Opinion: Reopening schools requires purposeful partnership with families

By

Daniel D. Liou, associate professor

Due to the global pandemic, many families are wondering whether and how schools will reopen this fall. Schools might physically reopen and then be forced to close because of a sudden spike in COVID-19 transmission. There are still many uncertainties about how schools will handle new social distancing protocols and the potential shifts between in-person learning and remote instruction.

Through all of this disruption, schools and communities will need to support families and students by addressing challenges having to do with health, instruction and equity.

In the area of health, many signals point to the persistence of this pandemic unless we implement comprehensive testing, commit to contact tracing, and ultimately develop effective vaccines. In schools, deep cleanings of classrooms and facilities should be a priority. State and educational leaders must seek direct guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and from local health officials.

Keeping schools safe, however, is as much about what happens off school property as on it. Safe living conditions at home contribute to healthy learning environments in schools. And safe schools can strengthen the safety in homes. By localizing networks of experts and care professionals that actively support families at home, we can stabilize students’ learning environments and educators’ working environments. District, school, and community leaders should develop plans that address the health and safety of students, families, and all school employees. The virus doesn’t care whether you’re at home or at school. Neither should we. School health is a matter of public health broadly understood.

In the area of instruction, despite heroic efforts educators, the quality of teaching and learning has suffered during the pandemic. Online school just hasn’t offered the same quality as in-person school to most students. As schools reopen, teachers must be prepared to provide digital instruction in the event of future closures or a near future of blended learning that combines classroom and remote instruction. There are huge variations in the degree to which individual teachers and schools are prepared to deliver remote instruction. Districts should look to community organizations, the private sector, and universities to increase the quality of remote instruction they deliver and the access afforded their students. This means narrowing the technology gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. It means that curriculum leaders, program coordinators, tutors, and translators should work closely with families to meet the learning needs of immigrant students and those with disabilities. Universities that are adept at designing and delivering online instruction should be involved in providing professional development to teachers.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in society. People in low-income communities are losing jobs, getting infected, and dying at a greater rate than affluent communities. Because families have lost income, some high school students have to work longer hours in low-wage jobs that increase their exposure to the virus and decrease their amount of learning time. Additionally, the transition to online learning disadvantages learners with limited or no access to internet service at home. For the nearly 30% of Arizona students who speak a language other than English at home, access to technology is no guarantee of successfully navigating online learning resources. Further, many families are unsure how best to meet the unique learning needs of their children, especially the 11% of students that qualify for disability services. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest infection and death rates in the country, exacerbated by infrastructure problems associated with water quality, as well as by limited access to healthcare, housing, and other resources. In rural Arizona, the scarcity of support systems makes the reopening schools particularly challenging.

To mitigate the social and economic fallout from COVID-19, the Arizona Department of Education should expand its guidelines for family-school engagement. These guidelines should provide a community-based framework to help district and school leaders work closely with families to coordinate resources and services across the public and private sectors. State officials, health experts, school leaders, and families should work together in safe, accessible, and centralized spaces to actively address issues such as food stability, employment, healthcare, transportation, housing, and water quality. These wraparound support systems should include a consortium of leaders who can secure the trust of local communities and are capable of adapting policy and protocol to local needs.

We have long understood that the strength of schools is tied to the strength of communities. School doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in social and economic context. Even in the best of times, providing excellent education to all learners is a challenge we do not consistently meet. Now, in the face of a pandemic, we have a chance to forge an effective full-society response.

However, it’s imperative that we understand that a full-society response is not a one-size-fits-all response. Context, resources, and capacity matter. Communities differ in their needs.

Decisions about how schools manage the health, instructional, and equity challenges of the next school year need to be made with knowledge of what is happening in local communities and homes. That means they need to be made with the leadership and participation of all stakeholders including families of all backgrounds.

Daniel D. Liou, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, serves on the Arizona Department of Education’s Equitable and Inclusive Practices Advisory Council. For more information, see Arizona Department of Education’s COVID-19 guidance for schools and families.