Preparing the Supports Students Will Need When Schools Reopen

As we approach spring this year, schools all around our county are closed. These closures are for much longer than the one week traditionally given for spring break. With the novel coronavirus in our midst, things are far from traditional everywhere you look. Some school districts have already announced that their school year has effectively ended. Other schools have turned to online learning to help deliver needed instruction. While teachers and students long to return to their classroom routines, educational institutions are working with public health officials to ensure they are making the safest choices for the protection of the public.

Our school district’s leadership brought up the idea that the families and students we serve are our “customers.” Even though we are distanced at this time, we are still in constant communication. Parents of students receive phone calls, emails, and can look at district or school websites for resources. The problem that has been cited numerous times is that we as a district cannot require assignments or online learning because not all students will have equal access to the materials. Students with IEPs will not have their accommodations met online either. It turns out we are not properly equipped to serve our customers, and we are far from being the exception.

As an academic interventionist, I am extremely worried about my students who were already falling behind academically. Many of my students prosper from daily, cyclical skill review that helps solidify learning. Some kids benefit from my class because their families do not have the resources at home to properly practice and reinforce what is being taught in the classroom. Research tells us about the “summer slump” when kids who are out of school lose some of the academic skills they were taught the previous school year. A meta-analysis of these studies found that students of lower economic status were much more likely to fall further behind than their more affluent peers.

In reading research we often refer to this as The Matthew Effect, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This does not have to be the case, though. Some districts are doing their part to make sure students can check out needed devices to continue their studies. Our public library has internet hotspots that can be borrowed, but libraries are currently closed. Districts need to be able to invest in more technology to help those unable to complete school assignments. If students cannot currently complete assignments online, they also were unable to do so before this health epidemic hit our country.

Districts must begin to prepare now for the intervention needs of our most vulnerable students who have been out of our schools’ care for longer than planned. This goes beyond summer food programs, but should include having counselors, behavior specialists, academic interventionists, and special needs educators readily available when normal activities resume. While we had little time to prepare for schools being shut down, we can certainly properly prepare for when they open back up!

Schools are an ever-important infrastructure in our communities and in our nation as a whole. Teachers love and nurture students, and many have continued to send out encouraging messages to their scholars during these times of uncertainty. Teachers also often worry about the kids who are in unfavorable situations and are now without school supports to help them. We think of students who were beginning to make gains (academically, socially, emotionally) and now a pause button has been hit on their progress. I applaud the work of educators who have flipped their classrooms to online learning platforms, and I dream of a day when all students can access the materials that have been prepared.

While school districts are scrambling to do all they can to serve their customers during these unprecedented times, they need to be ready to serve the needs of the whole child when we return to our everyday lives. Let us all learn a valuable lesson during these trying times. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and at a time like this, communities truly realize the wonderful impact that schools have on our world. Keep up the good work, prepare for a better tomorrow, and stay well!

Dr. Rachel Cornett is an Academic Interventionist at Brown’s Chapel Elementary where she teaches rising readers and future mathematicians in grades K-5. Dr. Cornett also teaches intervention pedagogy to preservice educators at a local university. Prior to these roles, Rachel taught 1st grade for 14 years. She currently serves on the Tennessee Department of Education’s Early Literacy Council and has helped create statewide professional development about higher academic standards for students. Rachel recently earned her educational leadership endorsement, is president of her local recycling board, and likes to giggle with her toddler in her free time.