May 28, 2020

Professor encourages communities to address health, instruction and equity challenges before students return

Arizona educators and concerned parents are eagerly anticipating direction from state officials on how and when K-12 schools should proceed as their communities continue opening up amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Arizona Department of Education is expected to release its guidelines for school reopening this week, and an Arizona State University professor said a dynamic and multilayered approach will be required in order to secure students’ learning environments.

Man with wavy hair in red tie and suit

Daniel D. Liou

Daniel D. Liou, an associate professor with Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, is calling for leaders of public and private sectors to work together to mobilize resources and offer support to families during this time of uncertainty.

Liou, who serves on the Arizona Department of Education’s Equitable and Inclusive Practices Advisory Council, spoke to ASU Now about his recent op-ed, the quality of teaching during the pandemic, and what it will take to reopen schools this fall. 

Question: You recently penned an op-ed stating that in order for schools to reopen, we must do it wisely and with the support of other community groups and agencies. What specific groups are you referring to, and why are they needed?

Answer: The purpose of my op-ed is to call for state, local and community leaders to develop comprehensive networks within which two essential conditions for schools to reopen can be met in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic: (1) Develop statewide plans to purposefully engage families in the local decisions to reopen schools in a safe and healthy manner, and (2) Foster collaboration amongst state officials, local officials and families to collectively mobilize resources, ensuring the health and safety of families and students. By community groups and agencies, I am referring to leaders of private and public sectors, such as elected public officials, city planners, health officials, social workers, family members, leaders of nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups and others.

To be clear, my op-ed is not a call for schools to reopen this fall. I am simply responding to this issue since the state has already convened a task force to provide guidance for students to return to school in the fall. Given this reality, the focus in reopening schools should be on supporting entire families instead of just individual students, because ensuring safe and healthy living conditions at home can positively impact learning environments in schools during the pandemic. As a starting point for securing students’ learning environments, partnering with families to jointly develop expectations and communication channels ensures schools can move forward in this time of uncertainty.

In doing so, these strategic efforts can create the necessary conditions for students to focus on their education without having to constantly worry about the pandemic and their family’s access to basic essential needs: jobs, housing, clean water, health care, transportation, food and reliable phone and internet service.

Whether schools are resuming online, in person or under some kind of hybrid model, the two essential conditions described above must first be established. Schools that are located in the same neighborhoods should also join forces to hold regular public forums to make sure that there is a consistent and collective response to dynamics linked to COVID-19. Some schools are already making plans for instruction this summer, so this is the time to come together in planning, even when we are currently practicing social distancing.

Q: How do you see this impacting populations differently considering the diversity in our schools, which range from Title I to charter and private schools?

A: It is important to be thinking about school reopening from the perspectives of teachers and administrators, but I believe we also need to have a better understanding of how the pandemic is changing the social context of schooling for families and communities. COVID-19 shines a light on the existing inequities in areas such as housing, transportation, food stability, and access to technology, internet services and health care.

To name a few examples, the loss of income at home has led some high schoolers to work longer hours in low-wage jobs to support family members. With approximately 30% of the overall school population speaking a language other than English, access to technology and internet services are not guarantees of successful navigation of state, school and district websites and other modes of communication. In rural Arizona, the scarcity of these support systems makes the idea of reopening even more challenging. Additionally, the Navajo Nation has one of the highest infection and death rates in the country, exacerbated by infrastructure problems associated with water quality, access to health care, housing and a lack of other resources to fully respond to the pandemic. All these factors are a part of the complex problem associated with COVID-19 and school reopening.

The racial and economic context of families and communities matter in how each school should proceed with reopening. Some schools may worry about their financial bottom lines, but these priorities should not outweigh the importance of families’ and students’ health and well-being. For this reason, it is imperative for district and school leaders to have a diverse range of families at the table when making operational and curricular decisions for the upcoming year.

Q: How do we best support school nurses or health professionals who serve such large school populations?

A: Unfortunately, not all schools have full-time nurses or health professionals working onsite. This is one of the reasons the idea of “wrap-around” coordinated services can help educators respond to students’ diverse learning needs as well as COVID-19. To support nurses and health professionals in serving large school populations, part of this statewide plan should include partnerships between health professionals, hospitals, educational leaders and family leaders to develop community-based clinics as a way to localize health care and bring services to where students live and learn.

By bringing these essential services into co-located, communal spaces, school nurses and other health professionals may find themselves having greater access to other adults with similar or different expertise to support their efforts. These one-stop clinics or community wellness centers can be strategically located in neighborhoods to cultivate and sustain trusting relationships with families of diverse racial, linguistic and economic backgrounds. It can also allow a broader network of service providers to help with testing, tracing, and prevention efforts; provide continuous public education regarding COVID-19; respond to sudden outbreaks; and increase people’s access to care in a convenient and timely fashion.

I anticipate district and school leaders are already stretched with their budgets, making it unlikely that they will be able to purchase the necessary supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for their schools. This is where the state and federal government needs to provide leadership to ensure that all teachers and students have regular access to these important supplies for basic personal protection; otherwise, the educational system is going to further splinter into the haves and the have-nots.

Q: How can these rules and policies for students be enforced? What actions can be taken when students, families and educators are out of compliance?

A: My op-ed does not advocate for any particular rules or policies, but it is intended to lay out a framework for building and strengthening authentic relationships between families, schools and essential service providers during these challenging times. The idea is to centralize existing human capital and resources to increase the capacity for purposeful partnership between families, schools and service providers. Leaders of all sectors should make use of this framework to adapt and respond to the unique and changing needs of each school community. My hope is that this framework, when working in tandem with the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can serve as a starting point for a systemic approach to meeting the needs of students and families. To make this happen, families of all backgrounds must have real input into how decisions are made, so they can feel confident in sending their children back to school.

Importantly, I would say that the only form of noncompliance is the failure to keep families, communities and people who work in schools safe and healthy while schools are in session. As leaders from all sectors convene to discuss the role each will play in supporting families at the local level, these relationships must evolve and adapt to the unpredictability of this virus. Hopefully, this collective sense of responsibility will continue as the pandemic deepens.

Q: Should the same guidelines impact sports programs or after-school activities and clubs?

A: Having continuous and clear modes of communication and decision-making processes between health professionals, schools and families can help in adopting guidelines that are consistent with the CDC while meeting the needs of local communities. This is also a time to innovate with new clubs and extracurricular activities, both virtually and in outdoor community spaces that will allow for social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus. One cultural asset of Arizona is the abundance of open spaces and land that can be utilized for educational purposes. In the event of another outbreak, some cities may want to close roads and divert traffic on certain days to repurpose sidewalks and streets for educational purposes.

Q: How do we support students who have fallen behind due to online/distance learning, and should students receive poor grades or fail based on the impact of missed instruction?

A: Educators should work with families to ensure that students do not fall behind in the first place. It is essential to establish a joint monitoring system between families and schools to make sure students are meeting or exceeding teachers’ classroom expectations. While I believe these expectations should remain intellectually rigorous, they should also be adaptable and support conditions for successful outcomes. To do this well, as I mentioned in the op-ed, state and local leaders should work closely with universities that are adept in providing digitally enhanced instruction to build on teachers’ existing skill sets and to allow schools to focus on addressing educational equity when schools are forced to go online.

Recently, I have heard from some families and young children about their concerns regarding low expectations in online education. Not only has instructional time been significantly scaled back for some students, but they are also being handed busywork that is not intellectually stimulating. I have also noticed instructional gaps in how schools are reaching immigrant students and those who qualify for disability services. These are all equity issues that the state must address, especially since these student populations are more likely to live in communities disproportionally impacted by COVID-19.

A credit recovery program should be developed to help teachers and students focus on continuous improvement instead of letting online instruction be the reason for some students to fall further behind. Students who have received low grades or missed instruction should be able to make up any lost credits through summer school or online night school. If they are already in high school, they should be provided with a voucher to recover these credits through the local community college. Additionally, there must be explicit state guidance on how to best serve populations that need translation services as well as those who qualify for disability services. We must fill these structural gaps now so that educators can focus on closing the instructional gaps in the classroom.

Q: Do you have additional ideas not mentioned in the op-ed about ways for families and schools to assist students in performing to a higher level of academic expectation during these challenging times?

A: I believe drawing on families’ perspectives regarding how to move forward with schools reopening can open up new conversations for how the school curriculum can better connect students’ life contexts to core subjects. To name a few examples, this is an opportunity for students to explore the history of pandemics and learn to use GIS mapping and visual sociology to investigate communities hit hard by the virus. Some students may be interested in looking at the intersections of our social policies and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 across communities of different social and economic statuses.

The online platform should also enable students to connect with their peers in other parts of the world to discuss how families are actively working to overcome the pandemic and educating their children at home. Another example would be to learn about the inner workings of the World Health Organization and analyze how different countries are addressing pressing social and economic problems exacerbated by COVID-19.

The possibilities are plentiful in terms of how educators can draw on the current context of families and communities to promote students’ intellectual curiosity and deepen their critical thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills. Establishing these conditions for teaching and learning can also involve family members in gaining knowledge from their children. Similarly, this is an opportunity for children to learn about their family history and other types of knowledge that often are not recognized in schools. These approaches can create new pathways for students to explore effective solutions to complex problems and develop insights into ways they can actively contribute to a healthier, safer and more equitable future.

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Reporter , ASU Now

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