A+ Schools report: 4 critical points to consider for schools operating during the pandemic

James Fogarty is thankful that he and his wife have jobs allowing them to work from their Friendship home so they can tutor their children, a Kindergartner and second-grader, during the pandemic.

But as the question of the next school year looms, Fogarty, the executive director of A+ Schools, knows that many parents have trepidation about what’s to come — whether the schools open or distance learning continues.

His organization has issued a series of briefs that it calls Equity Impact Reports, with insights from leading experts with the National Urban League, The Education Trust, and the League of Innovative Schools. A+ Schools gathered information by researching what districts around the country did this spring.

What we’re trying to do is create a set of usable documents that can actually make a difference in improving equity in schools,” says Fogarty. The briefs “highlight best practices and show options for ways to move forward.”

The briefs are meant to augment a report by the Pittsburgh Public Schools task force, All In to Reopen Our Schools. The district this week issued a preliminary statement with 407 recommendations, including that the start of the school year be delayed until Aug. 31. Learning may be online-only, or a combination of online and classroom learning that staggers the days that students are in buildings to keep their numbers smaller than usual.

Everyone will be required to wear face masks and practice social distancing, and kids will sit one to a seat on buses. The school board will vote July 22 on its safety plan to submit to the state Department of Education.

“Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our students and staff. We will only reopen schools when we can assure our families, students and staff that all social distancing and health and safety measures are in place and can be followed,” says Superintendent Anthony Hamlet. “Based on the condition of COVID-19 in our area, we will be ready to pivot and offer full-time E-learning to all students.”

The A+ Schools reports lay out four major areas for Pittsburgh Public Schools and other districts in the region to consider as they plan for reopenings once COVID-19 eases.

1. The biggest priority

“The first, and the biggest priority for us, is to engage families and communicate with them regularly,” says Fogarty. “We saw this across the country, across the board. You can’t control a lot in this crisis, because the information is moving day to day, but one thing you can control is how often you communicate with parents.”

In Phoenix, for example, school leaders made sure every family was contacted once schools closed because of the virus. “They set it up to make sure teachers could do work, along with counselors, and they made sure every family was in touch, I think every day.”

If that seems like a colossal task, Fogarty breaks it down: Pittsburgh Public Schools has roughly 23,000 students, counting Pre-K but not including charter schools. Taking into consideration that some families have more than one kid in school, it may be around 15,000 families that need to be contacted — something that’s perhaps manageable by a staff of approximately 2,200 teachers and other professionals.

“You could divide it up in some way as a phone tree, so that each teacher’s making, like, seven calls to households to check in with families and children,” he says. “You’ll have some overlap, but so be it.”

When Pennsylvania closed its schools in mid-March, switching instruction to online, homeschooling was new for many families. Some families, at least initially, lacked the digital resources to keep up. Pittsburgh was among local districts that did initiate conversations with families — not just robocalls or emails — when schools were closed, Fogarty says.

Troubleshooting with support for home instruction must continue “as the situation changes and we ask more of parents,” he says.

2. Community involvement

The second recommendation is to make plans with the community — something that Pittsburgh Public also has done, he says, by engaging people to help with the All In plan. It’s essential to ensure that marginalized students — those with disabilities or those in schools that are historically underserved — get what they need to be able to learn, he adds.

If schools aren’t reopened by fall, Fogarty says, “we know that the learning is not going to be as good as it could be. But I’m fairly confident the district will be able to get every child that needs one a device by fall. I think they came pretty close to that by summer.”

The Pennsylvania Association of School Boards has warned that budget cuts will be one potential economic impact of the pandemic. The federal government’s promised $15.3 billion for districts nationwide to purchase face masks and other personal protection equipment hasn’t yet come, says Fogarty. “We probably need 10 times that amount. There are 500 districts in Pennsylvania alone.”

The state Department of Education has issued preliminary guidance for phased reopening of schools, which follows Gov. Tom Wolf’s process to reopen Pennsylvania. But questions remain about when — and whether — districts will be ready to allow students safely back into classrooms.

“There’s a lot of resources we’re going to need to be able to adequately open safely,” Fogarty says. “In terms of protecting high-needs students and marginalized groups, we’re going to have to make choices about where we’re going to be OK with service cuts, which is where the equity question really comes into play. … Parents who are rightfully angry about seeing anything cut will have to work through that. There are no good choices here. An across-the-board cut is not fair.”

3. A redesigned learning guide

A+ Schools’ third recommendation is a redesigned learning guide that discusses competency.

“What does it mean to attend school? How do you do grading as school systems aren’t held to account in the same way because COVID is happening? How can they be innovative?” Fogarty says. “Cleveland right now is looking at going to a full mastery schedule, thinking about making sure that kids are ready for graduation if you don’t have the same time-in-classroom requirements.”

4. Strategy for the future

The fourth idea is to create a comprehensive strategy for future needs so that parents who may have to stay home get the support they need.

“We’re calling on all of the spaces that exist in the city and then will work with child care providers, or maybe Americorps, to come and be part of the effort to take care of children while their parents work,” says Fogarty. “Otherwise, we need a trillion-dollar pandemic fund to allow at least one parent to stay home. At some point, we’re going to need additional federal dollars to support families.”

A+ Schools has been talking with potential funders. Some of its briefs are informed by what Pittsburgh Public Schools has been planning.

“My hope is that this is complementary to their efforts, and not in any way contradictory to what they’re trying to do,” Fogarty says. He anticipates criticism from some parents but notes, “Right now, the way COVID is rising in our community, there’s no good plan.”

Fogarty acknowledges that over the years, A+ Schools has been among the most vocal critics of Pittsburgh Public Schools and problems with its achievement gap. But he notes, “The data is the data. We know it’s not good; they know it’s not good. … We’ve got to be about solving it. We need a decade of perspective on how to build the systems. These recommendations are evergreen.”