Q&A: Ohio's Urban School Districts Worry Equity Gap Will Widen In The Fall

Cleveland Metropolitan School District bus
The Ohio 8 Coalition anticipates a widening equity gap due to COVID-19. [Annie Wu / ideastream]
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Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to issue guidelines for reopening Ohio K-12 schools this week. But the huge task of figuring out how to educate students while keeping them safe falls on each individual school district and, unsurprisingly, it’s raising a lot of concerns.  “All Things Considered” Host Tony Ganzer spoke with ideastream Education Reporter Jenny Hamel about what schools could look like when they reopen in the fall.

You had a chance to talk with educators from the Ohio 8 Coalition, which includes big urban districts like Cleveland Metropolitan Schools and Akron Public Schools. What is top of mind for the Ohio 8?

A huge concern for these urban districts, and many districts that have children living in poverty, is that the coronavirus pandemic is only causing the equity gap to widen. Lower-income kids fell behind academically in the last several months of this past year and they’re worried they will continue to fall behind their peers who have access to more resourcesespecially if remote learning is part of the equation in the fall.  Dr. Elizabeth Lolli with Dayton Public Schools says the Ohio 8 looked at the state standards and compacted the curriculum in what they’re calling ‘power standards.’

“The curriculum is massive and can't be expected to be taught in one year,” Lolli said, “as well as to try and do all the other things that we need to do in our classrooms, the social-emotional learning that we need to do, reestablishing relationships, expectations for what in school actually looks like if we go back full time.”

These school administrators are grappling with what is taught during the remote learning situation, but how do they plan to make sure everyone at each grade level gets the interaction that they need with their teachers when school resumes in the fall?

Most superintendents I’ve spoken with having been actively working up three models for reopening next fall. One is the all-in approach, meaning everyone goes to school. The other is the blended model: part in-person, part remote. And then there’s going entirely remote – teaching all of the students via Zoom and Chromebook.

It seems districts expect a blended model once you take in social distancing and measures to keep students and staff safe.  David James, superintendent of Akron Public Schools, said they’re really concerned about are the little kids, and establishing a good foundation for all of them as they’re trying to learn to read and write. So Akron is considering a blended model that would be guided by age.

“Those youngest kids, you know, really do need in-person instruction. And so I know our staff have been coming up with some different scenarios,” said James. “And one of them is bringing in first our kindergarten, first, second graders and doing, you know, on-site instruction and then for the rest of the district, looking at some waves of online instruction, some in-person.”

When it comes to online instruction, we know that at the end of this academic year, many districts were scrambling to ensure their students were connected to the web. Do these urban districts think they’re ready for fall?

Right, there could be a scenario where one of the schools has a COVID outbreak and suddenly everyone has to go home and rely entirely on remote learning. When Gov. DeWine closed school in March, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), for example, surveyed its families and realized a big swath didn’t have internet access. So CEO Eric Gordon scrambled to procure thousands of Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots.

CMSD and Akron Public Schools say they are ready in that respect. They’ve made sure that the students have the tech and the internet hotspots for this year.  

These school districts are dealing with added costs due to the coronavirus but they’re facing budget cuts from Gov. DeWine’s office. How are they dealing with that?

They’re pleading their case. They’re hoping the governor dips into his “rainy day” fund. Eric Gordon recently testified before Congress, asking for $200 billion on behalf of all schools in the country. The Ohio 8 is asking that all the CARES money coming to the state only go to Title I, or the lowest-income students. The Ohio 8 is also urging DeWine to use some of the CARES Act discretionary funding towards establishing broadband for the entire state, essentially making internet a utility.

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