Marlon Styles Jr. is superintendent of the high-poverty Middletown City School District in southwestern Ohio. This week, he was one of several superintendents who gave a virtual presentation to the House Committee on Education and Labor during a briefing about remote learning in the time of the covid-19 pandemic. I am publishing his testimony for his portrayal of the challenges his students, teachers and administrators are facing in these times when school buildings are closed.

The Thursday briefing focused on how the school closures that resulted from the spread of the coronavirus have exacerbated long-standing disparities in school funding, curricular resources, school facilities and teacher quality.

Styles introduced himself to committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and other members and noted that he is one of nearly 4,000 superintendents who pledge to use technology to personalize education for all students through the Future Ready Schools initiative of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education. Then he said the following:

I have five key areas of focus in my comments for the committee today: Our obligation to educate, basic needs, closing the equity gap for marginalized populations, funding, and recommendations.
It’s an honor and privilege to serve my community and our students. It’s also a constitutional obligation for our states to provide students with a public education. In the midst of this crisis, we are called to redouble our efforts to fulfill that obligation.
This crisis has demonstrated the critical role of public schools in not only educating students, but also in meeting their basic needs.
Many parents and grandparents are expressing their number one priority is survival. In my district, remote learning is not the priority as many families are trying to figure out how to keep food on the table, pay bills, stay healthy, maintain or find employment all while taking on the stress of assuming the primary role as educator for their children.
Imagine being a grandparent responsible for raising multiple kids right now. You don’t have laptops in the home, and you have no clue how to teach proportions, order of operations, or help the 12th grade student in your home meet all the requirements for graduation. Would remote learning be at the top of the priority list? How can we help teach and support the parents/guardians so they are better prepared to teach our students while at home?
We are doing our best to serve as a life source and community hub for those in survival mode. Meeting the basic needs of our students comes first. We are distributing an average of 40,500 meals per week to students. Our Success Liaisons, staff, and volunteers were making home visits to drop off assignments, meal bags, and sometimes assist with laundering clothes. For safety reasons I had to mandate all home visits stop. We need continued federal support to ensure students and their families are safe, housed, and fed. This is a prerequisite for learning.
Now that schools are shut down and engaging in remote learning, the equity gap is taking center stage in this country. The nation’s students do not have a choice in their learning experience when it comes to remote learning. It is already predetermined if they are either “logged in” or “logged out.” Students either have a reliable device or they do not. Students either have reliable Internet access in the home or they do not. Students are either logged in or logged out.
Logged-in students are at home engaging in learning on a laptop. They have daily virtual access to their teachers for guidance, instruction, and support. Logged-in students are using a variety of educational digital platforms to support their learning. logged in students are able to virtually participate in meetings with their peers to participate in developmentally appropriate peer groups. Survey data from our community is very positive.
Logged-out students are at home without a device and/or without reliable Internet access. They pick up packets of worksheets to complete at home. Oftentimes, logged-out students do not have the school supplies at home to complete assignments or activities found in the packets. These students wait for letters in the mail or phone calls from their teachers each day.
The logged-out student is not receiving a high-quality education. The logged-out student is accustomed to the barriers to gaining an education, but the remote learning happening now creates even more barriers s/he must overcome. Survey data from our community indicates a high degree of frustration and concern for the lack of learning.
Brown, black, Appalachian, rural, urban, disabled, and low socio-economic students too often represent the students who are logged out. This is the Homework Gap. We must connect all kids now.
Prior to the school shutdown, we estimate at least 20 percent of our students (1,200) do not have Internet access at home. We anticipate an increase in the percentage as a result of the increase in unemployment during the pandemic. Our survey data shows 30 percent of our families have one or no device in the home, and some have multiple students in the home.
One parent shared [that] she is choosing to spend her last few dollars on food instead of paying her Internet bill. A parent of a visually impaired student shared she needs a braille reader at home for her daughter to be able to do school activities. One student wasn’t able to submit any assignments for two weeks until he received a school issued device and Grandma got Internet service in the home.
Simply put, our high-poverty students face the digital divide everyday of their lives, and remote learning has only shined a brighter light on the unjust inequities. It is clear the remote learning challenges in our district center on families living in high poverty not having access to a device and/or reliable Internet. I lose sleep at night knowing the logged-in students have access to high-quality remote learning opportunities while the logged-out students are at home wishing they could be in class with their teacher.
This equity gap is causing substantial learning loss. By one estimate, when it is safe for students to return to school, students may have maintained only 70 percent of their progress in reading from the 2019–2020 school year and less than half of their progress in math. Worse, these figures don’t account for the trauma students experience as a result of covid-19.
Marginalized students will have experienced a significant loss of instructional time due to the closure. Although our district celebrates improvement in student growth in both reading and math, we know our students will decline in key areas such as reading comprehension and basic mathematical competencies.
While we celebrate over 90 percent of our third-grade students reading on grade level, I am concerned next year the percentage will significantly decrease due to the large amount of lost instructional time.
The challenge of meeting students’ basic needs, combined with loss instructional time resulting from school closures, makes it critical for us to provide high-quality remote learning, including virtual instruction and extend learning time beyond the traditional calendar in order to mitigate learning loss.
Making matters even more challenging, we are now facing severe budget cuts. In early April 2020, the Middletown City School District Board of Education approved $2 million in cuts. Federal financial support is key to educating our students throughout this crisis. Funding provided by the Cares Act will be helpful, but is insufficient. In Ohio, our governor just announced a $300 million cut to K-12 education for the next two months, and we fear this is just the beginning.
Financial recovery from this crisis will take time, potentially requiring reductions that will negatively impact the educational experience of millions of students. The devastating financial impact will widen the existing equity and achievement gaps without action. State Fiscal Stabilization is vital. I echo the call from the education community for Congress to provide at least $175 billion for this purpose, in addition to specific appropriations to expand home internet access, support homeless students, and expanding the Pandemic EBT [food] program into the next school year. Respectfully, Cares Act funding will simply fill a short term financial hole.
Recommendations
We all must work together to prevent covid-19 from expanding equity gaps and achievement gaps. Education is primarily a state and local responsibility, but the federal government has historically played a critical role in promoting equity. We, at the local level, have the responsibility and privilege to educate the nation’s students. But we need federal support to do so. To that end, I would like to offer several recommendations.
Congress must prioritize state fiscal stabilization. Education comprises a major portion of state budgets, and state budgets are being decimated. I certainly appreciate the resources we have received from the Cares Act, and I also know that additional funding will be necessary.
To put the Cares Act in perspective: This important legislation provided more than $2 trillion, but only $31 billion for education. By comparison, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in response to the Great Recession provided $800 billion, including $100 billion for education. In other words, ARRA was half the size of the Cares Act but provided three times the level of support for education. The Cares Act was followed by additional legislation providing $500 billion for small businesses and hospitals -- but nothing for schools. We need to support our students. Therefore, I join organizations nationwide in asking Congress to provide at least $175 million in state fiscal stabilization funds.
And let me be clear – that is for state fiscal stabilization, so we do not lose ground. Additional resources will be necessary for us to extend learning time so we can mitigate learning loss and address equity gaps. Funding will be needed to provide an elevated level of support to marginalized students and educators in the summer and extend learning time when school reopens and likely for the next few years. These resources need to be provided with minimal state set-asides, and strong maintenance of effort requirements.
In addition, Congress needs to provide at least $4 billion through the E-rate program to increase home internet access. It is simply not equitable for some students to be logged in and others to be logged out. There are many problems that we can’t fix, but this is a problem we can solve. Every student across the country should have a reliable device and Internet service in their homes. We need to connect all kids right now.
Special populations of students need additional support. I urge you to provide $25 billion for students from low-income families through Title I, students with disabilities through IDEA [federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act], English learners through Title III, and other programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act. I also ask Congress to provide $500 million in targeted funding for homeless students through the McKinney Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act. It is worth noting that dedicated funding for homeless students was provided in response to the Great Recession of 2008 and in disaster-related spending bills (2005, 2008, and 2018), but was not provided as part of the Cares Act.
Finally, when schools reopen, our students are going to bring with them both enthusiasm, and challenges. For many students from underserved communities, they will be returning having experienced hunger, neglect, and possibly abuse. Schools will need resources to help measure the degree of learning loss that has taken place as well as resources to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students so we can support their success.
Our challenge?
How can we provide every student a reliable device?
How can we provide every student reliable Internet access in their home?
How can we create a structure to partner with unemployed parents to educate them on how to take the lead role in educating their children at home?
How can we help teach a 70-year-old grandparent, serving as a guardian, how to navigate technology platforms for learning?
How can we find a way to put the supports in place to support the social/emotional needs of students when they return to school?
How can we make equity a priority in education for this country?
How can elected officials, education leaders, and K-12 staff come together to tackle the digital divide head on for all kids?
Can we make it a priority to center our attention on the neediest kids in the country?
We have an opportunity to connect all kids, and provide high-quality learning and remote learning across the country. In my heart, I believe we can do it.
Chairman Scott and members of the Education and Labor Committee, I thank you for the opportunity to stand up for all students. I thank you for your time and more importantly your belief in the dreams of our youth.