A former journalist and member of President Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team, Kirp is completing a new book, “Greater Expectations,” on three “punching-beyond-their-weight” school districts. The followed edited excerpt from the book looks at how two of the three districts responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
They are the Union City School District in New Jersey — which was the subject of “Improbable Scholars” — and Union Public Schools in Oklahoma.
By David Kirp
Man plans, God laughs, as the adage goes. Covid-19 affected every aspect of education, even as it affected every aspect of our lives. In an attempt to halt the spread of the virus, principals, superintendents and then governors closed the schools. The wave of closures began in late February 2020, and by the first week of May all but two states had ordered that schools be shut for the rest of the school year.
The speed and magnitude of these changes were unprecedented — more than 50 million students and 3 million teachers found their lives turned upside down. Not only did school districts have to rethink the way they educated their students, they also needed to deliver essential services, like hot breakfasts and lunches, to children who otherwise would have gone hungry. [i]
The pandemic was a stress test. In particular, it presented Union and Union City with a massive challenge as well as a potential opportunity. Each had to address the same question — how would a district that had long relied on continuous, incremental improvement as its driver respond to a punctuated-equilibrium moment, one that demanded change-artist flexibility and speed in the face of constantly changing circumstances?
As was true everywhere, these school systems encountered hiccups along the way. Some students lost ground academically; some teachers had a hard time reimagining their role. But the solid foundation of these districts — the fact that they are truly school systems, not merely systems of schools — coupled with their laserlike focus on keeping all their students, especially those likeliest to be derailed by covid-19, on track to graduate has seen them through.
Union and Union City have national reputations as pioneers in technology, and that on-the-ground capacity enabled them to pivot quickly to distance learning.
“We pride ourselves on always being three steps ahead” — that’s how Superintendent Silvia Abbato summarized the ethos of Union City’s school system. This had been the case a decade earlier, when the senior author chronicled the district’s accomplishments in “Improbable Scholars”; and as we have seen in this updated account, it remains true today. Union City’s response to covid-19 shows that the superintendent isn’t a braggart — I know of no school system that has done a better job of responding to the pandemic.
The district’s commitment to making smart use of technology has a long history. In the mid-1990s, when few students had personal computers, it participated in an experiment to determine the effect of having a PC on students’ learning. The results, measured in terms of the students’ performance as well as their enthusiasm for school, were so impressive that President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore came to Union City to celebrate this accomplishment. A generation later, the district opened a state-of the-art tech high school academy to meet student demand.
A hint of the pandemic came early to Union City. In mid-January, the husband of a teacher in the district, a New York City first responder told his wife about several 911 calls. “They were gasping,” he told her. “This isn’t an ordinary flu.” Word spread quickly in the community, and school administrators took notice.
A month later, as New Jersey was being hammered by covid-19, district leaders began planning for the possible eventuality of school closing. This was a truly disruptive moment. “You have to adjust in a split second,” Abbato told us. In a blue-collar community, where many essential workers commuted to New York City, the number of covid-19-19 cases was rapidly rising. On March 13th, two weeks before New Jersey issued a statewide order, Union City closed its schools and decided to go entirely virtual.
Everyone in the system had a part to play during this transition. The superintendent and senior administrators met with all the principals and academic coaches, sharing a just-prepared guidebook that ran more than eighty pages and covered every facet of school life. Teachers received a prep course on the rudiments of virtual education. Assistant Superintendent John Bennetti gave the academic coaches a prep course on the rudiments of virtual education. (Serendipitously, February’s professional development session for elementary and middle schoolteachers had been devoted to learning how to post videos and other material on the Internet.)
“Curriculum has always been our strength,” Bennetti explained. “Now we had to create new materials almost literally overnight.” A cadre of coaches was enlisted to prepare a new curriculum, pared down to its essentials so that teachers and students wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
Far from being cut-and-paste jobs, these lessons, which ultimately numbered in the thousands, were interactive, designed to command the attention of students who were expected to be online four or five hours a day. “The teachers were being bombarded with outside material, which was a distraction. We got them to focus on what we had produced. ‘We have everything you need,’” Bennetti told them. At the same time, the tech staff had to make sure that the lessons, posted on a single platform, would work on all the devices that students were using.
Teachers, most of whom hadn’t taught a virtual class, needed help as well. Professional development sessions were held constantly — 15 or more a day, spread across the district, focusing on using Zoom, incorporating video, adapting their classroom style to fit a different mode of teaching. Teachers who were still at sea after those meetings got one-on-one help. “There was lots of hand-holding,” said Bennetti.
Until Union City closed its schools, the administrators had not realized how many families didn’t have computers, and the district acted quickly to chose this digital divide by distributing laptops or iPads. Most children had received government-subsidized meals, and to plug the gap the district delivered food, not just for the children but also for their families. Tuesday, the food day, became tech delivery day as well — by December 2020, the district had prepared more than 2 million meals.
Parents became the schools’ front-line educators while their children were at home. Virtual “back to school” nights proved a great success. “They don’t have to find parking,” Abbato pointed out, “and they don’t have to wait in the corridor to talk to the teacher.”
The district surveyed them to learn whether they preferred online education for their own children or wanted them to return to school as quickly as feasible; understandably, the increasing number of covid-19 cases made them reluctant to send their children back to school. As happened in many school districts, Union City lost track of some of its students. But poor families move a lot, and in many instances their shrinking finances led them to move in with relatives in the community. With help from the peripatetic mayor, Brian Stack, school officials were able to find many of these youngsters.
Union City hoped to bring students back to school, part-time in a hybrid plan, at the start of the fall term, and it re-engineered the schools to make them safe. But as the number of coronavirus cases began to rise, that plan was put on hold. By then, the quality of the course material had gotten better. Teachers were able to build their own lessons, and some became leaders, producing and sharing their work.
Meanwhile, like everywhere else, Union City needed to deal with the covid-19 slide in academic performance. Drilling down into the data, as the district habitually did, Bennetti and his colleagues compared students’ scores on the standardized reading and math diagnostic tests administered in the spring with the previous year’s results.
The good news was that children in kindergarten to Grade 3 were performing at the same level as before. But for students in grades four through nine were three to five months behind. To make up for this lost ground, the data analysts were able to identify the specific topics that many students hadn’t mastered. The teachers received a “covid-19 slide curriculum” that provided them with the tools they needed to help students catch up with their classmates.
Still, there was one important problem that no online regime could entirely solve — personalization, which Union City, like the other two spotlighted districts, had made a point of emphasizing before the pandemic. “Many teachers were seeing, hearing and feeling the effects of the pandemic on their students and their families. It’s hard for them,” said Abbato. “Many of them had used their classrooms to provide a sense of normalcy in their often-chaotic lives, and during covid-19 it was much harder for a teacher to provide those supports.”
Looking back, the superintendent took a “glass-is-half-full” attitude. “Covid-19 has been an opportunity to provide support with personalization that we didn’t have before — daily check-ins with students and more communication with families. Administrators who normally would be handling in-school discipline were now charged with contacting students who missed assignments or didn’t attend virtual school, as well as responding to families’ concerns with their children’s education.”
“In some ways, covid-19 has made us better,” Abbato mused. “The challenge — as always — has been the constant effort to keep kids engaged. That’s not just a matter of technology. Working together we got it done.”
Union, Oklahoma, was one of the nation’s earliest adopters of virtual learning. A high school academy that combined virtual and classroom instruction, begun in 2012, had attracted several hundred high school students. Two years later, Union was among the 100 school districts hailed by President Barack Obama, at a White House ceremony, as a “connected and future-ready” model of innovation.
In fall 2019, Union expanded its virtual program, with a fully online program for middle as well as high school students. However, only 40 students signed up, and it seems that almost every student wanted to spend some time in the classroom.
As the district pondered its next steps in online learning, covid-19 loomed large. “We wanted to get ahead of the game,” Superintendent Kirt Hartzler asserted, echoing his Union City counterpart, and by mid-February 2020, a plan was in the works. A month later, Oklahoma closed all its public schools and Union shifted to all-virtual learning. In a single week, the district, like Union City, turned a fledgling venture that had enrolled only a handful of students into a virtual education program its 16,000 students.
Challenges loomed everywhere: making sure that students had the equipment and access they needed for online learning, revising the curriculum and supporting the teachers, few of whom had previously taught this way. To get laptops and I-pads in the hands of every student, the district scavenged for technology. “Cleaning out the kitchen” was the motto, as every device that wasn’t nailed down was distributed in drive-by events. “If you need a device, come get ‘em” was the message. Getting all the students and staff online was easier because the district had already partnered with T-Mobile to purchase mobile hotspots.
Across the country, districts struggled to deliver something that resembled real school, and Union was no exception.
“It was survival time,” recalled the superintendent. “The semester was all about grace and empathy for everyone. Many teachers were unprepared to handle distance learning. Homebound, they had to learn on the fly how to do Zoom teaching. “We weren’t close to where we should have been academically.” When 5 percent of the students vanished from the rolls — an all-too-common experience — district officials did everything they could to track them down, with mixed success. The nutrition program delivered more than a million breakfasts and lunches during that spring and the following fall.
The graduation rate had steadily risen, year after year, inching up to the 100 percent goal. “We knew we had to double down in the fall — to reconnect with the kids, if we were going to achieve our 100 percent goal,” Hartzler told me.
For the first three months of the fall semester, students had the option of attending school full-time, splitting their classes between on-campus and virtual or studying entirely online. The schools were reconfigured to make them safer, increasing outside airflow, spraying the classrooms daily with an ionizing system and installing Plexiglas in the cafeterias. English language learners, who would have struggled online, were among those who came to school.
Thirty percent of the students chose the all-virtual model, which incorporated both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Those who opted to stay on the campuses came to appreciate an experience they had taken for granted. Discipline became a nonissue. But the students’ academic performance suffered nonetheless. The percentage of high school students who failed at least one class went from 21 percent to 37 percent, and among those who studied at home, more than half failed a course. “We already have these students on our radar,” said the superintendent, “and are developing academic recovery measures to get them back on track to graduate.
Union was eager to bring the stay-at-home students back to school, but covid-19 rates soared after Thanksgiving. In less than a week, the number of teachers who were quarantined rose from 93 to 149, and Union became a fully virtual school system once again. This time it was better prepared. The teachers had received a crash course in Zoom instruction during the summer. During the fall, it trained all of its teachers in how to make the best use of distance learning, with every professional development session devoted to that topic.
Students who came to school had to wear masks. That was a controversial school district decision in a solidly red state. In June 2020, President Donald Trump had held an hours-long presidential rally in Tulsa, a half-hour drive away, haranguing a jam-packed, almost entirely unmasked, audience.
Even when covid-19 rates rose precipitously in the fall, Governor Kevin Stitt refused to require facial covering in public, despite having contracted coronavirus himself. Neighboring cities’ differing decisions on masking echoed this dispute. The city of Tulsa had a mask mandate, but the city council in neighboring Broken Arrow, a highly conservative community, had voted 4-1 against masks.
This political wrestling match drew the habitually apolitical superintendent into the fray. “It’s time to do the right thing. Mask up, Oklahoma,” Hartzler implored, in an opinion piece that ran in the Tulsa World. “We need a statewide mask mandate to save lives.” Regardless of other districts’ determinations, Hartzler knew the correct course, and as had been the case every time that the district asked the community for support, it prevailed.
The success of this mixed-delivery plan prompted district leaders to consider how best to engage all their students when covid-19 was no longer a major concern. “We realized that some students had been forced to be in school, which wasn’t right environment for all of them,” the superintendent pointed out. “We cannot go back to what we were doing,” Hartzler told us. “The teachers are more receptive to teaching online, and so are the students.” He has been hammering home his trademark message. “We have to stay relevant — to listen to what students are saying, rather than assuming we know everything. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
[i] “The Corona Spring,” Education Week, July 1 2020 https://www.edweek.org/leadership/the-coronavirus-spring-the-historic-closing-of-u-s-schools-a-timeline/2020/07