Arlington, VA

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On April 12, the Arlington School Board presented its nearly $700 million proposed FY 2022 budget to the Arlington County Board. The proposed budget includes a deficit of $14.9 million.

During the meeting, County Board member Christian Dorsey asked if this deficit is a result of a structural problem with the Arlington Public Schools (APS) budget.

The answer is yes.

For years, it was the practice of the School Board to direct the Superintendent to propose a balanced budget, with expenditures equal to revenues. However, this year’s budget direction lacks that requirement, which was last included in the FY 2017 budget cycle.

APS Superintendents began proposing budgets to the School Board that included significant deficits beginning in FY 2020, with a proposed deficit of nearly $9 million. For FY 2021 the deficit was more than $27 million and for FY 2022 it was more than $42.5 million.

After receiving the Superintendent’s proposed budget and holding numerous budget hearings, the School Board adopts a proposed budget. Typically, that proposed budget is a balanced one — but not this year.

Compare this process with that of the County Board, which includes in its budget guidance to the County Manager a requirement that his proposed budget is balanced.

A structural problem with the School Board’s budget process is that it delays the hard choices that must be made to cut expenditures to produce a balanced budget, which ultimately the School Board adopts each year. It also leads the School Board to ask the County for more money than is provided by the informal revenue sharing agreement between the boards. This year, the School Board asked the County Board for $2.8 million more than the $527.1 million in ongoing funds that the County Manager recommended.

To address this problem, the School Board should amend its policies on budget direction and budget development to require that the Superintendent propose a balanced budget and that the School Board adopt a proposed budget that is balanced. This would allow more time, and citizen input, for consideration of reducing expenditures. In addition, if APS believes that it is underfunded by the County, it should propose changes to the revenue sharing agreement.

With the School Board’s final vote on its budget scheduled for May 6, little time remains to determine how to balance this year’s budget. The $42.5 million deficit proposed by the Superintendent has shrunk because of nearly $19 million in federal emergency relief funds, as well as higher than initially estimated County and state revenue. In addition, the County Board agreed to provide the additional $2.8 million that the School Board requested, reducing the deficit to just more than $12 million.

That deficit could be cut in half if APS adjusts its enrollment projections for next year. The Superintendent’s proposed budget projects an enrollment next school year of 29,653. This is 3,154 students more than the 26,499 students enrolled in APS in March of this year, and 1,503 more than the 28,150 students who were enrolled in March 2020 when APS closed its school buildings.

If the projected enrollment for next year were reduced to a more realistic number of 28,500 students, the budget savings would be $5.9 million. The School Board’s Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) recommends that the enrollment estimate be revised downward, along with other cost-saving measures.

The School Board’s proposed budget includes a projected deficit for FY 2023 of $64.7 million in FY 2023, $91.4 million in FY 2024, and $111.1 million in FY 2025. This is untenable. The School Board needs to address the structural problems with its budget.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Esther Cooper started the Arlington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940 to fight for educational equality of Black students in Arlington Public Schools (APS).

Under her leadership, the NAACP sued the school board challenging the inequalities in the county’s Black high schools. In Carter v. School Board of Arlington Co. (1950), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that Arlington’s separate high schools constituted unlawful discrimination.

Today, 81 years after Ms. Cooper began her advocacy, 71 years after the Carter decision, and 67 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still don’t have education parity for Black students, or fully integrated schools.

Over the decades, both the county and the school board have intentionally, through policies and boundaries, kept our neighborhoods and schools segregated. Consequently, Black students have been redlined out of education parity by neighborhood, by school, and by classroom.

Not surprisingly, the academic gap has not closed in decades. In fact, the literacy gap between Black and White students increased within the last decade. The fact is, we have Black students entering high school reading on a third grade level, or below. The inability to master all five pillars of reading (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) adversely impacts a student’s ability to access the curriculum in all other content areas, causing the gaps to widen as students “progress” through school.

Through a prolonged practice of social promotion and failing up, APS has a sordid history of graduating generations of Black students who are functionally illiterate. Many of these students grew up in Arlington, attended APS schools, and are now relegated to low-wage jobs — some in the very schools that failed them.

This is the school-to-poverty pipeline.

While there are many Black students who excel academically in APS, there are far too many others who do not. For the 13 years I have lived in Arlington, I haven’t heard any school board members or school board candidates acknowledge this problem, let alone commit to addressing it — not even the ones who purport to be “educators” or feign concern about “equity.” Instead, year-after-year, decade-after-decade, superintendent-after-superintendent, and school board-after-school board, APS continues to fail Black students with impunity.

This miseducation of Black students is the school-to-prison pipeline.

APS is miseducating Black students by under diagnosing learning disabilities and misidentifying them with emotional and intellectual disabilities;

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to utilize the most current and recommended psychological testing for accurate evaluations;

APS is miseducating Black students by under-identifying them for gifted and twice-exceptional (“2e”) services;

APS is miseducating Black students by underfunding training and procurement for evidence-based literacy instruction and intervention;

APS is miseducating Black students by tracking them into low-level courses in pursuit of standard versus advanced diplomas;

APS is miseducating Black students by allowing disparities in opportunities to persist;

APS is miseducating Black students by levying harsher discipline and disproportionate referrals to law enforcement;

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to sufficiently recruit and hire teachers that look like them;

APS is miseducating Black students by perpetuating a culture of low expectations and unchecked bias;

APS is miseducating Black students by downplaying or ignoring acts of racial violence perpetuated against them; and

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to talk about and recon with all of this.

In the 81 years since Esther Cooper commenced her fight for equality for Black students, APS and the school board have dodged accountability and maintained the status quo. How much longer must we wait for them to course correct? How many more generations of Black families will be lost to poverty or prisons in the meantime? APS deserves no more grace. The time for change is now.

Image courtesy of Project DAPS, Arlington Public Library, Community Archives

Symone Walker is an Arlington Public Schools parent and federal attorney. She is an At Large Executive Committee Member of the Arlington NAACP and Co-Chair of the Education Committee. She serves on the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee, Superintendent’s Advisory Committee for Equity and Excellence, School Resource Officer Working Group, Destination 2027 Task Force, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Community Advisory Board. She is a former candidate for the Arlington school board.

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Ed Talk: The 36 Percent

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington Public Schools (APS) has opened for hybrid learning for students from pre-kindergarten through 12 grade whose families have chosen that option, one year after it closed its doors due to the pandemic.

Sixty-four percent of APS students have opted for the hybrid model and attend school two days per week. Thirty-six percent of APS students — 9,611 of them — have remained with full distance learning.

APS data show the impact of distance learning on academic achievement. That impact has not been the same for all students. Test scores and grades for Economically Disadvantaged students, English Learners, Black students, and Hispanic students have declined the most.

For example, scores for Black students in kindergarten through grade two on a literacy test known as PALS dropped from 87.1% in the fall of 2019 to 78.6% in the fall of 2020. However, scores for White students fell only from 93.8% to 91%.

An APS analysis of second quarter grades shows that the percentage of economically disadvantaged middle school students who failed classes nearly doubled from last academic year to this year, increasing from 6.3% to 11.53%. This compares with middle school students overall, whose failing grades increased from 2.46% to 4.92%.

In high school, failing grades for English learners increased from 16.1% to 25.72% during distance learning, compared with an increase from 6.2% to 9% for high school students overall.

In light of this learning loss, it is important to know which students have not returned to school. Who is missing out on the benefits of in-person learning and why have they made that choice?

But APS has provided no demographic data about this.

Fairfax County Public Schools reported this week that 37% of Black parents intended to send their children back to school, compared with 52% of Hispanic parents, and 57% of White parents, according to a March survey.

A study of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted last summer found that Black and Latino parents were more concerned about sending their children back to school than were White parents. The study suggested that for minority parents, the fear of poor health outcomes as a result of COVID-19 outweighs the benefits of in-person learning.

Those fears are well-founded. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities. The gap in life expectancy, for example, has increased between 2019 and 2020.  According to a recent report of the CDC, life expectancy decreased by 2.7 years for the Black population, 1.9 years for the Hispanic population, and .8 years for the White population during this period.

During the March 11 School Board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Francisco Duran commented that a large number of parents of English learners have opted to continue with distance learning. It may be that they — and Black and Latino parents in Arlington — like those surveyed by the CDC, fear sending their children to school because of the impact of COVID-19 on their communities.

In Arlington, the highest number of COVID-19 cases is in the 22204 zip code, where the percentage of the Black and Hispanic populations is about twice that of Arlington overall. In addition, the rate of cases per 100,000 residents in this area is much higher than the County average, according to data on the County’s website.

With 64% of students in the hybrid model, APS must not lose sight of the 36% of students who continue with full distance learning, and especially those students whose grades and test scores have declined the most.

APS should report on the demographics of the 9,611 students who remain in full distance learning. It also should set targets for improvement in grades and test scores such as PALS. This accountability is necessary to start to reverse the trend of greater learning loss during distance learning for minority students.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The pandemic has shown us that reopening schools safely should not be left solely to school districts. Local governments have a critical role to play both financially and logistically in helping with reopening.

On March 2, APS began a phased return of additional students for the hybrid in-person option two days per week, since Level 1 students returned on November 4.

For nearly an entire year since schools closed, our County Board members have been either silent, reluctant to engage on reopening, or have been outright dismissive when pressed for their involvement in helping APS with the necessary infrastructure to ensure a safe return to schools. Their callous responses that reopening schools is not their responsibility and not within their legal authority — while technically accurate — is morally wrong. It is outrageous.

While virtual learning is working well for some students, it isn’t for many others. Some students are suffering mentally, emotionally, and academically. The most vulnerable students are losing ground they may never regain. The academic and economic impact of nearly one year of school closings on these families is dire and may be lifelong. While APS and the school board bear the responsibility for reopening schools, the failure of our County Board to help stem this tide of inequity is an abdication of its moral responsibility.

The real blame for the tepid COVID response lies with the federal government, but where national and state governments fail, local governments must step up, improvise, and lead. Schools alone cannot bear this burden and it is shameful that our County Board has turned its back on our students.

A global pandemic requires all hands on deck, and our county leaders neglected to do their part to take all reasonable and feasible measures to contain community spread. Over the past year, there is so much more they could have done in addition to food distribution — that they were asked to do — to help our schools reopen sooner. They simply ignored the pleas.

They could have enforced mask-wearing in crowded public spaces, but they failed to. They could have enforced social distancing in public spaces and outdoor dining areas, but they failed to. They could have required appropriate ventilation inside restaurants and bars, but they failed to. They could have limited capacity, alcohol, and operating hours in bars on popular nights like New Year’s Eve but they failed to.

Moreover, the county could have partnered with APS to provide COVID-19 testing and nurses so our schools could reopen long before now, but they failed to. They could have provided supervised indoor and outdoor spaces for virtual learning, but they failed to. They could have formed public-private partnerships with corporations, churches, and other organizations to assist with childcare needs and space, but they failed to.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The political divide in the United States in the wake of the 2020 presidential election is palpable. In a recent Pew Research poll, 90% of Biden supporters and 89% of Trump supporters said that the election of the other candidate would lead to lasting harm to the country.

For the next generation of leaders to find common ground and advance solutions to pressing national issues, we must teach students how to engage in civil dialogue.

The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, part of the University of Virginia, promotes “effective leadership, working together, building trust, ethics, and a mastery of public policy issues” to “strengthen the quality of governance and community service at all levels and help restore public confidence in our political system.”

One of Sorensen’s programs is the High School Leaders Program, which teaches about 32 students each year how to engage “positively and effectively” in public policy debates so that they can make a positive difference in their communities. According to Sorensen Director Larry Roberts, students from across the Commonwealth with different cultural backgrounds and political beliefs learn to listen to each other, challenge stereotypes about political parties, focus on policy, and work together to find solutions.

Another Virginia program to promote civil dialogue and an understanding of the legislative process is the Virginia YMCA’s Model General Assembly (MGA). After preparing legislation, about 500 students travel to Richmond each year for three days where they meet in the General Assembly to debate their bills.

Erik Van de Poll, Arlington YMCA District Executive Director, says that “MGA has taught Arlington students how to better understand the perspectives of students from different parts of Virginia. This understanding has helped them to build consensus for their own legislation, and ultimately to be more effective advocates.”

Both Sorensen and MGA charge fees and enroll a small number of students, limiting the reach of these effective programs.

Public schools have an important role to play here. The Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) in History and Social Science include understanding “the rights, duties, and responsibilities of citizens” and “respecting differing opinions.” However, the SOLs do not do not emphasize the skills that students need to engage in civil dialogue about policy.

Work on the revised 2022 SOLs is underway and is expected to include a more skills-based approach, according to APS Social Studies Supervisor Kerri Hirsch. In the meantime, Hirsch provides APS teachers with resources so that students can better understand diverse perspectives, discuss these respectfully, and develop arguments to support their views based on facts. This includes the use of Checkology, a resource to help students use critical thinking skills to separate fact from fiction.

What do teachers do when a student’s comments reflect prejudice toward others? Author Robert Jones, Jr. writes: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Some teachers do not engage students in discussions of politically charged issues because they do not feel equipped to handle these kinds of situations.

Teachers should have more opportunity for professional development to give them the tools they need to facilitate student conversations about policy. Available resources address setting classroom ground rules, examining one’s own perspectives and bias, and engaging students in projects to help them listen to each other to build understanding of different views.

Empathy is a common theme in the work done by Sorensen, MGA, and APS. Civil dialogue depends on participants listening respectfully to those with opposing views and working to understand their perspectives. Empathy allows us to see beyond labels and stereotypes.

Understanding others’ views does not mean agreeing with them. But it can lead to finding some common ground. This seems a better path to finding solutions to national issues than vitriol and ad hominem attacks.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

To paraphrase The La’s, “There they go! There they go again!”

APS has again embarked on an elementary boundary process that dismisses student demographics, one of the six guiding principles in APS’ boundary policy. This isn’t surprising. But it is disheartening that APS’ new Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer (CDEIO), Arron Gregory, supports APS’ approach.

Mr. Gregory explains that “diversity” comes from our differences in culture, heritage, and upbringing. At the same time, he states that we need to shift our focus from the free- and reduced- lunch (FRL) aspect of diversity to the programs and services APS offers because “free- and reduced lunch is not going to create diversity within our schools,” that we can have diversity in any school because it is “about our thought process (and) cognitive diversity.”

Mr. Gregory reasserts Arlington’s long-standing “separate but equal” approach – or in today’s parlance, “separate but equitable.” There is just one problem with Mr. Gregory’s argument: the FRL aspect is precisely what produces the “cognitive diversity” he wants to focus on.

Like it or not, economic status is highly correlated with race in our society and in Arlington. It is the economic part of diversity that is critical to achieving the equity Mr. Gregory and APS profess is at the forefront of their decision-making. Since race legally cannot be used as criteria in designating school boundaries, FRL is our primary measure of diversity and is the logical and practical aspect on which to focus.

He is right that boundaries are but one in a series of steps toward equity. The problem is, APS is not actually using the boundary process to affect equity in our schools. Ignoring student demographics, or FRL eligibility, is misguided for several reasons:

  1. It hasn’t worked so far. Arlington’s high FRL schools have had highly qualified teachers and extra resources for years; yet the disparities in students’ opportunities, achievement, and experiences relative to those of students in low FRL schools has persisted;
  2. It runs counter to decades of social science research demonstrating that disparities are more effectively narrowed by providing economically diverse learning environments than by increasing investment and resources in high-poverty schools.
  3. It completely disregards so-termed “social capital” that enables true equity.
  4. It is shortsighted and does not consider the implications for disadvantaged students beyond their APS years.

Been there done that

Arlington has maintained a district of high- and low-FRL schools for decades, focusing on programs and services. My children attended one of Arlington’s highest FRL elementary schools and now attend high-FRL middle and high schools. I can attest to the high quality teaching that goes on in these schools and have seen the valuable extra resources and supports that these schools provide. Yet achievement and opportunity gaps persist. Vast disparities in the academic and social enrichment PTAs are able to provide remain. Those high-FRL schools continue to be disparaged and avoided by many in our community.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

School divisions and local governments in the region and across the country are providing child care while students are learning online.

These programs recognize that many parents cannot work from home and that low-income students in particular benefit from the adult supervision, help with technology, and food provided.

For example, Fairfax County Public Schools provides full-day child care at 37 school sites with fees based on income that are as low as $80 per month. Loudoun County is offering child care at 11 elementary schools and two additional sites for a fee, with a 50% discount for students enrolled in the Free and Reduced Meals program. The City of San Francisco has 50 sites providing free child care to 700 students, with space for up to 2,000 students.

Here in Arlington, no Arlington Public Schools (APS) sites or Arlington County Government sites have opened for child care during the pandemic.

County officials are studying the issue.

“The County has been exploring multiple options for care for school-aged children with APS and non-profit partners, with the initial priority being at-risk children,” according to a statement that Deputy County Manager Michelle Cowan recently provided to ARLnow.

One option is a program to begin in October that would provide child care free of charge for 50 children, ages 4-11, at one APS location.

During the last school year, 4,402 Arlington elementary school students were eligible for free or reduced price meals, according to the Virginia Department of Education. The need for child care is much greater than 50 students.

Arlington officials should quickly assess how many spaces are needed for child care and expand availability for low-income children. Such an assessment is underway in Alexandria, which has created the Alexandria Emergency Child Care Collaborative.

The need for child care is driven not only by increased demand with students learning at home, but also by reduced supply caused by the closure of many private day care facilities due to the pandemic. Arlington County’s interactive map of private child care centers shows those that are closed and how few slots are available in the ones that remain open. Tuition charged at many private facilities are cost-prohibitive for low-income families.

There are many challenges to opening new child care facilities. These include identifying appropriate locations, staffing, and transportation; addressing licensing requirements and the health and safety of the participants; establishing eligibility requirements; and funding.

Other jurisdictions have addressed these challenges and have opened child care facilities for those most in need.

The need will continue, even as APS begins to bring students back to school for some in-person learning. The APS plan provides for some students with disabilities to return to school in October; additional students in November; and all students who chose a hybrid learning model starting in December. But the hybrid model has students learning from home more than they are at school. Child care still will be needed as this phased return to school is implemented.

Arlington County’s Child Care Initiative (CCI) was created in 2017, bringing together those in the public and private sectors with a goal to improve the affordability, availability, and quality of child care, recognizing that child care “is a key component of a thriving, diverse community.”

A fall 2019 CCI report notes that changes have been made to zoning ordinances and that “red tape” has been reduced, to help meet the CCI’s goals.

Addressing the need for child care as a result of the pandemic should be a top priority. CCI, Arlington County government, and APS need to continue to cut through red tape, work together, and provide quality child care for Arlington’s low-income families.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Since APS announced its decision to begin this school year 100% remotely, many parents and perhaps students – maybe even a few teachers – have been anticipating a disastrous start, if not a disastrous year.

We’re closing out week two of the distance learning year. Despite some significant technological issues and individual challenges adjusting to the new format, it has not been the initial overarching catastrophe many predicted.

For our family, our first day’s glitches were all rather quickly resolved. Admittedly, our middle schooler is using a personal laptop rather than the school-issued iPad. (Yes, I read your message, Dr. Duran; and I understand that you are encouraging all students to use the APS-issued device. But this time, we’re going rogue. Even if our middle schooler had never experienced the consistent connectivity issues with the iPad over the past two years, we prefer an actual keyboard and a larger screen for working a full year online. But the fact that it’s time APS swapped out middle school iPads for laptops is another discussion.)

While APS’ technology staff continues to manage the logistics of distance learning, the rest of us need to monitor distance learning itself. To that end, APS should immediately establish (yet another) working group or committee to monitor and collect feedback, data, and other information about academic, social, psychological, and technological matters through the duration of this school year.

Teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, students, school psychologists and counselors, and activities directors should all be represented.  A simple and easy way for people to comment and share personal experiences as they occur during the year is essential. The information gathered would guide decisions and improvements as the year progresses, as well as fuel planning and applying  lessons learned for future instruction when teachers and students ultimately return to the classroom full time.

We should strive to learn about such things as:

  • Effectiveness of APS and PTA communications and ways to improve it;
  • Impacts of distance learning on social dynamics and sense of community within and among schools;
  • How to manage the technical aspects of distance learning and teaching;
  • New skills and additional tools for teachers to reach and inspire every single student;
  • Which students are most successful with which methods of learning (online v. in person v. combination), why, and how to provide top quality programs to best serve each beyond the pandemic; and
  • Developing consistency in policies, curriculum, and instruction across schools.

Two particularly valuable lessons may be in the areas of how to excite students about learning, whether in-person or virtual, and the role of technology in education.

To prepare for remote teaching, teachers have had to redesign their curriculum for a whole new format and will hopefully continually improve their skills and techniques over the course of the year.  As my husband attests, teaching a college-level course in a classroom is very different from teaching it online. That phenomenon applies even more so to preschool – 12 education.

It requires different ways of presenting material and new skills for “reading” students, to elicit their participation, to motivate and draw out the best from each one. Mental health professionals face challenges as they meet with patients online where engagement is often lower or in-person with masks which obscure the facial expressions vital to contextualizing and interpreting comments and reactions – things trained professionals rely on in order to help their patients. Teachers use facial cues, student participation, and class behavior in the same way.

This year will offer ongoing opportunities to consider how students learn, what makes a teacher effective, and new ideas for the context of the traditional classroom experience. A major factor in teaching this year – and another key matter for APS and a committee to consider – is the role of educational technology.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

While elementary and secondary school students across the country adjust to full-time distance learning, adults have been learning online for years.

Online courses offer adults the flexibility to continue their education while working and taking care of families. Some enroll in these courses to learn new job skills and expand their employment opportunities. Others are lifelong learners who enjoy studying the arts, literature, language, history and a myriad of other subjects offered online.

During the pandemic, these courses can be particularly helpful to adults. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. unemployment rate in July was 10.2 percent. Acquiring new skills will be critical in helping adults get back to work.

Another consequence of the pandemic is social isolation. While online courses do not provide the same connections as in-person learning, they do offer adults the opportunity to be creative and interact with those with similar interests. Many courses are synchronous, with students logging on at a specified time and participating in a live class.

Other courses are asynchronous, with students listening to pre-recorded lectures at their convenience. This includes Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), taken by millions of people across the world.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

News articles and social media chatter are inundated with information and discussion about back-to-school plans for this fall.

Arlington Public Schools has decided that all students will begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually. Teachers have spent much of their summer vacation working to convert their in-class instruction to virtual formats and are “heading back to the classroom” next week for training and final preparations to begin the year.

Most reports and discussions focus on such issues as the safety or logistics of returning to the classroom, the quality of virtual instruction, and screen time. One will also find frequent expressions of concern about the socioemotional well-being of students, yet one will struggle to find many specific ideas for addressing students’ social needs outside the virtual classroom or the role extracurricular clubs can play despite school buildings being closed.

Fortunately, sports leagues have made decisions regarding organized athletics and APS is currently considering guidelines for other extracurricular clubs and student activities. How — or if — a club will proceed likely depends upon the nature of the club as well as the determination of the club leaders to make it happen. Knowing that teachers — who comprise the majority of club sponsors — are rightfully focused on planning and training for the virtual classroom, parents and students could use this time to turn their attention toward ways to adapt clubs for a socially distanced school year. Students may have some of the best and most creative ideas as to how to transform their traditional group into an active, community-strengthening, pandemic-era extracurricular activity.

This new environment may provide an opportunity for community organizations or private business enterprises to become more involved in schools or for individual families to form groups among themselves for their own children. However, it is important to continue offering accessible, free, school-based extracurricular opportunities for students. Organized sports are a primary driver of school pride; but extracurricular clubs and activities expand the number of students engaged outside the classroom. They bring students together, build friendships, form memories, spark passions and careers, and help shape the school community’s character, spirit, and sense of school pride.

Given the likelihood that any club or activity will begin the year virtually like everything else, this is the perfect time to take inventory of existing clubs at each school, begin visioning how these groups will function this coming year, and consider potential new groups.

If there are clubs at one school that do not exist at another, consideration should be given to opening membership to students at other schools where a similar club may not be offered and how those students can continue to participate upon returning to an in-person school schedule. Merging clubs from different schools can foster a broader sense of community. Joining forces may increase participation or even strengthen the impact of some clubs such as those with a community service or environmental focus. At the same time, opening membership or joining forces can help chip away a bit of the opportunity disparities across the district.

It is often left to students to recruit members and solicit a sponsor to create a club. To ensure the clubs they are interested in will be offered this coming year students should:

  1. Consider ways to publicize the club and recruit members, appeal to administration and solicit potential teachers to sponsor them;
  2. Think creatively about ways to adapt club activities, meetings, and publicity efforts within a modified format to ensure members are engaged and the club remains active;
  3. Offer and solicit ideas for new clubs or activities.

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Ed Talk: Learning Pods

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As the school year begins online for students across the country, parents face the challenge of supporting the educational needs of their children while working at their own jobs.

This challenge is real for all working parents. But the opportunities that parents have to meet their children’s needs vary greatly depending on socio-economic status.

Some families with sufficient financial resources are turning to learning pods.  These are small groups of students who will gather in homes or rented spaces with an adult who is paid to supervise them while learning online. Some pods will be led by teachers.

An internet search of  “learning pods” reveals many companies that will create pods and provide adults to supervise and/or teach. The websites for these companies offer pods for pre-kindergarten through grade 12, with two students to nine students per pod. Schedules can be five days per week, half-day or full-day.

The cost?  One website provides a pod for students in grades K-4, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. with one educator at a cost of $4,583 per month per child for a three-student pod and $1,528 per month per child for a nine-student pod.

There certainly are benefits for those who can afford learning pods. For students, an adult can provide in-person assistance with their education in a small group setting. And interaction with peers promotes social-emotional learning. Parents benefit too, because they can work inside or outside the home while their children are engaged in distance learning.

But students from low-income families who cannot afford the pod fees are left out. They cannot benefit from a paid teacher in the home to enhance their distance learning and they miss out on in-person interaction with other students. Their parents may have to choose between giving up their jobs outside the home and going to work and leaving their children home alone.

Parents in Arlington, like those around the country, are forming learning pods. One website helps parents connect for free and a local company creates pods with an initial fee and monthly costs.

Long before COVID-19, significant disparities in academic outcomes existed between groups of students in Arlington. These disparities will grow with months of distance learning and the disparate opportunities that students have at home depending on their socio-economic status.

In his Back to School Update during the School Board’s July 30th meeting, Arlington Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Dr. Francisco Duran stated that APS is working with Arlington County Government and community partners to address the need for childcare for families while APS provides distance learning.

Arlington might look to the city of San Francisco, which has committed to opening 40 community learning hubs in September.  These will be located at recreation centers, libraries, and non-profit sites, providing full-day supervision for low-income students. Each hub will have access to technology for distance learning, enrichment activities, and meals.

In addition, APS should develop a plan for in-person instruction focused on students most in need. Such an approach is consistent with APS summer school, which is being offered online this summer for elementary students who need strengthening in math and literacy and secondary students who received low grades last school year.

Before APS opted for distance learning this fall for all students, the APS hybrid learning plan offered in-person learning two days a week. If social distancing is required when APS opens schools again, instead of limited, in-person instruction for all students, APS should offer in-person instruction for more hours for students most in need. This includes low-income students who have not had the benefit of small group instruction in learning pods.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance.

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