COVID-19 Forces K-12 to Think and Act Agile

Historic school closures nationwide are exposing equity gaps, but they also offer fresh explorations into new models

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To date, the United States has experienced a historic and unprecedented level of simultaneous school closures that have hit nearly all school districts nationwide. The continued spread of COVID-19 has forced policymakers to make tough decisions while pushing educators to once unimaginable limits. Closures have happened in all 50 states, with only a few rural states like Nebraska, Iowa and Maine allowing some districts – depending on their size – to stay remain open.

This national K-12 closure also pushes cities and states to getdigital. The closest alternative is online learning. However, not all districtscan deliver such equally.  That will stress the need for creativity,agility and flexibility from educators. Districts will naturally ask: How do we do that?

Today’s answer depends on equity variables. As data from theNational Center for Education Statistics note …

[t]he percentage of public school students in high-povertyschools was higher than the percentage in low-poverty schools (24 vs. 21percent), and both percentages varied by race/ethnicity. The percentage ofstudents who attended high-poverty schools was highest for Hispanic students(45 percent), followed by Black students (44 percent), American Indian/AlaskaNative students (38 percent), Pacific Islander students (24 percent), studentsof Two or more races (17 percent), Asian students (14 percent), and Whitestudents (8 percent).

More than half of all public school students in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs. The National Center for Homeless Education found in its annual Federal data summary that more than 1.5 million students nationwide are homeless.

Hence, the size, scope and extent of closures will expose andeven aggravate pre-existing equity gaps along race and income in most places.That impact is felt most by vulnerable or underserved student populations.School districts already challenged with the monumental task of providinginstruction to economically distressed Black and Brown populations arediscovering an even greater challenge in figuring out the best way to do so ina new, virtual environment. How districts adapt and deliver instruction duringclosures depends greatly on how severe or deep that economic distress is: fromstudents who don’t have access to basic items for online learning like laptopsto households that never had broadband or Wifi access to begin with. In somemajor cities, large portions of the student population that are either homelessor facing major food insecurity.

This has refreshed a needed conversation on agile, blended andpersonalized learning models in a future fraught with pandemic and naturaldisaster uncertainty. 

The more flexible a K-12 institutional model, the more able it is to rapidly respond to student needs during a crisis. In the case of personalized public-partner school networks like Learn4Life, for example, the agility of a learning model is crucial: it’s already working as L4L administrators work with partners to deliver 5,000 laptops to students in need, as well as “MyFi” hotspots and other expanded broadband capabilities. That California-based 100+high school, 50,000 student network of trauma-informed academies specially designed for “at-risk” and economically distressed students offers insights useful at the moment as educators consider how they’ll adapt while closures continue and as they assess how to prepare for the future.  

A personalized learning model allows students to immediatelytransition from on-site instruction to remote learning … and quickly. Learn4Life students, as an example, don’t regularly assemble in large classsettings to begin with and, instead, absorb curriculum through scheduledone-on-one meetings with teachers and tutors. With the implementation of schoolclosures, students can continue instruction through technology such as GoogleHangouts, a private YouTube curriculum channel and instant messaging. Studentscan also get access to remote one-on-one instruction and group labs, tutoring,counseling, as well as special ed IEP meetings.

Hot spots and devices are offered to students who need them.This is also a trend developing in large urban, rural and suburban schooldistricts: not only did 37 school districts in Southeastern Pennsylvaniadistribute laptops and other devices to their students, but so did the Miami,Florida School District as it delivered technology to 53,000 students. Boston,New York City and Broward County, Florida followed suit. That’s a combined 1.7million students receiving continued instruction.

In addition, the Massachusetts Education EquityPartnership recommends non-tech approachessuch as …

[c]reat[ing] and regularly distribut[ing] multilingual toolkitsin digital and paper form for every grade level and major subject area tofamilies, at least until remote learning structures are up and running.

At-risk students who had recently dropped out or are seriouslybehind in credits would be hurt the most by school closures. “It is criticallyimportant to keep them engaged so they don’t fall backwards and into thedropout cycle again,” said Caprice Young, national superintendent forLearn4Life. “We know that even small interruptions to their momentum can derailtheir educational progress.” The student caseloads for teachers are manageableand personalized to support that, and made easier to connect with students.

Nothing is more important than keeping at-risk students stable,engaged and progressing toward a diploma. Losing them to another potentialdropout crisis is another epidemic cities and states must make every effort toavoid. As closures continue, more schools will need to explore new methods inteaching. One size, as we’re seeing, does not fit all in education. Butflexibility is certainly critical in times of crisis.

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  • CHARLES D. ELLISON is an award-winning thought leader, political strategist, commentator and advocacy expert with nearly two decades of applied expertise in the arena of politics, public policy, campaigns and elections, crisis management and emerging/digital media strategy. Ellison is the Executive Producer & Host of Reality Check, a daily public affairs program on WURD (96.1FM / 900AM / in Philadelphia). He is also Contributing Editor for The Philadelphia Citizen, weekly Wednesday co-host on the nationally syndicated Keeping it Real w/ Rev. Al Sharpton, and Managing Editor for, a publication covering the intersection of the environment, race and income. His writings have been frequently featured in major publications such as The Philadelphia Tribune,, The Forward, Politico, Pacific Standard, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post and others. He is a regular analyst for numerous major metropolitan media outlets including WVON-AM (Chicago), WHUR-FM (Washington, D.C.), KSRO-AM (California) and KDKA (Pittsburgh). He has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, NPR, FOX, CBS’ Face the Nation, SkyTV and elsewhere. More engagement @ellisonreport on Twitter. CHARLES WRITES FOR – – – – –

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