Monthly Archives: December 2020

Preparing Idaho’s schools for a post-COVID world

As a teacher who has remained in a hybrid model of in person instruction throughout the pandemic, I could not be more grateful for the arrival of a vaccine that will (hopefully) allow the next academic year to return with some sense of normalcy.

But a return to the prior status quo would be an unfortunate waste of an opportunity to invest in structural deficiencies in our public schools that COVID has exposed.  If there is any silver lining to the damage this virus has caused, it is that it has provided us an opportunity to continue to build on changes required due to its spread.

Let’s talk about class size.  While I would prefer to see each of my students each day, it would be difficult not to stress the positive changes in the classroom when only half the bodies are present.  Class sizes of 35-40+ were the norm prior to the pandemic.  I don’t know if we want to return to that status quo.

Turns out that students tend not to have as many disruptive behaviors when they aren’t packed into a classroom.  It also turns out teachers can actually answer every single student’s questions in a timely manner when there are not more bodies in the room than minutes in the class period.

The value of career technical programs is higher than it ever has been.  Many families have experienced unemployment or had their hours cut.  Unfortunately, the ability for many families to help pay for a college education is simply not in the cards right now.  The ability for a student to receive high quality training in high school in a vocational field is precisely what many students and their families will need in the post-COVID world.

Unfortunately, for many districts the ability to provide Vocational Technology programs entirely hinges on districts’ ability to pass a levy.  That unfortunately reality has not changed just because there is now a vaccine.  We need to make sure these programs are adequately funded and resourced at the state level.

Consistent access to quality internet for students has been more important during this pandemic than ever before.  But we know that many households simply cannot afford this service that has become a necessity.  And that’s assuming that high-speed internet is even available in the community.

Investing in high-speed internet in our state doesn’t just benefit students and schools.  Study after study has demonstrated the boost in economic activity in communities with new access to broadband is well worth the cost.  Making sure all communities have affordable access to this essential service moving forward is well worth the investment.

Access to quality updated textbooks is paramount.  Many classrooms do not have a book to give each student, instead relying on a class set.  Turns out when students are not attending in-person there is no way a class set is going to work.  And that’s assuming the textbook wasn’t over a decade old anyways.  

Colleges and universities expect that arriving freshman students have the ability to study from textbooks on their own.  Yet, many schools simply do not have the resources to make sure their classrooms have quality up-to-date textbooks for each student.  

Mental health services for returning students–particularly those who have been isolated with virtual learning–will be more important than ever.  Unfortunately, the ratio of counselors to students prior to this pandemic was astronomically high.  The American School Counselor Association advises for a ratio of no more than 250 students per counselor.  The most recent data shows Idaho with more than double at 549.

Students will need high quality counseling services more than ever.  It is time to make this investment now so that when we welcome all our students back into full time in-person learning our counselors are able to provide the individualized attention each student deserves.  

Many schools in our state do not have a full time school nurse.  That was a problem prior to the pandemic in distributing medication to students as well as providing trained medical care to special needs students with disabilities requiring such procedures.  Now our limited nurses are also expected to examine symptomatic students, maintain a quarantine space for potential positive students, perform contact tracing, and so much more. Our districts need the resources to make sure every school has a certified full time school nurse, even after this pandemic is over.

Sanitation in our schools has become more important than ever, but the reality is the steps we are taking today to keep the buildings clean and surfaces sanitized are best practices we should have been doing all along.  Our custodians are unsung superheroes in doing their absolute best to make sure our classrooms are as sanitized as they can be, but the reality is that most custodial staff were already overworked and underpaid prior to COVID.  We need to have the resources moving forward to continue implementing the best practices.

We also need to rethink the design of school buildings themselves.   For example, windows are intentionally designed not to open both for security reasons as well as cost-saving measures for heat and air conditioning.  It is frustrating for public health experts emphasizing the need to circulate fresh air in classrooms, but windows in schools were intentionally designed not to do that.  It will take investment to update facilities for changes exactly like this.

I hope I’m wrong about higher education.  I really do.  But when I talk to my seniors about their plans after graduating I hear reluctance in enrolling on a scale I have never seen before.  And their reasons are legitimate.

Many of our high school students became the essential workers we all relied on during the shutdown.  They established full-time jobs, some with career opportunities that do not require a post-secondary education.  Many of our students were relying on mom and dad to help pay for tuition, but like so many families in the country saw mom or dad lose their jobs.  And many more simply don’t want to chance paying for the costs of college if things aren’t back to normal in the fall.

The thing is that even prior to this pandemic our “go-on” numbers were frustratingly low, and all indications from my discussions with seniors lead me to believe enrollment numbers are going to drop even more next academic year.  If we can drop the sticker price on tuition we can encourage many of these “on-the-fence” students to attend.  But that will require the state to invest in these colleges and universities.

The list of these existing deficiencies is of course much larger.  COVID-19 didn’t cause any of these shortcomings that existed prior to its arrival, but it sure did a heck of a job highlighting them.  But it also gives us an opportunity to evaluate if the status quo of public education before the pandemic is really the exact same type of school we want to return to in the next academic year.  I hope that answer is no.

2020 reviewed, and 2021 previewed: a teacher’s perspective

Welcome to my annual tradition of reflection and prediction. When I read over my previous posts for each year, it strikes me just how wild this set of 365 days has been.

We all know 2020 was a dumpster fire of year, and not just in the world of education. None of could have known the challenges this year would bring, but I started the year off with much optomisim.

At the beginning of the year I was working diligently with hundreds of other volunteers in Idaho collecting signatures for the Invest in Idaho ballot initiative. That initiative, if passed, would have significantly increased funding to Idaho’s public schools, and we were well on track to meet the signature threshold to get it on the ballot.

I traveled on Reclaim Idaho’s duck-taped green bus across the state, learned acting is not the job for me while being filmed for a professional video about the initiative, and quickly qualified the district I live in (District 10) for the initiative by the beginning of March.

And then the pandemic. The day before spring break my classroom was nearly empty, but not because our school was closed. Like the rest of America, families in my community were scared for what would come next.

For me, that meant that school did not resume in-person instruction after spring break. Like many teachers across the country and world, we finished the 2019-2020 academic year with distance learning. Overnight, like many educators, I was expected to become an expert virtual teacher.

And parents were also given the impossible expectation of being an at-home educator. The outcomes were entirely predictable. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Parents, teachers, and administration all went above and beyond to continue providing an education during the initial outbreak.

I never would have imagined that I would be party to a suit that made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court asking that Idaho would allow us to continue gathering signatures for the ballot initiative online since going door-to-door during a pandemic is the square root of stupid. While the 9th circuit initially agreed to allow us to proceed, SCOTUS effectively killed the initiative by issuing a stay order. It effectively killed the ballot initiative.

And while that was the first casualty of COVID for me personally, it is pretty small potatoes in comparison to what was to come. Knock on wood I have remained healthy to date, but so many of my friends and family have contracted the disease. Obviously, I am not alone in this.

Governor Little’s response the near immediate recession caused by a state-at-home order was to cut education funding by almost a hundred million dollars at precisely the time schools needed more resources than ever to safely open schools in the fall.

The State Board of Education completely passed the buck on school repening plans by leaving it entirely up to each individual district and charter school to develop their own plans. The result was business in usual for some communities, hybrid instruction for others, and completely online for others. There was no coordinated strategy.

Ditto a lack of statewide strategy to combat the pandemic. Each individual health district put into place wildly different plans. Some members of the health district board’s questioned COVID’s very existence. The results, there too, were entirely predictable.

During summer when our leaders were rolling out a hodgepodge of strategies, I started a Podcast called Academics in a Pandemic to explore how the pandemic impacted every part of the education community including students, parents, teachers, and professors. It is worth a listen.

As cases surged, so did emotions. Protestors gathered not just at school board meetings & regional health board meetings, but in front of board members’ private residences. Board members resigned as threats against their safety were communicated.

My district has stayed open for in-person instruction in a hybrid model. The school year has been…where to start?

On one hand, it has been so rewarding to not have 40 students in the classroom. In case there was ever any doubt, I will tell you class sizes matter. It is amazing to have the ability to actually answer every student’s questions, have time to check on students’ work in real-time, and form solid relationships with each individual student. Class sizes matter.

On the other hand, the distance-learning component has been haphazard. I have so much admiration for parents and relatives doing their absolute best to transition to their homes into classrooms. But it clearly is not an equal substitute.

Lack of consistent internet access, babysitting siblings, mental health issues from isolation, food insecurity, and…so much more. For some students, it just is not an effective model of instruction. And it is not the student or their family’s fault. COVID simply highlighted inequities that already existed, not caused them.

It’s not COVID’s fault that in the year 2020 many of Idaho’s families do not have access to any internet at all, let alone high-speed broadband.

It’s not COVID’s fault that many families rely on schools’ free and reduced lunch programs for their children’s nutrition.

It’s not COVID’s fault that many schools cannot afford to buy a textbook for every student that they can take home since they are not physically in school.

And so much more. The problems were already there. The question is, what will we do about these structural inequalities now that they have been so clearly exposed.

Which leads me to the prediction portion of this post.

Our state government currently has 500 million dollars in the rainy day fund. Idaho is also projected to have a half a billion dollar surplus. For being in a recession, our state is rolling in Benjamins.

I am cynical the legislature will substantially invest in public schools despite currently having the funds to do so. Governor Little was elected as an “education governor,” but I just don’t see the will in the Republican dominated legislature to inject significant more resources into schools.

I do, however, see much will with the Republican legislature to reduce taxes. Abolishing the sales tax on groceries would be a great way to eliminate a regressive tax that disproportionately impact low income families. If there was ever a time where our state would be in a position to eliminate that tax, now is the time.

I don’t see it happening. I do see Idaho’s top income tier being reduced for the state’s highest earners. I do see conversations on reducing taxes that will benefit the largest corporations in the state. I do see serious conversations related to property tax for homeowners.

I see renewed conversations of voucher programs for families to choose their own schools. And I can totally understand why: many families are incredibly frustrated with schools this year. Whatever model of instruction a school chose, there were bound to be families upset with their districts or charters. It will lead to a renewed interest in amending the state’s constitution which includes the so-called “Blaine Amendment) which prohibits sending money from the State’s treasury to religious institutions, or in this case private religious schools.

I see a continued push in legislation on social issues in schools that sucked all the oxygen from the capital last session on LGTQ issues in schools, especially sports.

Idaho will need to determine if it wants to continue sticking with an Average Daily Attendance (ADA) model for school funding after this requirement was waived for this year. As I have written before, moving to an enrollment based model invites opportunities for fraud, but as this year has shown it also has the advantage of being much more flexible.

I wish that there would be substantial discussion and legislation modernizing Idaho’s health districts. Splitting the Treasure Valley into two separate districts, for instance, clearly had profound impacts as folks who live and commute in both of those districts were not participating in a unified strategy. In fact, quite the opposite.

I see a massive drop in college and university enrollment for the next academic year. Many high school seniors, with schools all but shut down, established full time jobs. Some by necessity due to layoffs and hour cuts for their parents. For many of these young people, it will be difficult to persuade them to leave these jobs and return to full time studies. I hope I’m wrong.

I see Idaho lagging in vaccinations. While I am hopeful we can quickly protect our community and moving into a post-COVID world, many citizens in our state have amply demonstrated their hostility to science and medicine. I hope I’m wrong.

Finally, I do see a new year. Think about that for a second. A brand new year where anything is possible. 2020 has set a pretty low bar for what measures as success.

But I’ll take wins wherever I can find them. Have a happy and safe new year!