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Cristina Diaz-Torres: What Comes Next? Creating Pathways to Success for All Arlington Students When They Return to School

APS must be ready to meet students' diverse academic, social, emotional, and physical needs equitably and at scale

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by Arlington County School Board candidate Cristina Diaz Torres

For the past 60 days, Arlington students have been stuck at home. They have learned how to navigate distance learning platforms, have had video calls with teachers, and, given the time and space to explore, some have even discovered new passions. For some, however, this pandemic has been a period of significant stress and trauma. Over the past 60 days, this crisis has shone light on the deep disparities across our county. Hundreds of families have sought out food, housing, and financial support. And too many Arlington children are hungry, worried about a sick loved one, living in a volatile home environment, or are feeling the stress of a caregiver’s job loss—all without the structure and stability that school usually provides.

Although we do not yet know whether schools will be able to open in the fall, we do know that having suffered varying levels of stress, trauma and learning loss. APS must be ready to meet their diverse academic, social, emotional, and physical needs equitably and at scale.

Last week, the Arlington School Board appointed Dr. Francisco Durán as our next Superintendent. His first task is to look towards the fall and prepare our systems, staff, and community for the start of a school year unlike any other Arlington has experienced. Already, APS has started planning for multiple potential scenarios for the fall, including the possibility of delivering all learning virtually. Creating a system of virtual learning that meets the needs of all students to succeed will require building a collaborative framework that builds on the strengths and perspectives of our diverse stakeholders. This is a complex and evolving situation, but here are three recommendations on where to start:

First, let’s bring the community into the conversation about how and when students return to school.

In normal times, we know that the best K-12 governing decisions result from authentic collaboration among teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members. Because this crisis impacts community constituencies in unique ways, now more than ever, APS must amplify representative voices and ensure diverse perspectives are contributing to decision-making. I encourage Dr. Duran to establish a public facing task force to support planning for the fall. Yes, we already have plenty of advisory committees, but what’s needed now is the educational equivalent of a SWAT team. We must coalesce a group of (no more than 20) community members, who represent a broad continuum of perspectives and expertise, who can immediately begin meeting virtually to help APS articulate a vision for how all students recover and thrive in the next academic year. The task force will act as a focus group for staff proposals. Members will share creative ideas and connections for community partnerships, and will serve as communications liaisons to different constituencies of Arlingtonians. Most importantly, they will engage incoming (quantitative and qualitative) data and help APS dynamically innovate as we proceed into uncharted territory.

Second, let’s develop a plan to assess and address student social, emotional, and physical needs in a virtual environment.

When our students return to school, they’ll need learning environments that are physically and emotionally safe, culturally relevant, trauma-informed, and engaging. In a normal year, upwards of 15% of Arlington’s students experience resource scarcity that negatively impacts learning and livelihood. With more than half a million Virginia residents having recently filed for unemployment insurance, we must assume that this number will increase exponentially. We must develop a plan to assess recent (and ongoing) student trauma and a strategy for efficiently connecting students with needed resources.

We need to either develop or acquire a universal screening strategy for social and emotional learning needs. Options include purchasing an assessment or coordinating an effort to conduct empathy interviews and virtual shadowing of students with diverse needs (e.g., emergent bilinguals, accelerated learners, students with disabilities). We should couple these efforts to assess student needs with a strategic plan for connections that ensures that every student receives at least one human touch point with a teacher or staff member every day. These touchpoints are important for all of our students, but they will be especially critical for our most vulnerable students and for students who are transitioning from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school. We will need to ensure that students who may be in a new school, with new teachers and new peers, feel a sense of belonging and connection, even if that connection happens via Microsoft Teams.

None of this, however, can happen without the care and dedication of our APS staff members. We must use time set aside this school year to invest in professional learning for teachers and staff that prepares them to support students’ social and emotional needs during re-entry. Specifically, we should train teachers to cultivate their own social and emotional competencies, to model self-care and connection, to  shift from punitive to restorative practices for managing behavior, and how to incorporate trauma informed practices into virtual instruction. Once we have identified student needs, we must expand on existing partnerships, including the newly created Collaborative for a Hunger Free Arlington and the Behavioral Health Care Bureau, to increase access to basic supports like food and mental health treatment.

 Then, let’s decide how we will equitably deliver new content to all students, including students with disabilities, emergent-bilinguals, and students without reliable access to devices or internet.

Instruction was already disrupted this academic year. We must be ready to provide new content to all students next year or risk them falling chronically behind. A collaborative approach can dynamically meet evolving student needs. Building blocks for instruction include:

  • Accurately and quickly measuring student learning loss or growth and differentiating instruction appropriately. Early estimates of COVID-19 related learning loss suggest students might return to school upwards of 30% below expected levels in reading and 50-60% below expected levels in math. But this gap will not be consistent across demographics. Some families have the means to provide outside tutoring or more hands on assistance while schools are closed, while others are literally struggling to keep food on the table. Accordingly, some students might return to school ahead of where they would be in a typical school year, while others will be significantly behind. The challenge for APS staff is to quickly assess student proficiencies using curriculum aligned formative assessments. Then, educators must quickly remediate gaps, particularly for students who have suffered the most learning loss.

We shouldn’t hold students back from enriching, grade-level-appropriate content for too long. Our students have a right to access content that is challenging and enables success. Allocating too much of the next academic year towards instructing remedial content is a huge risk, particularly for our students of color, our low-income students, our students with disabilities, and our gifted students.

  • Filling our technology gaps and devising a plan for delivering new instruction virtually.

The most recent American Community Study explains that more than 8,000 households in Arlington are without access to the internet. An additional 8,000 households can only access the internet on a mobile device. Students living in those households need alternative sources of consistent high-speed internet access. Many will also require devices in order to participate in virtual learning environments next year. The FY 21 approved budget included funds for purchasing MiFi devices—but this positive step forward is inconsequential if families are not enabled and trained to use them. Parents and caregivers will need an accessible technology help-desk tasked with training families, providing videos (in multiple languages) about frequently asked questions, and troubleshooting major technical issues.

While remediating technology gaps, we must also determine how to deliver new instruction. If home is still the primary learning environment next fall, APS faculty and staff will likely depend on asynchronous (a.k.a. not live) learning videos and transcripts. Students will review content, practice independently, and demonstrate their learning via assessments, presentations, or projects. This process parallels some work environments but will be novel to many students. So, we must teach expectations for engagement. Educators and support staff should be sufficiently available to support learning and to reduce social isolation. Our students must feel connected and have a sense of belonging if they are to succeed next year. Additional services should be provided to students for whom the distance environment proves to be more difficult.

When designing our plan, we can take stock of existing curriculum and resources to determine which materials are best suited for hybrid or virtual environments. The learning plan must abide by Universal Design for Learning Principles and W3C guidelines for accessibility. Teachers and staff should be allowed flexibility to dynamically modify their plans to account for qualitative and quantitative data we cumulate from student progress and caregiver input. Learning virtually is tough for everyone involved. So, communication and humility are key. We must regularly check in with students and families about their needs and be responsive to their concerns.

Currently, there are just over 100 days left until the start of the 2020-2021 school year. If we are to ensure that all of our students are able to recover and thrive past this crisis, we must plan ahead now—by seeking out input from all stakeholders, designing at the margins, and making decisions that meet our current and future demands. This difficult terrain is without a specific roadmap to guide us—but, I believe that together, we can make the Arlington Public Schools even more equitable than they were before the onset of this COVID-19 crisis.