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Ask the Experts: Education Policy During the Coronavirus

Drew University’s Patrick McGuinn tackles education and public policy

March 2020 – Amid Drew University’s decision to move instruction and business operations online for the remainder of the semester, we’ve reached out to some of our faculty experts to put the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic into perspective.

We talked with Patrick McGuinn, professor of political science and education, and a nationally-recognized scholar in education policy, who offered his expertise on where things stand during the coronavirus.

How exactly does policy get made in this chaotic atmosphere, on a federal, state and local level?

Crises like these highlight the challenges of policymaking in America’s fragmented federal system where governing authority is dispersed across federal, state and local levels. Most other countries have a centralized national education ministry that dictates policy with a single voice for all of the schools in the country. In the U.S., the national role in education is limited and most educational decisions are made at the state and local level. So when the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. at different times in different places, the response varied widely across and even within states.

What have been the biggest steps taken in terms of policy?

Several states, including New Jersey, made the difficult and unprecedented decision to close their K-12 schools and move to online instruction for an extended, but uncertain, amount of time. While school districts have been experimenting with online learning as a supplement to traditional classroom instruction for many years, taking all teaching and learning online for everyone for this long is really uncharted territory.

How has the education system weathered this storm, in your opinion?

It’s really too early to tell given that we are only a few days into what is unfortunately likely to be a very lengthy “experiment.” The U.S. has around 13,000 school districts and 100,000 schools and they vary tremendously in their ability to respond to a crisis of this sort and to manage such a huge instructional shift.

The way we fund public education in America—primarily through local property taxes—raises major equity concerns that may be exacerbated during this crisis. Some schools—particularly those in wealthy communities—are well resourced, have strong leadership, well-trained and experienced teachers who get lots of professional development and have provided one-to-one laptops for their students. Many schools, however, and disproportionately those attended by poor and minority students, lack these critical capacities and as a result their students will have a harder time accessing or benefiting from online instruction.

Personally, I can report that the Morris School District, which my kids attend and whose superintendent is N.J. State Superintendent of the Year Mackey Pendergast C’88, seems to be handling the transition with good planning and professionalism. One major challenge for teachers who are trying to teach from home is that many of them have their own young school-age children and have to simultaneously manage their kids’ homeschooling while also teaching their students.

We are all going to have to get used to being isolated and educated at home for the foreseeable future. As a result, even as we fight to "flatten the curve," we will also have to keep working to grow the online teaching and learning curve.

What are some challenges facing schools, students and parents?

The challenge of schools adapting to online instruction is compounded by the challenge that students and parents face on their end. Just as some schools are better prepared and equipped to handle the shift than others, so too are some students and parents. College-educated parents may be better able to “homeschool” their kids, both by supporting their kids’ teachers and by supplementing their efforts with their own. But students who have disabilities or are performing below grade level face significant challenges in keeping up when they can’t access the in-school supports they used to receive. And what happens if schools have not provided computers to their students and those students do not have one at home, or lack internet access?

Furthermore, many people were surprised to learn that millions of American elementary and secondary students depend on schools for their only meals of the day through the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, and schools have had to cope with providing these kinds of essential services even as they struggle to adjust to distance teaching and learning.

What are crucial next steps within the education system?

Students, teachers and school administrators are coping with tremendous disruption from the normal school calendar.  It’s not just in-person instruction that has been lost, it’s sports, theatre, clubs, community service, dances, etc. Spring AP testing is reportedly moving online, and states are hoping the federal government will let them postpone annual standardized testing.

Recent reports indicate that students may not return to class until the fall, or even later. If true, that means we are all going to have to get used to being isolated and educated at home for the foreseeable future. As a result, even as we fight to “flatten the curve,” we will also have to keep working to grow the online teaching and learning curve.

Check out other discussions in our Ask the Experts series here.

For the latest information regarding Drew’s response to the coronavirus, visit the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) resource site.

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