What Now?

Is School Out Forever?

How Portland schools and parents should prepare for a future of online classrooms

By Fiona McCann June 1, 2020 Published in the June 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Ryan Johnson

As this magazine prints, schools in Oregon have been out for 10 weeks. Children all over the state have been reliant on technology (goodbye, crowded classrooms, science fairs, and field days; hello, Seesaw, Google Classroom, Zearn, et al.) with remote lesson plans and varying parental input to keep them going through the end of the year. The result, according to Portland-based education research nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), which creates assessment tools for students from pre-K through 12th grade, is an estimated 50 percent shortfall in typical learning gains, particularly in math. Near the end of the strangest school year to date, we asked NWEA’s CEO Chris Minnich to tell us five things school districts can do to bridge COVID-19 education learning gaps and prepare for whatever fall brings.

Teacher time is paramount.

Missing so many weeks of school instruction is likely to have a real impact on student learning, says Minnich, who says he’s particularly worried about kids in elementary school. “There’ll be a lot of kids that will just have unfinished learning, and it may not show up until five, six years from now, when those kids are in middle school and high school,” he says. “We’ll wonder why do we have much fewer kids being able to comprehend this reading passage, for example? We need to attend to that now.” The answer? “Time with teachers is really the antidote.” Minnich urges schools to look at ideas that include focused instruction over the summer and bringing some—possibly all—students back to school earlier than the usual late August/early September start. NWEA also urges the state to consider funding summer learning programs for reading and math to ensure kids get to make up lost instructional time.

Teachers: Plan for a reboot.

Back in March, teachers and districts were suddenly asked to pivot to a whole new world of remote learning. But summer offers a little more time to plan for a restart that may look very different to any in the past. NWEA recommends schools identify where students are—academically and emotionally—and figure out how to restructure instruction to fit those needs. That might mean some creative scheduling, prioritizing severe learning gaps, and devising strategies to help marginalized and vulnerable students. “If you’re used to a school district starting in late August, early September and just jumping right into the next year’s worth of stuff, you’re going to have to plan and spend time thinking about how do you get the most important things from the previous grade, because they may or may not have been taught,” says Minnich.

Get smart about funding sources.

With the state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, reportedly forecasting a $60 million shortfall for next year thanks to a nosedive in tax revenue, schools and school districts should be making the most of any state or federal funding opportunities. (See PPS’s decision last month to furlough all teachers for one day a week and use unemployment money and the federal stimulus to backfill their pay.) “Make sure you’re taking advantage of federal investments and state investments,” says Minnich. That money will be all-important when it comes to funding training, instruction, and technology.

Find partners.

Minnich suggests districts find ways to engage with other local organizations to find creative routes to instruction. Can local businesses that have survived the pandemic step up? What about libraries, or other public entities like parks departments? Per NWEA’s recommendation: “There are thousands of literacy and mathematics opportunities for K–8 students in a grocery store—imagine what’s possible when key sectors of the business community fully participate.”

Focus on math and reading.

If you’re a parent, particularly of an elementary-school kid, find out what your child’s grade-level requirement is for math—addition, fractions, units of measure—and make sure they understand it, says Minnich. (The PPS website has links to all the grade-level Common Core state standards.) On the reading side, word acquisition is key. “Get them engaged in books that keep their interests and that are generally at their reading level,” Minnich says. That will help sharpen the skills they’ll need to build on during the next school year—wherever that might take place.

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