Our education system needs a better plan for future COVID surges

Predictability and room for remote learning should be part of the equation

THE LAST FEW WEEKS have served as a stark reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over – and that after two years of pandemic education, our state is still not sufficiently prepared to support families, schools, and school districts through the current and future surges.

Despite round-the-clock efforts by district leaders, principals, and teachers to keep buildings safely open as the Omicron variant spreads, too many families report starting the new year with last-minute school cancellation notices, leaving them scrambling to find childcare, or having to keep kids at home without resources to help them continue learning. Others struggled to find transportation when school buses did not show up. With more and more classes covered by substitutes as staff absences climbed, learning once again took a backseat to logistics. And as always, these challenges and disruptions hit hardest in the Black, Latino, and economically disadvantaged communities that have already suffered disproportionate health, economic and educational impacts from the pandemic – the very communities that many of us serve.

Our kids, families, and educators deserve better. They deserve access to the testing and safety equipment needed to minimize interruptions to safe in-person learning. They deserve advance warning of potential forthcoming disruptions. And they deserve the flexibility to learn and teach in multiple formats so that learning can continue even when physically being in school is not possible.

State and local leaders must work together to minimize future upheaval and ensure transparent and consistent communication with families. We urge Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to work with public health officials, school and district leaders, educators, and families to establish clearer guidelines for handling virus surges. The guidelines should include numeric health and operational benchmarks to help local leaders plan ahead and notify families of potential closures several days before they happen, rather than the night before or the morning of. For parents working outside the home – especially those in hourly jobs — and for students already struggling following previous disruptions, such predictability is essential.

To minimize interruptions to in-person learning, state and local leaders must also coordinate efforts to expand access to rapid testing and safety materials recommended by health officials, maintain mask mandates, and establish regional cadres of substitutes who can be tapped as needed when teachers or paraprofessionals are out sick. Partnerships with local teacher preparation programs and community-based organizations that already work with young people could help fill capacity gaps.

At the same time, the path forward should also include some flexibility around distance learning when community spread is high. At the peak of the Omicron surge, a third of students in some districts were absent on a given day. With no remote options, not only did these students miss out on learning, but their teachers had to make difficult decisions about what to teach students who were present: Should the class move ahead, placing absent students at a growing disadvantage, or focus on review, potentially taking away from in-person learners’ experience? When one or two students are absent at a time, such decisions are manageable; when 10 are not in class on a given day, they are far more complex.

Of course, all of us want students to be in school. In-person learning is critical to students’ educational outcomes and social-emotional well-being. But state policy needs to be responsive to extraordinary circumstances such as those experienced in some districts and schools in recent weeks. We urge state leaders to develop criteria under which districts can offer students remote options for a limited number of days. In addition to public health and operational metrics, such criteria should require that students have the devices and internet access necessary to participate in remote learning, and that families and educators receive advance notice of any disruptions to in-person instruction. Moreover, districts should be required to maintain in-person school for students who most need it, including students with disabilities so that they can access their education and receive all of the services they are entitled to, as well as other students with significant academic needs, and students who do not have access to alternative childcare.

State and local leaders must engage students, families, and educators in planning ahead – not only for how to handle future surges, but how to help students recover from all of the disruptions of the past two years. How are districts using their (in many cases) millions in additional federal and state dollars to help students thrive, both academically and personally? What lessons from the first year of the pandemic – from the importance of sharing information with families in multiple formats to different ways of leveraging technology – can schools use to strengthen relationships within the school community and accelerate learning?

Each new upheaval like that of the past few weeks erodes already fragile trust between students and families and their schools, and between school and district faculty and education leaders. While state and local education leaders cannot control how the pandemic will unfold from here, they can and must take steps to minimize the health, academic, and social-emotional harm to our young people, their families and the educators who support them – and help our education system emerge from this pandemic stronger than before.

The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership (MEEP) is a collective effort of social justice, civil rights, and education advocates from across the Commonwealth working together to promote educational equity for historically underserved students in our state’s schools. Click here to see a list of organizations that collaborated on this op-ed.