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The Coronavirus Effect: Story Ideas on Students, Schools

How COVID-19 is poised to reshape the learning experience

Photo credit: Flickr/Oakley Originals

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The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a public health story. It’s also an education story; many of them, actually. With most of the nation’s public and private schools now closed, education reporters are on the front lines of crisis coverage. News outlets around the country are a crucial source of information for communities.

Here are a handful of story ideas to tap in covering what continues to be a fast-changing situation on the preschool through secondary education front, with lots of strong examples of enterprising news coverage.

How Are Vulnerable Students Getting Access to Essential Wraparound Services?

In places like Oregon and Kentucky, districts are offering grab-and-go meals. In Washington state, the early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. (and the state with the most deaths from the virus so far), schools are required to provide not only meals to low-income families but also to serve as emergency child care centers, reported Janelle Retka of The Yakima Herald.

How effective are such actions so far? How are parents teaming up to share resources for child care, especially in families where working from home isn’t an option? What are local nonprofit organizations doing to help fill in the gaps? In addition to covering the broader issues of the pandemic, The Seattle Times has created an online resource for families to find out about available services, including child care and mental health support.

What Are Schools Doing — or Not Doing — to Support ‘Remote’ Student Learning?

Remote learning — whether in paper form or online — is now the de facto means of instruction for tens of millions of students. But what steps exactly are schools and districts taking, or planning to take, to help ensure that learning continues? Early signs suggest it varies widely, even as the situation is sure to evolve quickly, especially if the closures are prolonged.

A national survey of school administrators conducted last week by Education Week suggests it may be a struggle in many places to pivot quickly and effectively. Forty-one percent of district officials indicated that their systems “couldn’t provide remote or e-learning activities to every student in their district for even one day,” as a blog post summing up this survey finding indicates. Districts serving large concentrations of low-income families were more likely to say they could not provide such learning opportunities.

Washington Post story offered a snapshot across the greater Washington, D.C. region. “The first day of the school-less reality … meant online learning for some in the region, paper packets for others. It left some children idle. Others headed to campus for free school-provided meals.” In Virginia suburbs, “school systems opted for different approaches, some more intensive than others,” the story noted. In Loudoun County, Va., for instance, school officials were “working to develop a virtual curriculum for the system’s 84,000 students,” with teachers gathering yesterday for a “work day” to hash out details.

In other communities, like Anne Arundel County, Maryland, the local public television station is broadcasting at-home lessons, with a different grade level featured each hour. The Montgomery County Public Schools system, Maryland’s largest, issued a statement yesterday indicating that “teachers are not working and will not be providing new instruction or giving new assignments to students” because the system is treating its current two-week closure as an “emergency closure.” The system did provide some online instructional resources for review and practice: “We encourage families to read, play board games, write in journals, and join in on any other activities you think are appropriate for your child.”

Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, announced last week it would be moving learning for its 18,000 students entirely online.

As Jill Tucker reported for the San Francisco Chronicle, California’s teachers — many of them parents themselves — were scrambling to devise online lessons amid confusion over the state’s requirements and policies for emergency instruction.

What’s Fair and Equitable?

Questions (and even legal considerations) of educational equity have fast emerged as key issues of concern — and debate when it comes to remote learning. This is an area ripe for exploration by reporters as part of their ongoing coverage.

Some districts say they are opting not to use online lessons because of fears that students won’t have uniform access. Philadelphia is among them, reports WHYY’s Avi Wolfman-Arent. Should more affluent students and those who already have reliable home computing tools be cut off from instruction in order to maintain some semblance of a level playing field for their less fortunate peers? What about students with disabilities?

Education reporter Erin Richards of USA Today explores these issues in a March 19 story.

“As districts scramble to establish distance learning plans for likely long-term school closures, they’re struggling to provide services to students with disabilities and those with other exceptional circumstances,” she writes. “It’s a challenge with broad implications, tied to financial consequences for districts and developmental consequences for the most vulnerable students in America.”

The story notes that Kentucky’s largest district, Jefferson County Public Schools, is not moving to online learning because of equity concerns. The 98,000-student district wouldn’t be able to provide enough digital devices or ensure internet access for its most disadvantaged students, said Superintendent Marty Pollio, the story says.

Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who notes that most Washington state districts are not providing distance learning, offers her take on that debate in an opinion piece for The 74 Million. “An all-or-nothing approach under these conditions will not serve our most vulnerable students well. The most compassionate approach is for educators to do the best they can for every kid,” she writes.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported, numerous internet providers are offering families free or low-cost services for the next few months to try and ease the transition. But without the broadband infrastructure in their communities, free wifi offers won’t do much to bridge the digital divide. This is a good time to get familiar with — or revisit — EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on bringing connectivity to underserved students and schools.

Education reporters should also be closely reviewing districts’ distance learning plans: How different is the content and approach from what students would have learned in the classroom? How will the effectiveness of programs be monitored? How much of the process is being left up to individual teachers? If new programs/services are being purchased — and there’s no shortage of education technology companies seeking to seize the moment – who’s vetting them?

(For more story ideas and a roundup of standout coverage, check out education blogger Alexander Russo’s picks over at The Grade.)

What Role Are Parents Playing to Support Learning at Home?

With most schools closed, reporters will want to turn to families to help tell the story of remote learning in action.In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, the district has provided online resources for “Learning At Home.” But it’s not so easy for many parents. “Families across New York City grappled Monday with the first day of an unprecedented system-wide shutdown of schools, as Chalkbeat reported. “Learning from home sparked a range of early concerns. Top among them: What role are parents expected to play in their children’s remote education while balancing life’s other demands?” On social media, parents are sharing ideas for lesson plans, and The Atlantic’s Ashley Fetters also offers tips for keeping kids’ minds active in quarantine.

In some districts without the resources or a plan for a quick transition to online learning, families are being asked to pick up paper packets of assignments to keep students learning at home in the coming weeks. But those materials are often being assembled by individual classroom teachers, which can mean children from the same family attending the same school might not all have the same remote learning experience.

Schoolwork is just one piece of the puzzle — Writing for The Hechinger Report, Jackie Mader offers a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for parents, including helping younger kids manage anxiety around the health crisis. Cory Turner and Anya Kamenetz, co-hosts of NPR’s Life Kit podcast, also offer tips for families dealing with kids unexpectedly at home. (And don’t forget the question of what happens when child care programs are forced to shut down. Read Meghan Mangrum’s piece for the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.)

What About Spring Testing Season?

Across the country, states have announced plans to delay or cancel their statewide standardized exams, a core part of state accountability systems and report cards. The list includes CaliforniaFlorida, Michigan, and Texas. In the short term, that’s going to make it challenging for districts to evaluate student growth this year. In the longer term, it could also complicate tracking of specific programs and interventions intended to boost student achievement.

What’s your state doing on this front? Talk with local researchers at your college’s school of education and find out how this shift might impact any ongoing studies or evaluations. In states where student test scores are used as a component of teacher evaluations, what’s the plan to address that void? Further down the road, the interruption in instruction for students globally could become a factor in international exams intended to gauge the academic skills and workforce readiness of the world’s youth.

In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced she would be extending broader waiver authority to exempt some states from the testing requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the backbone of the nation’s education law.

Talk to the Kids: How Are Students Coping?

No classes. No prom. No graduation. No college entrance exams. How are students handling the abrupt end of their academic year? Where are they congregating virtually to commiserate and keep tabs on their friends in the new age of social distancing? If you’re not already following your high school newspaper’s student editors on social media, now’s the time to start.

Also keep an eye out for Tik-Tok and Instagram accounts using local school names as hashtags. Given that students arguably have more free time to chat online during the day, this is also a good time for your news organization to consider setting up an AMA (Ask Me Anything) or Facebook chat to give teens a chance to share their experiences, as well as crowdsource ideas for young people navigating this new territory. The New York Times’ Learning Network asked students across the country to share their points of view, with responses ranging from an original haiku to concerns about the accuracy of pandemic-related content circulating on social media.

Chalkbeat has also created a special section featuring student voices, as well as parents and educators. And in Texas, KUT’s Claire McInerny asked students to share how self-isolation is going in their own words — and voices. Need some tips for interviewing students? Read EWA’s guide to talking with teens.

What About School Support Staff?

With the spotlight understandably on teachers right now, it’s important to remember the instructional aides, bus drivers, custodians, food service workers and myriad other support staff who keep schools up and running. How are school employees, especially those on hourly or part-time contracts, handling the closures? What challenges are districts facing in keeping those employees on the payroll?

Additionally, as the crisis is expected to intensify in the next few weeks, reporters should be mindful to practice healthy habits, like observing social distance recommendations and the CDC’s guidelines for helping to stem the spread of the virus. The Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma offers these practical tips for self care and supporting your newsroom colleagues.