The Region 5 Comprehensive Center (CC) Advisory Board held its September 2020 meeting virtually to safely and conveniently include Edward James, the U.S. Department of Education’s Region 5 CC program officer, local school district superintendents, regional education service agency leaders, state agency leaders, education researchers, and nonprofit partners. The group readily offered insights on the challenges facing schools and states during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the virus has disrupted education across the nation, stakeholders from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia focused their attention on “bright spots” showing resilience in the following four key areas:
1. COVID-19 Impacts on Education
When schools closed suddenly in March to protect children's and adults' health and safety, schools became innovative and increased collaboration out of necessity. Remote learning was an unexpected challenge but also an opportunity. Dr. Jeff Hawkins, Executive Director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), said his service agency and the small remote school districts it supports concentrated their efforts to advance teacher professional learning in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky.
For several years, Kentucky's unique statewide Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) Program(link is external)(link is external) has provided a way for teaching and learning to continue on days when districts would usually cancel classes due to inclement weather. KVEC went a step further utilizing technology to overcome distance and bring new educational opportunities to teachers and students. Dr. Hawkins described micro-credentials(link is external)(link is external) developed by KVEC in collaboration with local teachers and school leaders with state support to provide personalized professional learning for more educators in their region.
The pandemic also showed how much communities value their schools and students. Dr. Keith Perrigan, Superintendent of Bristol Public Schools, in rural southwest Virginia, shared examples of how businesses supported educators and students, particularly seniors when the 2019-2020 school year was interrupted by COVID-19. With social distancing mandates disrupting graduation plans, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee became an exciting alternate location for Virginia high school commencement ceremonies. "Seniors collected their diplomas and got to follow the pace car for a lap on The World's Fastest Half-Mile(link is external)(link is external)."
2. Educational Equity
Several board members cited the lack of home internet access in some communities as a long-standing inequity impacting instruction and exacerbating student achievement gaps. The pandemic brought into more explicit focus the Internet connectivity challenges hampering students and teachers working at home. According to Dr. John B. Gordon, Superintendent of Suffolk County (VA) Public Schools, and several other board members, the shift to more distance education exposed broadband infrastructure issues as necessities for learning. Board members described the critical need for high-speed Internet to connect children and adults in all communities to education and training, in addition to services to support their emotional and mental health.
Dr. Carla Warren, Executive Director of the Office of Educator Development and Support within the West Virginia Department of Education, said bringing inequities to light is causing action rather than long-term planning. Schools and partners have taken action to increase connectivity in rural and urban communities by installing outdoor Wi-Fi Internet access points and outfitting school buses to be mobile hotspots parked in disconnect communities. Like many school districts, Dr. Gary Houchens, Professor of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research, said Western Kentucky University recently installed Wi-Fi hotspots(link is external)(link is external) in two of WKU’s largest parking lots to increase public access to the Internet.
3. The Educator Workforce
Human capital issues were weighing on school leaders’ minds, too. Dr. Hawkins described the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers in remote rural schools. All four states have reported educator shortages.
Dr. Kevin Schaaf, TDOE Director of Research and Analysis, highlighted a need to increase educator diversity while expanding the teacher pipeline. He described efforts to develop and fund “Grow Your Own” programs in Tennessee to train paraprofessionals and high school students to become certified teachers, increase the educator talent pool and connect the teacher workforce to the students and communities they serve. Dr. Schaaf also pointed out that recent crises have emphasized the need to increase educator diversify to reflect the student body. He said Tennessee has several research initiatives to examine educator diversity, find “bright spots,” and identify where districts have effectively recruited and retained teachers of color. He’s excited about Tennessee’s efforts to push that work forward more aggressively and more broadly.
Tennessee recently announced a “Grow Your Own” competitive grant(link is external)(link is external), which made available 20 grants of $100,000 each to form or expand state-recognized grow-your-own partnerships to increase access and remove barriers to the teaching profession.
4. The 2020-2021 Academic Year
Board members agreed that the 2020-2021 academic year would be like no previous school year as schools expect interruptions to learning. They also have been working to overcome last year's lost instructional time. Dr. Michelle Goad, an Instructional Supervisor in Gibson County Special School District (TN), said she was encouraged by seeing school reopening plans in place. Students and administrators have been adapting, using policies, and implementing procedures to ensure safe learning environments. Teachers have risen to the challenge, she said, collaborating and building content for digital learners.
Tricia Bronger, Director of the Greater Louisville Education Cooperative, shared how districts have communicated with their communities to "spotlight" support and assistance provided to special education teachers and school staff.
With many school districts going all-virtual to start the new school year, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) used its federal CARES Act funds to expand its online learning system, "Virtual Virginia(link is external)(link is external)." Virginia also joined the open education resources movement. VDOE launched #GoOpenVA(link is external)(link is external), a collaborative initiative that enables educational entities throughout Virginia to create, share, and access openly-licensed free digital learning materials designed for Virginia educators, used by Virginia educators, and expanded through collaboration among Virginia educators.
Dr. Jennifer Piver-Renna, VDOE Director of Research, concluded, "Our educators have stepped up. It's a bright spot to see people come to the table and look for solutions."
Jennifer Aprea of Tennessee ARC agreed, saying she has observed an increase in family engagement, including in special education. Weekly Facebook Live sessions have helped keep families connected to support services. Ms. Aprea said many families preferred the virtual IEP meetings, and she would like to continue giving parents options after the pandemic.
Learn more about the Region 5 Comprehensive Center and its support for states, regional, and local education agencies across the region by logging on to https://region5compcenter.org