COVID19 and Schools

I hope this post finds every one of you safe and healthy in this time of uncertainty. I have really struggled this past week with weight of school closures, impending budget cuts, and worries about my own family, making it hard to concentrate on the work at hand. Eddie and I are so fortunate that we can work easily from home, and that our jobs are not in jeopardy. I have taken comfort in phone calls and Zoom gatherings with family, friends, and co—workers near and far.

I can’t overstate how terribly challenging this school closure is, and will be, for students and their families. This is a challenge of unique proportions, and without question the biggest one of my career. The impact and implications of closing schools are more urgent and far-reaching to our school system than to perhaps any other institution in our city. If there is one silver lining to all of this, it is that we have all been reminded of a truism about schools: they are an absolute necessity for the functioning of daily life, serving as the centers of our communities, providing indispensable services to students and families, and teaching and caring for children while their parents work. There is no precedent for closing schools (and at the same time child care centers, libraries, and community centers, etc.) at this scale, and the impending budget cuts will make our ability to recover and respond to student needs difficult at best.

It goes without saying that the longstanding achievement gaps between students– by income, race, zip code, parent education levels, disability or home language – will widen as a result of these closures. Our equity gaps will now come under the microscope, and I hope we can use this seismic change to institute some ambitious and bold changes to address them. There is ample research on the impact of chronic absenteeism, trauma, or poverty on student learning. We know that summer learning loss is real, and measurable. COVID19 has created a sudden interruption in schooling, but also in the economic stability of many families, creating stress on children across this city. That, more than anything else, keeps me up at night. I think about children in foster care, in homeless shelters, in unstable or unsafe home environments, who rely on schools for so much more than instruction. Schools provide routine, safety, comfort, meals, and connection to a range of adults who want to help them succeed.

Our priorities as a district are two-fold. Our first response has been to distribute food, using pick-up sites as well as school buses to deliver meals to our communities with the highest concentrations of poverty. Our current and urgent priority has been to develop a plan for a range of student academic needs: helping seniors stay on track to graduate on time; identifying the gaps in access to technology and internet for our students; providing direction and support to staff on communicating with students and families; and determining what is possible in terms of digital learning for our students.

We cannot, much to the disappointment of many parents, flip a switch and move schooling to an online format. Our teachers were not equipped to rapidly implement online learning, which is a learned skill that requires some training and planning under the best of circumstances. Virtual learning is not a substitute for school, and is not effective for many students, even under the best of circumstances. I can say with absolute certainty that the leadership team at MNPS is working tirelessly to identify and implement a coherent plan for remote learning at home, but it is clear that assigning grades and holding students accountable for homework and assignments should not happen at this time. We will provide a range of supports and avenues to address learning at home, but like districts across the country, we will make mistakes, hit roadblocks, but do our very best to maximize the resources at our disposal.

As chair of Metro Schools’ Budget and Finance Committee I now have the daunting task of facing a dramatically different budget process for the 2020 2021 school year. Indeed, we may have to make cuts in this current academic school year. Our reliance on sales taxes and low property taxes have placed us in a very precarious position. A serious economic downturn will have a profound impact on our ability to return to schooling as we knew it mere weeks ago. We will learn in the coming days about the funding from the recent federal stimulus bills, and how much that will fill our impending holes in our budget. This is when I’m thankful that we have a strong partnership between the Mayor, Metro Council and the School Board.

A little over two weeks ago the School Board voted to hire Dr. Adrienne Battle as our permanent Director of Schools. It was the right call – and we need her now more than ever. She has asked every employee to lead in this moment, and they are stepping up. Our teachers and staff are worried about their students, and miss them terribly. The stories of generosity and creativity are too many to list here, but we know that they are dropping off food to students living in hotels after the tornado, scheduling morning meetings online, posting videos of reading bedtime stories, calling students and checking on them, emailing activities each morning, and even organizing teacher caravans to drive through neighborhoods to greet their students and families. Teacher teams are meeting online, faculties are collaborating, and Dr. Battle and her team are working around the clock to address this unprecedented challenge. I believe that Nashville will respond in this moment with generosity and courage. But our students will need your support more than ever before – so please reach out with ideas or inspiration to help us get through this together.