‘Enormous challenge’ ahead for students returning to public ed this fall

June 29, 2020

With COVID-19 spiking again across the state, parents and other education leaders are asking: What’s next?

Education expert Frederick Hess said remote learning will have left large learning gaps, particularly in students’ math and reading:

Remote learning was hugely uneven this spring, and that’s going to show when students return to school. Across the board, it’s estimated that students will begin the next school year with just two-thirds the learning gains in reading and as little as half of the gains in math than we would normally expect.

Sutherland Institute connected with Hess, a former high school teacher, current lecturer, and leading education policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), to discuss the future of education given the continuing pandemic.

Read the Q&A transcript (modified for readability) below. Topics include anticipated learning losses, school funding, reopening schools, the case for school choice, remote learning and digital learning, the teaching profession/teacher shortage, and the concern for children returning to school.

Christine Cooke (Sutherland education policy fellow): The COVID-19 pandemic obviously had a massive effect on K-12 public education in the short term. What should we expect to see in the fall? 

Hess: It goes without saying that schools have an enormous challenge ahead of them. Remote learning was hugely uneven this spring, and that’s going to show when students return to school. Across the board, it’s estimated that students will begin the next school year with just two-thirds the learning gains in reading and as little as half of the gains in math than we would normally expect. Those in low-income districts will face even steeper learning losses. Making up for all that lost learning is going to take time.

Of course, academics are just a small part of the challenge schools are facing. Surveys have found that students’ loneliness, anxiety and depression have increased substantially these past few months, for instance. Teachers need to be prepared to meet students’ social and emotional needs when they get back to the classroom. Reopening will also mean making a number of logistical adjustments – modified schedules, cleaning, COVID testing, etc. – that will likely be in place for the foreseeable future. While it’s impossible to predict how all of this will play out in the long run, it’s clear that schooling is going to look different in many places this fall.

Cooke: The pandemic has also had an impact on school funding nationwide. What advice would you give to education leaders as they try to navigate this reality and make education policy going forward?

Hess: There’s no doubt that schools are facing some tough questions about their budgets right now. State and local tax collections will be down across the board next year, and that will most likely result in cuts across a range of public services. Reopening schools in the fall will mean spending money on things like personal protective equipment and deep cleaning. It seems clear to me that the federal government has a role to play in helping schools navigate these financial challenges.

That said, education leaders who are asking for tens – even hundreds – of billions in new K-12 spending should be ready to justify their asks to lawmakers, who are weighing a number of competing demands. It’s difficult to take leaders’ calls for more funding – and threats of dire consequences should they not receive it – at face value given the frequency with which they talk about how schools are underfunded despite the fact that K-12 spending has increased substantially over the past two decades. Schools may very well need tens of billions of additional funding, but it’s on districts to show how those funds will be used to bring students and staff back to schools safely.

Cooke: How should lawmakers respond to leaders who refuse to reopen schools even after getting the green light from health officials?

Hess: Lawmakers should respond on behalf of students and families in much the same way that President Lincoln once addressed a dithering General George McClellan: “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.” In those places where school leaders can’t or won’t find a way to teach kids and keep them safe, lawmakers should give parents the chance to do better by giving them the resources set aside to educate the nation’s youth.

Cooke: You wrote recently that “the case against school choice is unraveling.” What do you mean by that?

Hess: The most effective argument made by opponents of school choice has long been the simple assertion that we can’t trust choice to yield decent options for every child. And since every child has a right to be schooled, it’s vital that we protect traditional public school systems in order to assure an acceptable default education for every child. There are many responses to this line of argument, but it’s true that school choice can’t guarantee that every child will wind up in a decent school.

Well, if there’s one thing this spring’s remote learning efforts made clear, it’s that the universal, public system actually guarantees a lot less than we imagined. In a lot of places, school systems are defining “universal provision of schooling” as simply doing their best to provide online materials to as many students as possible. If that counts as good-faith provision of a default public education, then the bar is a whole lot lower than choice critics usually suggest. States could provide a bunch of online materials for a small fraction of the $700 billion a year we currently spend on K-12 schooling and use the rest of that funding to empower parents to choose the option – local district school, charter school, private school, online provider, or what have you – that seems right for them.

Cooke: Do you think remote learning will be any better in the fall?

Hess: It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet that way. Two reasons. First, as a lot of teachers have pointed out, we’ve spent this spring teaching students that remote learning doesn’t have real expectations or real grades, and that it involves a lot less meaningful work. That’s going to be a tough norm to unlearn.  Second, teachers this spring actually started with a huge advantage – they’d already been in classrooms with their students for six months when the pandemic happened. All the disappointing, chaotic experiences we had with remote learning this fall came despite the fact that teachers already had established relationships with their students. Could new resources, supports and training will make remote learning better? Maybe, but I’ve seen that promise fall flat too often to put a lot of faith in it this time around.

Cooke: What are some common pitfalls to digital or remote learning?

Hess: I think the biggest pitfall would be to treat remote learning as an acceptable facsimile for in-person learning. It’s not. Without the face-to-face dimension of schooling, it’s easy for kids to get lost. That’s especially true for students in unstable homes or households where parents have had to work through the pandemic, and for students with limited internet access and only one computer to share amongst their siblings. Given all those challenges, it’s not too surprising that teachers reported that one-fifth of kids simply dropped off the radar when remote learning started this spring.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to do remote learning well. Virtual learning has immense promise – it can leverage interactive elements that surpass even terrific in-person instruction and be customized to the needs of individual students.  But current efforts rarely meet that high bar, and this spring’s mess of on-the-fly programming inspires little confidence for the fall.

Cooke: Much has been said recently about teacher shortages and the changing teacher profession. What are a few of the changes – good or bad – educators might see as a result of this disruption?

Hess: Two things come to mind. First, in the short term, schools will need to find ways to accommodate teachers and administrators who are at heightened risk of COVID-19 due to their age – that’s 20–25 percent of a school’s staff, on average. Districts and teachers unions could help by revisiting parts of their labor agreements to allow schools to adopt new protocols and ensure that vulnerable teachers are able to work in ways that are safe and productive.

Second, teachers should expect to confront even wider learning gaps than usual when they come back in the fall. How schools handle this challenge will inevitably vary district by district, but teachers will likely hear more talk of “personalized learning” from administrators. Moving to “mastery-based learning” would mean giving teachers greater autonomy to make nuanced judgments about where students are and what they ought to be learning. That could certainly be a positive change – if it’s done well. As things stand, however, the playbook for personalized learning is still more an aspiration than a reality.

Cooke: What advice would you give to families who are hesitant about sending their kids back to school in the fall?

Hess: Parents concerns about the health risks related to COVID-19 are understandable – reopening schools isn’t going to be completely risk-free. But, as I’m sure a lot of parents have observed on their own, keeping kids out of school isn’t a great alternative either. The past few months of remote learning have left a lot of students feeling lonely, bored, and, in some cases, anxious and depressed. On top of that, not sending kids back to school would mean even greater learning losses. There’s a McKinsey analysis that estimates that another semester of remote learning would result in an average combined learning loss of 6 months (and twice that for low-income students). All that’s to say we need to carefully consider the risks of not sending kids back to school in the fall.


Many Utah K-12 schools are planning to reopen this fall with adjustments. Utah leaders would be wise to consider how to train and support teachers for hybrid (online/in-person) deliver models, boost resources to education choice options for families who’d like to pursue schooling at home with greater fidelity, and finally build in flexibility of pace and time as students and teachers grapple with a range of learning gaps.

Interested in suggesting a Q&A for Sutherland? Or participating in one yourself? Email si@sifreedom.org

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