With state education agencies (SEAs) working hard to determine how to keep their students learning this fall, Kimberly Hambrick, Ph.D., a Westat Senior Study Director and Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Region 5 Comprehensive Center, and Kristin Nafziger, a Westat Associate Director and Director of ED’s Region 14 Comprehensive Center, have been agilely responding to the regions’ pressing and changing needs for support. The Regional Comprehensive Centers (CC) program provides high-quality targeted and intensive capacity-building services to address urgent and complex problems facing school students, teachers, and administrators.
“We’re making key resources available to improve online learning during this pandemic, and we continue to support the implementation and scaling up of evidence-based programs and interventions to help SEAs,” says Dr. Hambrick. But both regional center directors are quick to add that SEAs are struggling with other concerns in addition to how to manage and facilitate in-school, online, or hybrid learning during the pandemic while keeping staff and students safe.
“The SEAs in Region 14 are worried about a lack of funding to pay teachers, modifying instructional materials, buying and distributing computers for students who lack them, and building the infrastructure needed so that low-income and rural students can access the internet,” says Ms. Nafziger who supports the SEAs in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Dr. Hambrick hears similar concerns among the SEAs she supports in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia but adds, “States are also concerned about how other issues impacting students—such as unsafe home environments, lack of parental supervision, crime, opiate use, and high unemployment—have added to the stress of students during the time out of school.”
To help SEAs tackle these challenges, the Region 5 and Region 14 CCs are providing resources and broader connections to leading experts and research results. In Region 14, we have supported a mental health task force in Texas and are sharing lessons learned from that group to further support the rising mental health challenges facing education communities across the region.
Another growing concern, says Dr. Hambrick, is the possible impact of COVID-19 on grandparents who are raising students: “West Virginia has a significant number of students in this situation because their parents are deceased, incarcerated, or may be deemed unfit. What happens if these older caregivers get sick or die from COVID? Children may return to school with no family caregivers.”
Other pandemic-related efforts for Region 5’s Center include working with outside experts to address Kentucky’s interest in mitigating the long-term impact of the economic shutdown. And in Virginia, the Center is supporting the state’s expansion of its Open Educational Resource (OER) system and identifying high-quality literacy resources. The robust OER system, says Dr. Hambrick, will enable the Commonwealth’s teachers to access the highest quality resources no matter their location, which is even more important with many teachers beginning the academic year online. The Center’s work for Tennessee includes planning and designing professional development activities to build educators’ understanding of culturally responsive teaching and learning.
Ms. Nafziger says one of Region 14’s states—Texas—is focused on a number of issues, including improving the design and implementation of dual language programs and creating dynamic asynchronous remote-learning opportunities. “Texas also wants to enhance its programs designed to ensure access to, and effectiveness of, educators through programs such as Grow Your Own and Principal Residencies,” she notes. “We’re also working with the Texas Education Agency to build an infrastructure to support the annual training of 50,000 teachers in the science of reading and assist them in coaching other teachers in this science.”
Louisiana is seeking to reimagine the student experience with a new student and staff well-being initiative, says Ms. Nafziger, adding that the Center is working with the Louisiana Department of Education to support local education agencies in administering mental health screening tools, establishing school-based mental health response teams, and building stronger support for student and staff engagement.
Arkansas has engaged its districts in developing reopening plans, and the state is looking to expand broadband and internet access for all students. It is also conducting a major transformation of its Department of Education to include all levels of education—from pre-K to higher education—and all populations, including students who are deaf or blind. “Our team will be facilitating a new strategic planning process for its new organization beginning in August to help Arkansas education leaders identify goals and design new performance management routines together,” notes Ms. Nafziger.
Dr. Hambrick points out that while some states have contingency plans in place having faced natural disasters, such as hurricanes, their plans are limited in responding to the scope of the problems now imposed by COVID. However, she sees this as an opportunity for SEAs to develop long-term contingency plans.
Both regional center directors agree that the pandemic is making the SEAs stronger and proactive in developing creative, aspirational plans to physically and virtually reopen schools.
“There are so many innovative ways to lead schools, teachers, and students through this pandemic,” says Dr. Hambrick. “It’s a new phenomenon that we have to pull through together.”
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