National school reopening summit emphasizes safety and collaboration

The U.S. Department of Education on March 24 hosted the National Safe School Reopening Summit, which presented three panels discussing different aspects of school reopening from both a scientific and boots-on-the-ground perspective from district representatives around the U.S., including San Diego County’s Cajon Valley Union School District.

In the spirit of the day’s goals of sharing and learning, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona emphasized the opportunities this moment in time provides. “This is really our opportunity to reimagine education and to hit the reset button on things we know are not working in education,” he said. “This is our moment. We will address disparities in education. We will address mental health needs of our students and we will do it together.”

The three panels presented information related to preparing schools for reopening, a review of the latest science by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and district plans for the future, including addressing the social-emotional and academic needs of students.

District leaders from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District joined Cardona and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to describe their preparations to reopen classrooms and emphasized the importance of collaboration and communication every step of the way. The district — which just opened for in-person instruction using a hybrid model this month — has been able to vaccinate about three-quarters of their staff through on-site vaccination centers. Its custodial staff upgraded HVAC systems, added air purifiers to every building, rearranged furniture to accommodate distancing measures, and created signage to indicate directional flow in hallways and remind students about safe distancing and hygiene practices.

In a panel led by Linda Darling-Hammond, president of both the California State Board of Education and Learning Policy Institute, districts in California and Oklahoma shared how they are addressing students’ social-emotional needs as well as planning for learning recovery programs. Cajon Valley Union SD Assistant Superintendent Karen Minshew spoke about how the district’s focus on relevant real-world curriculum through its World of Work program (featured in the fall 2019 issue of California Schools magazine), focuses on student strengths, not weaknesses. “We’re really looking at a growth model,” Minshew said. “We want to stay away from deficit language moving forward. All these negative words like ‘learning loss.’ This is opportunity. Our summer program opportunities are growth opportunities. We want to tell students what they are strong at, what they are good at, and watch them grow.”

Minshew also talked about really looking at the way professional development is currently done and invest some of the American Rescue Plan money to allow program specialists to embed in a school and craft individualized approaches to what they need.

Tulsa Public Schools shared the district’s summer plans to create connections throughout the city to design a different experience for students. The district is working with partners to offer programming for students from June through August. The district will offer monthlong summer camps at elementary schools and summer academies at middle and high schools in July. Wrapping around that are programs through YMCA, parks and recreation departments, faith-based organizations, libraries and other community organizations. “Through this we are creating a new vision of what school can be,” said Paula Shannon, deputy superintendent for Tulsa Public Schools. “More importantly, it’s a new vision for what the learning experience can be as we step back and see that learning happens as much outside the classroom as inside.”

The event ended with several announcements, including the launch of the Summer Learning & Enrichment Collaborative, a professional learning community that brings relevant stakeholders to the table to discuss how to build effective plans for high-quality, evidence-based summer learning and enrichment. The collaborative, in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, will launch in April 2021 and bring education leaders and experts together as they develop their plans for this summer, with a focus on students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. It will help build capacity for states and school districts, in partnership with other key stakeholders, to use American Rescue Plan funds to identify and implement evidence-based summer learning and enrichment strategies that meet the needs of all students.

Secretary Cardon also announced he will soon be beginning a listening tour to schools around the country. “We learn best by listening to others in similar situations and sharing best practices,” he said.

A recorded announcement from President Joe Biden at the end of the summit announced that $81 billion of the $129 billion allocated to schools in the American Rescue Plan Act was being sent to states today.