As temperatures began to dip this fall, Allen Blackwell III says he and his colleagues at Baltimore City Public Schools kept watch on weather reports hoping to see it hit 32 degrees. That would herald the opening of winter shelters where homeless students and their families could be housed. “We were in the support area … Read more
At Archway Academy in Houston, which serves 50 high school students who are in recovery from substance use disorder, counseling sessions are essentially on-demand. Students can ask for support any time they feel a panic attack coming on, or if they feel overwhelmed or angry. Coupled with a tight-knit sense of community, it’s what makes the school successful, says Executive Director Sasha Coles. That’s why, after COVID-19 shifted academics online, Coles and her staff hit the road. When students called, counselors drove to their homes and held sessions on driveways and porches. Even with the masks and social distancing, it was a better therapy alternative for some students than Zoom. “I don’t think we understood, at least at the beginning, how not being able to deliver services in person would change really important dynamics at our school, the magical parts of the school, the community,” she says. “I have kids calling me falling apart, and so I’m trying to coordinate with parents, ‘How do we meet the needs of your kids when it comes to their mental health?’”Recovery high schools are specially equipped to help students remain sober. Alongside typical academic classes and extracurricular activities, they provide peer support groups, licensed counselors, drug testing and other accountability measures. A Vanderbilt University study of recovery high schools published in 2017 found that 62 percent of students met the criteria for an alcohol abuse diagnosis and 93 percent met the criteria for a substance dependence diagnosis. That tracks with what Andrew Warren, a recovery coach, sees when students enter Archway Academy. Marijuana and alcohol are the most common substances for which they are in recovery, though a small number have used intravenous drugs or painkillers. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions they face, he says. By and large, researchers found these schools were effective. On average, students’ reported significantly less use of drugs and alcohol when researchers checked in with them six months later, according to the study. They reported about nine days of marijuana over the previous 90 days, compared with 55 days of marijuana use prior to beginning treatment. Use of alcohol and other drugs dropped to about three days or fewer over the preceding 90 days. And students attending recovery high schools were more likely to stay sober and attend school compared with a control group of students with substance use disorders who attended other schools.But COVID-19 has significantly upended the model—posing a unique hurdle to recovery high schools, whose students were dealing with crises even before the pandemic. “There are occasions where we’ll have a kid with some good sustained recovery, but normally we get calls because the parents have tried everything they can think of,” Coles says, “and we become the place that is their last-ditch effort.”Balancing service and safetyRecovery schools are currently split into about even thirds when it comes to their delivery model. Some are fully in-person, others are hybrid or remote, says Roger Oser, chair of the Association of Recovery Schools. The organization’s membership is made up of 43 schools across the country that support students in 9th through 12th grade who are in recovery from substance or alcohol use. He is also principal of William J. Ostiguy High School, one of five recovery schools in Massachusetts, which is part of a public-private partnership affiliated with Boston Public Schools. Oser says his campus has used all three models at different stages of the pandemic. It was most recently fully remote. “We’re all trying to balance the need to provide in-person services with safety. That equation is different depending on what part of the country you’re in,” he says. Our population is a priority population to be in-person, so that’s the challenge. What can we do in our location situation to get kids in the building safely?”Prior to the pandemic, Oser says his campus and recovery schools nationwide were looking into remote learning as a solution for students who could not be on campus due to distance or treatment. “We have a student population that has interrupted experiences sometimes due to relapse or other reasons, so the more ability we have to connect to students remotely increases our capacity,” he says. “Obviously we wouldn’t want it to be driven by COVID, but we were already looking at different models.”While some students are doing fine remotely, Oser worries about those experiencing isolation. “In the best of times, people isolate for different reasons: not wanting to deal with people, covering up their use. Being remote makes that so much easier,” he says. “You can still be showing up, but not. And it makes it harder to detect what’s going on.”Being remote has driven his staff to make their virtual interactions with the school’s students as engaging as possible. Each day begins with a community check-in and one-on-ones between students and a case manager. “It’s much more intentional virtually because if someone doesn’t show up for a day, we don’t want that to go by [unremarked]. There has to be a place where that’s noticed and followed up on,” he says. Reopening the support systemColes says the transition to online schooling at her Houston campus, which partners with the Southwest Schools charter district, was smooth. But there wasn’t a way to replicate the human element of mental health services on a screen. Important parts of communication were lost. She couldn’t read students’ body language or give them a hug. While there were no worrying dips in academic performance, students at home were experiencing more anger outbursts and relapses in depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. More kids were running away, Coles says, and having a harder time getting medication refilled because doctors’ offices were closed.“What we learned from March to August was that in the mental health aspect of the school, we were not seeing the normal outcomes that we would due to the isolation,” she says. “Quite frankly, too much time with their families was not good for anybody. It felt like complete chaos.”While most public Texas schools reopened in mid-October, Archway Academy opened its doors again in September. The small school was divided into learning pods of no more than 10 students who stayed in the same socially distanced classroom, supervised by a faculty or staff member, and had their classes delivered via Zoom. Warren, who is an alumnus of the school in addition to being a recovery coach, says getting students back near their support system was important for two significant reasons. “Young people just crave that social life, and what you find with people who have substance use disorders is that it couples with mental health disorders,” he says, “so anyone who has depression or anxiety needs support or needs a social life.”During a normal school year, part of building community among students would include group activities involving close proximity. That could include tug-of-war one day or a trust exercise the next. “Activities like that aren’t really doable when there’s an airborne virus,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said about a staff member and student sitting down in a hallway and letting them cry and be there for them.”When the school closed and went remote in March, Warren says there was a portion of his students who were fine. They were motivated to stay on top of their studies, and meeting with him over Zoom was sufficient. But that wasn’t the case for everyone. “During our daily Zoom meetings, you could tell, ‘This person isn’t feeling connected. This person isn’t getting enough.’ We had students who enrolled with us in early March and didn’t have a chance to see what our community could really do,” he says. “We ended up going to these students’ houses and sitting on a driveway and just talking to them. Two or three times per week if necessary, bring them goodies and interact with the families and the kids. That was special when you had someone willing to drive out, sit in the driveway and just be there.”David Claunch, a math and science teacher at the academy, shares a connection with students in that he’s been in recovery for 17 years. If a student has an issue that’s preventing them from focusing in class, help from a counselor is right down the hall. “And they come back ready for academic work,” he says. Claunch taught remotely while he quarantined for two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 following Thanksgiving break. While he didn’t miss a day of school over Zoom, he was glad to be back in the classroom. “It’s really easy for them to nod and say, ‘Yes I understood,’ versus looking at a screen. You pick up so much more body language in person than you do on Zoom,” he says. Coles says that the number of staff and students who had to quarantine following Thanksgiving has her worried. If coronavirus forced the school to return to fully virtual learning, delivery of mental health services would remain a challenge. “We are continuing to toss around creative ideas for how we could do a better job of that while still keeping an eye on health and safety,” she says. Beyond all the changes to schooling, Coles says this year has left her to reflect on how educators can take better care of themselves as they jump from one emergency to the next. Each morning before checking her text messages, she takes a deep breath. “We’re a school that spends a lot of our time and energy focused on the health of the kids, and surviving the last year of school has reinforced in me why the self-care of the grownups is so important,” she says. “We barrel through the school year and breathe in the summer, and that can’t happen. We will become mentally and physically ill because this is too much to carry.”
When it comes to troubleshooting for her children’s remote learning, it seems like Barbara Lopez has done it all. Depending on the day, the Miami mom could be supervising just two of her young children as they log into their virtual classrooms―or she could be helping all four. She’s handled Zoom breakdowns, juggled multiple parent support group chats and gotten her kids fed during their four different lunch times. And she’s done it all while working from home part time as a university lecturer (her husband works remotely full time). Varied as her days may be, one thing is constant: Her presence by the side of her youngest son, 8-year-old Logan, during class time. Logan has cortical visual impairment—a neurological condition—along with additional special needs, and Lopez stands in for the professionals who would be helping him in the classroom during a typical school year. “I can’t just turn on the Zoom, put him in front of it and then go help the other kids,” Lopez explains. “There has to be somebody sitting next to him helping with the technology and getting him engaged in what’s going on. When the teacher shows him something that’s not accessible for him, I have to figure out, ‘Do I enlarge it to remove the visual clutter? Do I turn off the screen and let him just listen?’”As parents and educators continue to navigate remote learning, children with visual impairments have the added burden of learning in virtual classrooms that aren’t designed for them. Hybrid and socially distant in-person classes present challenges of their own. A lot of mainstream education tech is not designed with folks with disabilities in mind. What might take very little time in a mainstream class requires a lot of upfront work and prep in our setting.
Daniel WheelerAnd looming overhead, there’s the worry about the time their children have lost in academic and life skill classes. Each parent knows there’s a limit on the years their children have left in school, and the clock keeps ticking away no matter how much the pandemic has halted everything else. Adjusting to a New LandscapeIn the months immediately following the shutdown of schools across the country, researcher L. Penny Rosenblum and her team at the American Foundation for the Blind examined the impact of COVID-19 on students, families and educators. Their report, titled “Access and Engagement to Education Study,” surveyed over 1,400 parents and professionals in the U.S. and Canada. The challenges faced by most students and families reeling from the shift to online learning was heightened for children with visual impairments, says Rosenblum, many of whom have additional special needs.Fifty-six percent of the children of survey respondents had disabilities beyond a visual impairment. That required parents and professionals working together to adapt a curriculum that, in a school setting, is highly hands-on and individualized. “If I have a child who has a visual impairment and a hearing impairment, I’m going to use sign language with that child where their hands are going to be on top of my hands. I can’t do that through a computer, so how do I communicate with that child?” Rosenblum says. “I have to engage a family member, and they have to understand what I’m doing and why.”Rosenblum says family members also grew in their understanding of core curriculum skills like how students with visual impairments learn to travel safely or use screen readers. On the flip side, technology caused stress in families where parents became navigators for students who could not use assistive technology independently. The tool might have been too confusing or taken too long to learn, she explains, or even required training by someone other than the student’s teacher. Rosenblum says one issue that carried over into the fall is the systemic problem of access to information. Take for example a teacher who records a video demonstrating algebra equations on a whiteboard. “If I have a blind student who can’t see that video, then that content is not accessible to me,” she says. “There’s a difference between accessibility and usability.” Putting a Plan in PlaceOn paper, Sarah Chatfield says her family was positioned to be uniquely successful with virtual learning for her son when COVID-19 hit. The family lives in rural Wyoming, and 10-year-old son Jack, who has optic nerve hypoplasia, has used remote services throughout his life. Chatfield is also a teacher for students with visual impairments and is working toward a Ph.D. on how students learn braille via remote education. “I feel like if you made a list of things that needed to happen so COVID didn’t disrupt learning … all those things were in place, and it was still incredibly difficult,” she says. “Hours and hours a day for him, and I don’t think the curriculum was accessible.” Chatfield estimates she spent about three hours per day helping Jack when school moved online. Even with a great relationship with his school, visuals weren’t big enough, audio descriptions weren’t helpful enough and the learning platform was hard to use, she says. It was also physically painful after a certain point for Jack to be hunched over his school work to get close enough to see. Chatfield knows that remote education for visually impaired students can be done well, she says, because she works with those children every day in her professional world. As a parent, she felt the same pressure as others to adapt the curriculum for him on the fly, not to mention the mobility and other goals that visually impaired students work toward. “Everybody has to be onboard. There’s a reason why, when my kid goes to school, he sees five different professionals a day,” she says.Schools in Wyoming are open now, and Chatfield says Jack is happy to be back around the kids in his class. But Chatfield was surprised to get resistance from the school when she asked them to develop an emergency learning plan in case COVID-19 forced them to go fully remote again. The school insists there won’t be another lockdown, she says. “Why wouldn’t you put something in place so if we go to lockdown again, the transition will be smooth? It’s very hard on the kid, the teachers, hard on everybody,” she says. “Having a plan in place would mean Jack still gets access to things his peers have access to. You’re saying, ‘Let’s just deal with it when we come to it.’”Speeding Up the Tech TimelineAbout 150 students are enrolled at the Austin campus of the state-run Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which reaches another 11,000 students through school district support and short-term programs.Daniel Wheeler, instructional technology coordinator, says educators had about a week to let their new reality sink in when word came that the coronavirus pandemic would likely keep the school closed after spring break. What followed was a huge technology shipping effort for students who had returned to their homes across the state. “We called it ‘crisis education’ in the spring,” he says. Many students access curriculum through tactile tools, braille readers and other physical objects, making Zoom calls a poor substitute for this type of learning. “A huge focus for me is training teachers to use educational technology in a way that’s effective with students that use assistive technology.”When the school reopened in the fall, Wheeler was faced with a new set of challenges. He fixed the disruptive feedback caused by microphones in classes with both in-person and remote students. Interveners who sign for deafblind students were brought in over Zoom, and students in socially distanced classrooms had their voices amplified. The library now has a shipping area from which tactile materials are sent to remote learners. “A lot of mainstream education tech is not designed with folks with disabilities in mind,” he says. “What might take very little time in a mainstream class requires a lot of upfront work and prep in our setting.”When school was fully virtual, Wheeler says students with parents who worked remotely had better learning outcomes than those whose parents worked outside the home. “I’m speaking anecdotally, but the students who came back to in person instruction first were the ones whose parents could not support them throughout the day like they needed,” he adds. “They were one of the reasons we wanted to provide in-person instruction opportunities as quickly as we safely could.” Planning for the FutureAll things considered, Michelle Contey says hybrid learning this fall went pretty well for her 18-year-old son Matteo, a student at Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. The tech-savvy teen can access his remote classes and takes part in a Zoom music club just about every day.Matteo has socially distanced classes on campus a couple of times per week. He is still meeting with mobility instructors. He still takes piano lessons. But there’s a gap in his education that gnaws at Contey: all of the life skill classes meant to prepare him for life outside the home. Try as she might to teach him on her own, she says it’s not a replacement for what he could be getting at school. And plans to let him live on campus part-time have been put on hold.“It is stressful to me that I can’t get him what he needs right now,” Contey says. “I’m not going to live forever. I do want him to be independent. I would love for him to just live with me, but I’m not doing him any service that way.”Rosenblum and her colleagues are wrapping up data collection for their fall survey, which will reveal what about 800-900 professionals and parents of visually impaired children experienced with the addition of hybrid and in-person learning. They plan to release their new findings in February or March. She says it’s an opportunity for people at every level—from parents to administrators to tech companies—to address both pandemic-related and systemic issues that impact their education. “We can work to affect changes so our students with visual impairment really do have an equitable, inclusive education, Rosenblum says.Those changes would impact people like Lopez and her son. There’s a part of their house that the family calls Logan’s office. It’s set up with his special equipment and adaptive seating, and there’s a stand for his iPad. That’s where he and Lopez start their daily routine by talking about the date, then move on to a little reading, math and some self-help skills. Lopez says she worries about Logan falling behind every day. It’s why she works so hard to get him every resource she can. “Services end at age 21, no matter how much he’s learned, and there’s no pandemic clause where we’re going to get an extra year or two added to the end,” she says. “As special needs parents, you’re always running against a clock. You’re trying to make up for the delay, and on top of that, add the pandemic. It’s insurmountable.”
Pamela Kramer had been careful. The Illinois elementary school teacher stopped going to grocery stores and restaurants when the coronavirus pandemic began to surge in March. When she was ordered back into her Highland Park classroom to teach her remote fourth graders, Kramer arrived on campus early each morning and wore two masks. She even stopped drinking water during the day to avoid trips down the hall for bathroom breaks. Kramer, 63, still ended up in the hospital in October. Not with COVID-19一her pre-existing heart condition was exacerbated by stress and dehydration and landed her in the ER. “Every day, I felt chest pains,” she says of returning to campus. “The doctor says as an aside, ‘Just stay away from stress.’ I went out to the car and told my husband, ‘I can’t go back.’”Kramer isn’t alone. Teachers across the country have been calling for a return to or expansion of remote learning, especially as students return from traveling and family gatherings over Thanksgiving break and health experts predict a winter surge in COVID-19 cases. Starting in mid-November, more districts moved to offer remote-only instruction, based on an EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis of 375 plans published by U.S. K-12 school districts. Note that the vast majority of districts that offer school with some in-person component also offer the option of remote learning. See complete project methodology.While many schools delayed reopening in the fall to flesh out safety protocols, those new measures have done little to assuage the fears of teachers who are back on campus. An Illinois Education Association poll of over 1,300 members in October found that one-third had considered a career change this year. Sixty-nine percent feel it is “not very” or “not likely at all” that schools could safely reopen for full in-person learning in the spring. That’s despite most of the respondents reporting their schools have policies on safety measures like face coverings, social distancing and cleaning schedules. Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest union, says her organization is not against schools reopening. What they want are safe reopenings and protocols that reflect the COVID-19 health risks in schools’ surrounding areas. “If it is unsafe for the community, we need to make sure we say it isn’t safe for anybody in our schools,” she says. Weighing the OptionsAbout 40 miles south from Kramer, 26-year-old Mariah Klein teaches second graders—six in-person, 17 remote—in Glendale Heights, Ill. She loves teaching at the elementary school she attended as a kid, and her former teachers are now her colleagues. But Klein says being at school during a pandemic has left her constantly worried and exhausted. The stress is causing her to lose hair and making it harder to sleep. It prompted Klein and her husband to take a serious look at their finances to see if they can stay afloat without her teaching salary. The numbers added up, but she hasn’t decided to leave. “I truly love my job. My principal is great, my coworkers are great, and I don’t think I’ll ever find a job I love as much as this one,” Klein says. “What bothered me the most is it didn’t matter what the data looked like. We were staying open.” Bree Dusseault is practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and part of a team analyzing 100 school districts’ responses to COVID-19 based on publicly available information. In September, most districts announced changes to building usage, cleaning protocols and behavioral norms to prevent coronavirus spread.It’s tough to glean how those plans played out once school doors reopened. Dusseault says districts haven’t changed what they’re publicly communicating about safety but aren’t adding new measures. Many are focused on reaffirming existing safety protocols and assuring families that it’s safe for students to return to campus.“What we are seeing is that districts are absolutely holding health and safety in one hand and students’ long-term learning experiences and long-term success in the other hand, and they’re trying to weigh those two tension points to make the best decision that they can,” she says. “How they make those decisions really do seem to differ based on external factors. When it comes to deciding which learning mode a district is in—be it remote, hybrid or in-person—who has a seat at that decision-making table really matters.”She pointed to a recent study from researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which found that while the intensity of COVID-19 cases impacted how over 10,000 districts started the school year, the pandemic didn’t affect reopening policy later into the semester. Rather, it’s the political leanings of the region coupled with the strength of labor unions that have determined how instruction is delivered. More conservative regions of the country that were strongholds of support for President Trump were far more likely to reopen schools, while Democratic-leaning regions tended to favor fully remote learning. School districts with strong teacher unions also tended to hold off sending students back to campus.That shattered researchers’ view of school boards as non-partisan boards of community members that rely on professional expertise to make decisions about safety. The researchers wrote that their findings upend “much conventional wisdom about local education politics and policy in the United States.” In a similar vein, EdSurge analysis found that districts in states where COVID-19 positivity rates were higher were more likely to offer in-person instruction than those in states where infection rates were lower.Andy Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said educators are especially worried about class size and social distancing. Some teachers have reported classes with more than 20 students and, depending on the age and size of the building, don’t have more than 3 feet between students. “Overwhelmingly, at least the [teachers] who have spoken to us don’t feel safe in their return. They don’t feel the administration has really delivered on all the safety measures they were promised,” he says. Dewey’s group asked Houston ISD to go fully online after Thanksgiving, but students were back in school on Monday. Dewey gets the sense administrators would be willing to expand remote learning if not for the state’s education agency’s push for in-person teaching. “They keep citing the fact that the state agency that controls the money is threatening to hold funding back if they go all virtual,” he says. Even in areas where administrators are doing things right, teachers’ concerns about safety linger. Mike Williamson, Illinois Education Association bargaining president for District 300, in a Chicago suburb, says the school board put safety at the forefront of their decisions, even though it drew criticism from community members who wanted children to return to classes like they would any other fall. Schools have been remote for most of the fall, he says, and the district announced Monday classes will remain virtual until January. Opinions on school reopening among teachers in his group run the gamut, he says. Some would happily be back in front of their classes tomorrow if given the chance. Others don’t want to set foot on campus at all. “Our superintendent and board tied whether we were going to be in school [to] health metrics and hospital beds,” says Williamson, “We don’t always agree. This pandemic has been hard on everyone, but I think they have been listening to us.”Setting a StandardDusseault says one challenge for determining when schools can safely reopen is that thresholds look different throughout the country. States created their own frameworks based on the rate of new COVID-19 cases, but some were publicized as recommendations rather than requirements. “There are no universal standards on what is considered safe or not safe. Especially given that we’re going to be under a new administration soon, clear federal and state guidance would ideally be anchored on national standards of health recommendations and not politics,” she says. “That would really benefit students and families as well as teachers so there is clarity on what can be expected and a little more universality on what is considered safe and not safe.”One piece of advice Dusseault has for school administrators: err on the side of transparency. “Over-communicate data, decisions, rationale. Those are all things that一while they don’t provide answers to all the questions we have一help provide context for parents and teachers and students to make informed decisions and not feel like we’re grappling in the dark as much as we may be feeling right now,” she says. While she started the year teaching remotely, Kramer, the fourth grade teacher, says that her disability request to be exempted from conducting her virtual classroom from campus was denied. The in-person safety protocols provide little reassurance as she thinks about the long-term health impacts contracting COVID-19 could have.Kramer sees debate over reopening schools as another stark sign of the national political divide. Some argue that in-person classes are what’s best for students, but what’s best is for students to be able to finish their school year with the teacher who was there from the start, she says.“I think at this point there is no such thing as a safe classroom,” she says, especially for teachers with underlying health conditions or who live with at-risk family members. “When the numbers go low, there’s still a risk for people like me.” After her hospitalization, Kramer took time off to stay home and mull over her professional path forward. The district returned to fully remote teaching while she was on leave.When Kramer pictures in-person classes in the winter, windows closed against the biting Midwestern cold, she just doesn’t see how having even 10 students in an enclosed space would be safe. Still, she predicts her superiors will insist she return to campus when schools reopen again. “I feel no stress, and I’m doing OK,” she says of teaching from home. “I will not go back. And if [COVID-19 case] numbers get better in the spring, I will retire. I just can’t risk my life and the stress of destroying my heart.”