A ‘Marshall Plan’ for schools

Economist Susan Dynarski writes in Sunday’s New York Times that America needs an ambitious initiative to help students make up for the learning that they missed this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the nation’s schools.

Teachers and students have done their best with distance learning, she writes, but “it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.”

Her proposal: a massive federal program to help students catch up, something on the order of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. It’s needed, she says, because for many students, the school year effectively ended in March.

“If the country doesn’t recognize this fact and respond accordingly,” she contends, “ … we will do great harm to a generation of children who will learn less than those who went before them.”

She suggests strategies such as expanded summer school, a lengthened 2020-21 school year and additional after-school and extended-day learning programs. Jobless college graduates, she said, could be tapped to serve as tutors and teacher support staff in a program modeled on AmeriCorps.

But these ideas cost money, and the economy is going into a recession. Congress approved short-term relief for individuals, businesses and states, but it’s deadlocked over more assistance. House Democrats want to give schools $60 billion, less than half what Dynarski suggests; but the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to agree..

Another issue is that no one knows when and how schools will be able to resume face-to-face learning. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he won’t decide until July at the earliest whether schools can reopen this fall.

Chuck Grable, superintendent of Indiana’s Pioneer Regional Schools, tells the Indianapolis Star that officials are “looking at Plan A, Plan B, Plan C scenarios,” depending on the coronavirus. But over a quarter of educators surveyed by Education Week said their schools hadn’t planned for reopening.

As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones argues on Twitter, schools also need to be focused on ensuring that students learn the skills they need.

“Two months into this, we must assess,” she writes. “We must have accountability at all levels, from teachers to the U.S. Department of Education.”

This is difficult. COVID-19 has caused tremendous suffering. Reopening schools while keeping students and staff safe, addressing trauma, fending off budget cuts and making up lost learning is like the proverbial task of building the airplane while it is flying.

But all of us – federal and state policymakers, legislators, administrators, teachers, parents and voters – owe it to students to get it right.

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