JPEF President Rachael Tutwiler Fortune offers some reflections on education in the pandemic.
We’re now eight months into the COVID pandemic, and it’s not done yet.
This spring, when schools were forced to close, JPEF hosted a Virtual Talk with a leading education expert to begin the conversation about the impact of this pandemic on our public schools.
Now, so many months later, we know the full scope is much worse than we imagined in those early days of quarantine. While we still don’t know the full impact, it’s clear that it will be dramatic and long lasting.
With schools re-opening to brick and mortar this month, I wanted to offer some reflections on the tough lessons of COVID-19 for public schools so far - and where I’m finding hope and inspiration in our work.
1. The imperative for education equity is greater now than ever.
First and foremost, we know that the pandemic is worst for those students who could least afford a setback. Early results from studies of home learning show students are not progressing at the same rate as they would have been in school. For learners who need the most support, face-to-face time with a great teacher is irreplaceable. An equity approach is essential to the work of our public schools.
2. Parent and family engagement is critical to student success.
Remote learning has laid bare the challenges some students face in learning. All parents care about the success of their children, though poverty sometimes inhibits families’ ability to engage in their child's learning as much as other parents. But in this era where many parents are helping to facilitate home learning, the importance of the partnership between teachers and families in facilitating student learning has never been more clear.
3. Social and emotional skills are just as important as academics.
In public education, we’re seeing increased emphasis on social and emotional learning - the idea that education should support the development of the whole person, not just math and reading. Today’s world requires students to learn how to navigate their emotions, think creatively, work in teams and foster a growth mindset that helps them persevere through challenges. Because COVID-19 has isolated students from their peers, we’re seeing the importance of social and emotional learning more than ever.
4. We must protect school funding and teacher jobs.
Locally and across the country, schools are seeing a drop in enrollment. Families who can afford it are opting out of public school, concerned about the virus or the inadequacy of virtual learning. These enrollment drops are keeping me up at night. In public education, funding is tied to the student - so when some students don’t attend school, the school has fewer resources to support the remaining students. Sadly, this problem can lead to teachers being let go from their positions at public schools. During the 2008 recession, this led to a drop in the number of teaching positions, and we were just starting to recover from this drop before the pandemic hit. Our decisions at the policy level will be important to follow over the next months and years.
The No. 1 lesson of the pandemic, however, surpasses all of these.
The most important lesson of COVID-19, so far, is that our schools are the foundation of our communities. The emotional debates about the safety of returning to school have underscored a fundamental truth: we are lost, as a society, without our public schools. They are an irreplaceable safety net for children, the backbone of our economy and our best hope for our future. Our children are future policymakers, scientists and business leaders. We must invest in them for a better future in this fragile, globalized world.
For that reason, I want to thank you for your support of public schools through JPEF. I believe our mission is more important than ever. This fall, we’ve been inspired to see the huge interest in our leadership initiatives from teachers and principals - the demands on them are greater than ever, and they’re looking to us for support. Over the last year, we’ve been a proactive advocate for the half-penny for public schools - a historic opportunity to invest more resources into schools just when they need it most. And when our legislative delegation goes back to Tallahassee this year, we need a research-driven voice for public schools to help make the case for school funding. The pandemic is not over yet. JPEF will be here for the duration and long after to stand with our students.
None of this would be possible without your generosity and commitment to our students. Thank you for standing by us.
Rachael Tutwiler Fortune