Return to In-Person Learning Provides an Opportunity to Ensure Greater Equity

Submitted on March 15, 2021 by:
Wesley Williams II
John White

By the second week of March, most school districts across Region 5 had begun returning to in-person learning. 

Governors, legislatures, and state boards of education in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia were mandating schools reopen classrooms. In most cases, that meant students in grades pre-K-8 returned in-person for instruction 5 days a week while school systems still could keep high schools on “blended” in-person and online schedules.

President Biden’s Executive Order on Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers helped states begin the process of fully reopening classrooms 1 day after his inauguration. 

But the executive order seeks to do more than reseat students at their desks. It aims to ensure equitable policies, practices, and services for each student progressing through the P–20 system.

The order presents ways each student in Region 5 and throughout the nation can safely return to in-person learning and receive the necessary high-quality services they deserve.

The executive order outlines specific duties and responsibilities for Federal agencies and opportunities to co-create shared, collaborative tasks. A high-level overview of the duties of the Secretary of Education includes the following: 

  • Provide evidenced-based guidance to inform the states’ reopening and in-person learning decisions;
  • Provide advice to states on the multiple ways in which students can experience high-quality learning (e.g., distance and online learning, blended learning, and in-person learning);
  • Provide advice to states on promoting mental health, social-emotional well-being, and humanizing ways to communicate and cultivate partnerships with parents and families;
  • Ensure that as these executive order directives are carried out, they are informed by the voices of those who have experienced enormous COVID-19 challenges in education and their daily rhythm of life during this pandemic;
  • Develop and share a report on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students throughout the P–20 system; and  
  • Establish a data collection process that will reveal how the pandemic has impacted students, educators, and the learning process.

A high-level overview of the duties for the Secretary of Health and Human Services includes the following:

  • Collect the appropriate data needed to inform the safe reopening and continued operations of the P–20 system;
  • Ensure that these data are accessible to the public and those serving our students (e.g., state, local, tribal, and territorial leaders);
  • Ensure that these data are disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and other factors as appropriate for reporting that honors equitable practices; 
  • Equitably allocate COVID-19-related supplies (e.g., testing materials) to P–20 schools and programs; and  
  • Establish effective operations of contact tracing programs at all levels (e.g., state, local, tribal, and territorial).

The Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Health and Human Services will co-create and submit a report identifying strategies to address the impact of COVID-19 on educational outcomes informed by the active engagement and consultation of a host of experts, officials, laypersons, organizations, educators, etc. For a complete list, see Section (C of the executive order). 

Finally, the executive order encourages the Federal Communications Commission to support the goal for each student to have access to connectivity by increasing the connective options for students lacking reliable home broadband in an effort to ensure continuity in student learning, remotely or in-person. 

This high-level overview can serve as a quick-at-a-glance resource. However, educators are encouraged to review the full executive order.  

The U.S. Department of Education recently published the first volume of its COVID-19 Handbook, a series intended to support the education community as schools reopen. This series will provide tools to aid educators in implementing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation by addressing common challenges and providing practical examples. 

State and local education agencies needing more information and technical support as they support schools with the return to in-person and blended learning should contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center