Earlier this year, we set forth a series of recommendations on the best use of federal funds to address the needs of our schools and students during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. We have been delighted to see many of those recommendations come to fruition, including the governor’s direct grants to families for tutoring and his and the state Department of Education’s investment in internet connectivity for students, as well as the state’s equitable use of funds to support schools of all types: district, charter and private.
As a student and parent advocacy organization, TennesseeCAN works on a wide range of policies to improve educational opportunity and quality across our Volunteer State. We are thankful that state and local leaders made some swift and wise decisions to help us prepare for what was once an unimaginable school year.
But we also know the hard work has only just begun. As schools reopen we can, every day, see that educators, parents and students face challenges unlike those of the past. Our schools and students need our ongoing support and guidance now more than ever.
Preparing for Inevitable Learning Loss
The new school year has begun. We must remain flexible to ensure that all students continue to learn and are assessed on their progress.
But it is also the time to plan ahead as we prepare to address what will inevitably be a time of significant learning loss. Just like we do after any unexpected tornado or hurricane, we must begin thinking about how best to recover, rebuild and remediate.
In our outreach, we find that parents care a great deal about knowing where their children are academically. They want and need to know this now more than ever, given the disruptions of the spring. We recommended that the state make an early-year assessment available to families and are happy to see that, with its Start of The Year Checkpoint program, it will do just that. Additionally, we would like the state to make sure it continues to provide the annual end-of-year assessment which was waived this spring due to national school closings. This will help us build on a strong foundation of information that has been essential for the state’s academic achievement over the last decade.
Internet Access and Technology
The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed new logistical challenges for all of us. As businesses started shifting operations and schools began closing their doors, the importance of technology became even more paramount. While we applaud the governor’s efforts on this front, more must be done. For as long as we live with the Covid-19 virus, virtual learning will be an essential tool to keep.
We encourage federal and state leaders to continue to push for all families to have access to high-speed internet in order for their children to learn virtually from home. Both digital devices and hotspots, particularly in underserved urban neighborhoods and in Tennessee’s more remote rural areas, are essential and must be accessible to all families who need them. But, much like the CARES Act’s direct payments to Tennessee families, we believe families should receive a device and connectivity credit, or that they should petition the state directly for connectivity grants, to ensure their children have access to the internet and, as a result, to school. TennesseeCAN has such a grant program as a goal and we look forward to working with families to achieve it.
Teacher and Parent Support
While professional development is a term we use often when we think about teachers, this is a time when everyone needs it. With many school districts opting for the virtual learning approach, some parents have had to adjust to working from home, as well as being a substitute teacher for their children, just as teachers have worked to master delivering lessons in a new way without the cues and tricks of in-person learning. Virtual training and assistance must also be provided to parents to help them during this time of distance learning, as well as to teachers striving to do their best.
Group Students by What They Know
As we work with parents in our grassroots efforts, many have told us that they are fearful the needs of their students will not be addressed or they will be shuffled along without being truly ready for work at the next level. At the same time, some worry their children could be held back unnecessarily.
Whenever possible, students should be placed by academic proficiency, rather than age, to better address the needs of each individual child. Further, Tennessee families should be involved in promotion and retention decisions. We’d also like to see schools work to fill in gaps and get kids up to speed instead of defaulting to a position that leaves them back a year.
Tennessee has been a leader in American education for over a decade and it continues to lead when its children and families need it most. We look forward to working with Governor Lee, the Tennessee Department of
Education and the Tennessee General Assembly to ensure our students become the next great generation of citizens and leaders the state needs.
Victor Evans is the executive director of TennesseeCAN.