difficult year has been the connections schools have made with parents and community service groups. Because of the shared purpose of responding to the health, hunger and academic needs of students, school staffs reported new and deeper relationships with families and with the community's government, businesses and non-profit organizations.
The public health crisis created an all-hands-on-deck urgency that brought communities closer together. It also spurred moments of creativity and levity, such as Childersburg High School Principal Quentin Lee’s rap parody to educate students in Talladega County, Alabama, about new safety protocols. Many hope those bonds stay solid long after the pandemic is over.
The holistic attention paid to children’s academic, physical and mental well-being will be important for recovery efforts from the pandemic. It’s a mission that calls for support beyond a lone school’s capability, wrote authors Anna Maier, Jeannie Oakes and Julia Daniel in a blog for the Learning Policy Institute that advocated for community schools through formalized partnerships.
Parents and students have always been a school’s most critical partners, and the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years have proven how essential those ties are as educators provided remote learning support, and parents and students communicated with teachers about their unique needs. That continuing reciprocal exchange of information will benefit students as they return to a more typical schooling environment.
Cybersecurity becomes core safety concern
Though a rising concern in recent years, cybersecurity found itself at the forefront of school safety conversations as learning transitioned to a remote environment.
Technology investment and adoption already outpaced what many district budgets could keep up with in terms of cybersecurity expertise. Coupled with the amount of high-value data at hand, that made K-12 an increasingly popular target for hackers.
As of December 2020, there were around 1,110 publicly reported cybersecurity incidents in K-12 since 2016, according to The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center. The pandemic added the new complication of pushing everything to the digital space.
EdTech Strategies Founder and President Doug Levin, who also runs the center, suggested the number of incidents could be much higher, as they could be occurring and going undiscovered immediately. He also said devices beyond the protected school network could be infected with malicious programs that are “waiting” to activate when a device is reconnected to a school’s network.
A new class of incidents, “Zoombombings” — in which an outsider enters a virtual meeting or classroom held through a platform like Zoom and shows students racist images, pornography or other inappropriate and disruptive content — also served to bring online threats heightened attention.
The FBI and other federal agencies have issued warnings over the past year, advising all students be taught cyber-safety practices and that ransomware attacks are of particular concern. Ransomware is particularly popular due to the likelihood districts will pay the ransom demanded in order to have access to student and personnel data restored quickly.
While there’s a new push for cybersecurity to be among areas covered by the FCC’s E-Rate program, more immediate steps districts can take to mitigate threats include:
Keeping a cybersecurity insurance policy.
Regularly auditing cybersecurity preparedness.
Regularly changing and strengthening passwords.
Using two-factor authentication.
Routinely backing up systems and keeping the backups disconnected from the network.
Regularly installing security updates and software patches.