Reopening Ohio Schools Equitably and Safely Hinges on Adequate Funding and Meaningful Input from Educators, Parents, and the Community
July 16, 2020
By Alison Paxson, Communications & Policy Associate
On July 10th, the Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus held a webinar conversation on the topic of education equity and reopening Ohio schools, the first of a two part series on this complex topic during the month of July.
It will take the collective actions of all community and state leaders to ensure Ohio children returning to school in the fall are able to access high quality instruction, learn in safe environments, and receive the stabilizing supports and necessities they and their families need during this crisis.
“The legislative role in this in terms of reopening schools will be primarily in the funding space,” Children’s Caucus co-chair, Rep. Allison Russo, said in opening comments. “We also have a role of course in doing things like tackling and eliminating some of the barriers that we may have around testing, around credentialing, as well as graduation requirements – but primarily the nuts and bolts of opening up schools and how that’s going to happen in each individual school district is going to fall on our local school boards and our superintendents.”
The fact is – as much as we all want it to be so, we cannot equate back-to-school with back-to-normal. Not when there are so many uncertainties for what reopening safely looks like and so many variables to consider as we grapple with ever-widening gaps in educational equity. We are not out of this pandemic yet.
Further, many of us – especially our children – have experienced tremendous amounts of trauma, which can also be referred to as real or perceived losses of control or agency, with very little say in what has happened or how. Throughout this crisis, so many Ohio families have experienced significant losses in everyday consistency, their health, job security and income, and even the lives of those they love. As such, school reopening plans must take on a critical trauma-informed lens. They must also empower communities, educators, parents, and students by offering meaningful opportunities for input in what reopening looks like.
“Teachers, parents, and other members of the community not only need and deserve to be heard during the planning process,” read Teresa Kobelt of OCALI from a quote on one of her presentation slides, “they can actually contribute crucial insights and expertise that will facilitate and accelerate the safe reopening of schools.”
Of course, a single webinar is not enough time to tackle these complex issues, but before lawmakers and state leaders determine the dollars needed to reopen schools in the fall, it is critical they know what is at stake and what challenges our educators, school buildings, district officials, and their communities and families are facing.
As co-chair Rep. Russo stated: “We want to be as supportive as we possibly can in the legislature in making sure we are addressing and understanding some of these issues as much as possible and certainly making sure that schools have the funding that they need to be able to do what they need to do for our children.”
The following experts gave insight into these critical issues on the webinar’s panel:
- Mark Black, Executive Director of Secondary Schools, Akron Public Schools
- Bethany Colvin, 5th Grade Teacher, Washington Elementary School, Marietta City School District
- Teresa Kobelt, Director of Strategy, Innovation and Forecasting, OCALI
Key takeaways from this conversation on education equity and reopening Ohio schools include:
- Throughout their presentations, panelists outlined a broad scope of priorities we need to be focusing on and addressing in our reopening plans for the fall:
- Access to high quality and differentiated instruction;
- Safe learning environments and physical well-being for students and staff;
- Socio-emotional supports and services for children experiencing trauma and hardship;
- Issues with technology and broadband access for students, teachers and families;
- Learning opportunities and gaps since school closures began; and
- Opportunities for collaboration, engagement, and meaningful input from educators, students, their families and their communities to have a voice in reopening plans.
- Space considerations according to CDC guidelines present considerable challenges for school districts already strapped for funding, staff and resources. Classrooms with 25-30 students last year will now be restricted to 12-15 in Akron Public Schools. In this same district, buses that formerly could have transported 66 students to school can now only transport 11 students per bus while adhering to 6 feet distancing guidelines.
- It is a concerning reality for many students that since the shutdown of schools this spring, many have been unable to access specialized counseling and socioemotional supports that would otherwise have been available to them in their school buildings. This leaves many children at risk, especially in such a time of heightened uncertainty and stress.
- There is a pressing need to address our state’s broadband internet infrastructure to ensure all students have equal opportunities to access their educations and engage in virtual learning. We have seen considerable disparities among students regarding their access to technology and broadband internet in both urban and rural areas. In her rural school district, 5th grade teacher Bethany Colvin said she did not hear from a tenth of her students once during the shutdown and that these students never once logged in to their online learning platforms. Further, limited technology access has even affected many teachers in their ability to execute lessons and check in’s with their students.
- Panelist Teresa Kobelt highlighted key takeaways from a recent survey OCALI extended to families with children who have disabilities and what they learned about their experiences navigating school closures and virtual learning:
- A majority of families said virtual teaching/learning continued and 70% said IEP services also continued; however, one area of considerable gap was in behavioral supports, where families said only 25% of behavioral supports continued while school buildings were closed.
- Even when schools succeeded in making these services available, families experienced a tremendous amount of stress and said their children lost ground. One family wrote that “not being in school was extremely difficult. He would spend hours crying, throwing items and self harm because the bus wouldn’t show up … It was emotionally and physically exhausting every day.”
- Many families said their biggest challenge was balancing work, school, and also care-taking, particularly for those who may have ordinarily had access to in-home supports before COVID.
- Many families did not feel their input was sought in the decisions their districts made and also did not have a clear idea of how to maintain distance learning while schools were closed.
It is also important that reopening plans consider flexibility and contingency plans in order to meet the needs of their diverse student populations. For instance, what is the course of action for a learner who needs to see faces and mouths as they rely on facial expressions and other ques? What if a student is unable to follow public health guidelines (like wearing a mask) or needs assistance in doing so? What if an educator’s family becomes sick or has a family member who is medically fragile? These items and more must be taken into account before schools reopen in the fall.
If you are interested in registering Education Equity and Reopening Ohio Schools (part 2) taking place on Friday, July 31, 2020 at 2:00pm, please click here.
To access a recording of this webinar, please click here.
To access the slide deck presented during this webinar, please click here.
About the Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus:
Co-chaired by Sen. Peggy Lehner and Rep. Allison Russo, the Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus is a bipartisan, bicameral, issues-based caucus created to improve the effectiveness and reach of policy designed to positively impact children from birth to age eighteen (and beyond in some cases). The goal of the caucus is to make a significant and lasting difference in the lives of children through public policy to move the needle on these child indicators of well-being. For more information about the Children’s Caucus, please contact Alison Paxson at firstname.lastname@example.org