At the Cleveland High School for Digital Arts, principal Jasmine Maze and colleagues created an “Instaschool,” allowing students to complete assignments focused on the pandemic just by using their phones and a private Instagram group. Cherry Malaque, a special-education teacher in Albuquerque, made home visits to her students as they completed their assignments. She showed up on each student’s doorstep, at some risk to herself, dressed in her superhero uniform with a toy in hand to remind her students that they were missed and important—and to do their homework. Francine Lazarus, an elementary-school principal in Tampa, created a food pantry at her school with donations of shelf-stable food and cash from neighbors. The pantry provided an alternative for parents who had difficulty picking up district-provided meals at the scheduled times. Linda Webb, a high-school principal in Austin, marshaled her quilting group to make hundreds of masks for workers in the school district and elsewhere.
Isolated examples? No. At the Council of the Great City Schools, a research and advocacy coalition of urban public-school districts, we hear them every day. Staff and teachers in big-city public schools went to extraordinary lengths this spring to serve their students in ways that went well beyond teaching. The scale of this support is mindboggling. Television news shows like 60 Minutes have reported on how corporate giants Amazon and Ford Motors (turning to the manufacture of medical supplies) have mounted crash production and distribution efforts during the coronavirus crisis. Viewers marveled at their capacity and expertise. None of it, however, comes close to what our nation’s urban school districts produced or delivered throughout this challenging time.
The Council estimates that the nation’s largest city public school systems delivered upwards of 150 million meals to children and families in need, and they supplied as many as 3.2 million instructional devices to students who lacked such technology at home. The New York City Department of Education alone served more than 8.5 million meals from mid-March, when schools closed, to the middle of May. At one point, it was delivering some 475,000 meals a day. The department also supplied about 430,000 instructional devices to students. The Chicago Public Schools served some 10.5 million meals from 305 sites and distributed about 112,000 instructional devices between March 17 and mid-May. Los Angeles Unified School District provided 18.1 million meals and supplied Internet connections for 464,819 students.
Numerous city school districts purchased mobile hotspots, retrofitted their buses with Wi-Fi, and worked with their Internet providers to help narrow the digital divide in their communities. Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, bought and distributed hotspots and placed Wi-Fi on school and city buses, in parks and public libraries and elsewhere, to shrink digital-access gaps. The Atlanta Public Schools launched a major initiative with its Internet provider to create access throughout the city. Dallas and Miami did the same.
School officials in Cleveland, Austin, Tulsa, Anchorage, Broward County, and other urban areas also set up call centers and help lines in multiple languages to deliver counseling and mental-health supports to children experiencing stress and abuse. In Chicago, educators worked on lessons focused on the study of the coronavirus and on student discussions about their experiences during the outbreak.
In all of the Council’s 76 member districts, educators loaded up instructional devices with classroom lessons before distributing them to students, or issued accompanying printed materials, or did both. Broward County convened teams of elementary school teachers by grade level to develop lessons, provide professional development, and ensure consistent quality. Teachers in many places banded together using crowd-sourcing tools to create lessons and teach live classes. School systems in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Orlando, and other cities arranged instructional lessons through their public broadcasting systems. Oakland provided weekly webinars for their English-language teachers. Multiple districts partnered with their local libraries to supply reading materials.
City schools even went beyond their core mission during the crisis. Districts such as Charleston, Cleveland, and Wichita gathered up masks, gloves, sanitizer, and other medical supplies from their school clinics to distribute to local hospitals.
Did It Work?
How did all of these efforts play out in the delivery of services to students? Not everything went swimmingly, to be sure. The energy and commitment of educators is not always enough to overcome the complications of distance teaching and learning during a pandemic. Many districts tracked the frequency of student and teacher interactions, but others had trouble locating all their students. In Philadelphia and Clark County, the Las Vegas district, staff members repeatedly called students and even went out to knock on their doors if necessary. Student engagement in the academic work was high in some places and lower in others. Meal delivery was sometimes curtailed for short periods when staff became infected with the virus. Labor negotiations went smoothly in some cities but less so in others. Districts sometimes struggled to provide English-language support to students living in households where no one speaks English. Owing to health and safety concerns during the outbreak, schools found it impossible to deliver face-to-face services for students with disabilities, but they worked hard to meet individual student goals. And no matter how much progress schools made and continue to make in transitioning to virtual instruction, the research on the efficacy of online learning—the only way we have of reaching students at this point—is unconvincing, at best. There is simply no fully adequate substitute for the face-to-face instruction provided by a skilled teacher.
Still, I have read some harsh criticisms of school districts. At the end of April, Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education wrote in The 74 that there is “no plan to prevent what could be long-lasting academic casualties, particularly among economically disadvantaged children of color in large urban districts unprepared to provide rigorous and effective remote learning.” About two weeks later, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform asserted on Forbes.com that “in the majority of cases, education is still not being delivered at all—remotely, digitally, or any other way.” And in early May, Marguerite Roza of Georgetown University warned in The 74, that “asking for more money is an incomplete strategy.” School districts also “need to start work on a Plan B now. They need to develop cost-cutting strategies and should not delay tough decisions.”
Not only were these critiques unfounded and unproductive, they also suggested that the authors were spending too much time on websites, including our own, and not enough time actually talking with school leaders who were doing the work on the ground. Many cities, such as Miami and Dallas, had robust instructional continuity plans that they continued to revise. As pundits and critics were busy decrying the failure of schools, districts were preparing for summer school, working on professional development for teachers and administrators, identifying instructional strategies for addressing unfinished learning, creating resources and programming to attend to the social-emotional and mental-health needs of students and staff, and planning for an upcoming school year that will likely be marked by further shutdowns and disruption.
In addition to the work that is going on in individual cities, the Council of the Great City Schools has launched several working groups to pool the collective experience of urban-education leaders to help districts tackle the many instructional, operational, and logistical issues they face. School-board members are discussing the best ways to fulfill their monitoring and fiduciary responsibilities under these new circumstances. Chief academic officers are addressing calendar options and the best ways to address unfinished learning without resorting to re-teaching and remediation. Experts on English-language learners and students with disabilities are thinking through the specialized needs of diverse learners.
The Council has also organized a mental-health working group to look at best practices in districts that have led in this area. A group of chief financial officers is working on how to redeploy resources to support new instructional realities and how to handle severe multiyear budget shortfalls. A communications group is devoted to helping to shape public confidence; a technology group is focusing on the many online issues that schools will face going forward, and a testing group is dealing with assessment issues. We have operational groups working on options for transportation, food services, security, and facilities. On a broader level, a group of district leaders is re-envisioning what the future of public education could look like.
A Cohesive Plan
Ultimately, the work of all these groups will need be integrated to ensure that district staff and leaders can act from a cohesive, unified plan of action rather than relying on the compartmentalized, siloed approaches of the past. While the pandemic crisis has brought urgent challenges, there are enduring issues in public education that still need to be addressed.
Will educators and school leaders get everything right? No, they will not. But the extraordinary efforts, determination, and skill of our urban public schools to meet the needs of their students and families during unprecedented circumstances makes me optimistic about the future. We do not have the luxury—or any intention—of halting instruction or abandoning students. What we do have is an opportunity to rethink and reshape our practices to meet the demands of a new day. And that is what we are doing.
This is part of the forum, “Did America’s Schools Rise to the Coronavirus Challenge?” For an alternate take, see “A Memorable, Miserable Failure with the Potential to Change Parental Expectations Forever,” by Chris Stewart.
Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.
This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:
Casserly, M., and Stewart, C. (2020). Did America’s Schools Rise to the Coronavirus Challenge? Education Next, 20(4), 72-77.