I have written several articles on Education. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on education.
The coronavirus created mass disruption of schooling in the spring semester of the 2019-20 school year. Acting to try to stop the virus’ spread, principals, superintendents, and then governors closed schools across the nation in a wave that began in late February. Eventually, 48 states, four U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of their academic year, affecting at least 50.8 million public school students.
The magnitude and speed of the closures was unprecedented.
Here is how it happened:
Jan. 29: First U.S. cases emerge
There had only been five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. when Education Week first reported on a handful of schools that were beginning to take precautions to limit their exposure to the virus.
Feb. 11: Teachers’ unions take notice
Alarmed by the growing coronavirus threat, the American Federation of Teachers called for more federal guidance for schools on how to handle the coronavirus.
Mid-February: Temporary school closures
Individual schools and districts begin temporary closings of a few days to allow for cleaning of their school buildings. Closings were concentrated in Washington state and New York.
Feb. 25: A CDC warning for schools
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns schools that they need to prepare for the coronavirus. “You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures,” said Nancy Messonnier, a director at the CDC. “Ask about plans for teleschool.”
Feb. 27: Coronavirus scare prompts a school to shut down
The first school shuts down because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Bothell High School in Washington state closes for two days for disinfection after an employee’s relative gets sick and is tested for the coronavirus.
March 3: Schools balance closure with disruption
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director at the CDC, tells lawmakers at a Senate committee hearing that while federal agencies provide “guidance” on this issue, ultimately the decisions about things like school closures are made at the local level. “You have this balance between, the earlier you act the more impact it can have in slowing the spread, and the enormous disruption we see with school closures,” she says.
March 5: Shift to distance learning begins
The shift to remote learning begins with the 24,000-student Northshore district in Washington state announcing that it will close and shift to online learning for up to 14 days. It’s the first real test of prolonged distance learning to rise out of the arrival of COVID-19 in American communities. Many districts won’t be ready.
March 11: Pandemic declared
The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
March 11: School district closures compound
By this time, more than 1 million students have been impacted by school closures, a number that would continue to grow. Here’s a look at students impacted:
March 12: The first state closes schools
Ohio becomes the first state to announce a statewide closing. “We have a responsibility to save lives,” Gov. Mike DeWine says on Twitter. “We could have waited to close schools, but based on advice from health experts, this is the time to do it.” It only takes one day for 15 other states to follow.
Mid-March: Schools keep essential services going
Schools scramble to provide essential services amid closures. “Many families rely on the breakfast and lunch that’s provided at school,” says Christy Fiala, the executive director of the Fremont Area United Way in Fremont, Neb. “Making sure that when schools close unexpectedly that [families have] access to food is important.”
March 16: 27 states and territories close their schools
At this point, 27 states and territories have issued orders or recommendations that all public schools cease in-person instruction and close school buildings. Here’s what those school closures looked like over time:
March 16: Most students impacted
By this time, more than half of all students in the U.S. have been impacted by school closures.
March 17: Kansas: students aren’t coming back this year
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announces that schools will not reopen during the 2019-20 school year. “The steps we’re announcing today will create the space we need at the state level … so that we can get ahead of this threat and limit its long-term impact,” Kelly says. Kansas is the first state to close for the rest of the academic year. Many other states soon follow suit.
March 20: Schools begin to feel the loss
“She was really a bright star. She had this passion.” —Ernest Logan, the president of the American Federation of School Administrators, describing Dez-Ann Romain, a Brooklyn principal who died at the age of 36 from COVID-19.
March 25: All U.S. public school buildings are closed
Idaho and The Department of Defense Education Activity are the last to close all their schools.
April 8: Teacher morale plummets
56 percent of teachers in a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center say that their morale level is lower than prior to the coronavirus pandemic. By April 8, that number will reach 66 percent.
April 17: More states close schools for the academic year
More than half of all U.S. public school students now are shut out of their buildings by the COVID-19 pandemic for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.
May 6: Nearly all states close schools for the academic year
Maryland becomes the last state to announce that none of its schools would reopen for the 2019-20 school year. Only two states (Wyoming and Montana) did not close their schools for the remainder of the year.
May 7: Teachers face a dilemma over health
“Most teachers care about the kids and their learning—this is a huge priority for us, but we’re also individuals and have our own health concerns. We didn’t sign up to be nurses on the front lines.” —Dawn, a math teacher with asthma, on the dilemma facing teachers who are at higher risk of COVID-19.
May 7: Remote learning becomes commonplace
By early May, 80 percent of teachers report interacting with the majority of their students daily or weekly.
May 7: Remote teaching is exhausting
“I probably send 500 emails a week right now, and I have a headache every day by 4 p.m. from staring into my computer screen. But I am doing my best—we all are—and that is all anyone can ask.” —Katie Kenahan, a math department coordinator and 8th grade teacher in East Providence, R.I., describing her remote-teaching experience.
May 9: Schools brace for the coronavirus funding collapse
“State funding for education is a way to equalize spending across districts, but the problem is that when there are these global economic shocks, states’ budgets are going to get crushed.” —William Evans, an economist at Notre Dame University on the impact economic downturns can have on public schools.
May 19: Students miss school. Yes, really
“I really miss being in school. Which is weird to hear a kid say, who’s in school.” —Kaylie Tonzola, a 7th grader in Summerville, S.C., who participated in a project to document her feelings about coronavirus-related school closures.
“Children are not just grieving death, but the loss of stability, safety, and graduation … children grieve those other losses as well.” —David Schonfeld, a leading national expert on school crisis management, on understanding and responding to student grief.
“She’s like, it’s silly but I miss the school mashed potatoes.”—Ampy Moreno, a mother from Union, N.J., describing her daughter’s experience adapting to remote learning.
May 19: Hundreds of educators die from COVID-19
“I sent a text that said, ‘I’m praying for you. Is there anything I can do for you?’ And then I never heard back.” —Marcie Kostrunek, colleague of bilingual paraprofessional Pedro Garcia III, who died May 2 of complications from COVID-19.
With schools shuttered, learning lags and students left behind
A Reuters survey of nearly 60 school districts across the country provides hard evidence confirming parents’ fears: Distance learning is no substitute for in-class teaching, with students missing classes, meals and hands-on instruction.
More than two months after schools across the United States began closing in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the shutdown is taking a profound toll on the nation’s system of education, Reuters found by surveying nearly 60 school districts serving some 2.8 million students.
Almost overnight, public education in the United States has shrunk to a shell of its former self, the review found, with teacher instruction, grading, attendance, special education and meal services for hungry children slashed back or gutted altogether.
The survey encompassed school districts from large urban communities, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District, to the smallest rural settings, including San Jon Municipal Schools in eastern New Mexico and Park County School District 6 in Cody, Wyoming. The survey reflects what is happening only in those districts that responded.
• A large majority of responding districts, 47 of 57, reported they are providing elementary and middle school students with half or less the usual face time with teachers. Eight of those districts said students receive little to no direct instruction. In Philadelphia, tens of thousands of elementary and middle school pupils receive little to no live instruction—and high schoolers receive none at all.
• Fewer than half of districts even take attendance, and many of those that do say fewer kids are showing up for class. Riverbank Unified School District in Stanislaus County, California, no longer takes attendance. But educators there learned through Google Classroom and phone calls that only about half of their 3,000 students are participating in virtual school and completing assignments.
• Public schools play a crucial role in feeding America’s poor children—but the lockdown is gutting that role. About three-quarters of districts reported they served a cumulative 4.5 million fewer meals a week. In Washoe County, Nevada, the school district provided 251,000 meals a week before the shutdown. Since then: Just over 39,000 a week.
• About a third of districts aren’t providing federally required services to their special needs students, such as physical and occupational therapy, like they did before schools were closed. “One of the many things keeping me up at night is, how are we providing education to those who most need it?” asked Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 outside Chicago.
In the School District of Philadelphia, superintendent William Hite already sees young children falling behind, including those missing critical face-to-face teacher time through the district’s early literacy program. For older students, he worries that the loss of the school structure’s safety net could lead to delinquency and crime.
“This is in no way a sufficient replacement of teacher instruction of students in classrooms,” Hite said. “I think the impact has already been felt here.”
Several education researchers who reviewed the survey results said that, if anything, the responses likely represent a rosy picture of what is actually happening in the nation’s schools.
Betheny Gross, associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, believes the results reflected more “optimism” than may be warranted. “This is reflective of what superintendents think is happening,” Gross said, while the reality may actually be worse.
Gross cited the high percentage, 84%, of districts reporting that at least some students are still receiving at least some live instruction. She said her own review of material posted online detailing what administrators across the country expected instruction to look like during the closure revealed that only a “small share” of districts were setting a standard that included live instruction.
While few children have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and serious complications for them have been rare, public officials shut down schools to prevent the disease from spreading. Nineteen children under the age of 14 died from COVID-19 from February 1 through May 23, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a figure hovering just above 0% of all U.S. virus deaths.
Data on how school closures affect the disease’s spread in the community is limited because the pandemic is still under way. But researchers at University College London found evidence from past epidemics, previous research and modeling of coronavirus transmission in other countries that closing schools has only a slight impact on preventing contagion.
To be sure, public schools, like businesses and governments, were forced into a sudden new world with the pandemic’s spread.
Teachers, parents, researchers and district administrators told Reuters that while distance learning can improve, for the vast majority of students it will fall far short of in-person instruction. If students are not in front of teachers next school year, the public should expect only a fraction of the live instruction, special needs services going unfulfilled and far fewer meals served.
“I just don’t know how we call off school next year,” said Gregory Cizek, who studies education at the University of North Carolina.
For students, parents and educators, the Reuters survey shows, the loss of live instruction has been significant.
“One of the many things keeping me up at night is, how are we providing education to those who most need it?”Michael Lubelfeld, North Shore School District 112 superintendent
Limited home resources
Eliza McCord, 16, wasn’t able to participate in her math class for the first six weeks after her Fort Wayne, Indiana, high school went virtual, because her sister had a college class at the same time. Inside their home, there weren’t enough devices to go around.
Even now, her family writes a class schedule on a white board. Also in the rotation for devices and WiFi: Her mother, an elementary school special education teacher; her father, a librarian; and her younger brother, in sixth grade.
Many of Eliza’s classmates have told her they don’t have regular access to a computer to download files, or reliable access to the Internet to join Zoom calls. That said, Eliza thinks some students are not participating because their grades for the final quarter of the year don’t count.
“There are students who just have essentially given up on the rest of the school year,” she said.
Charles Cammack, chief operations officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the majority of students remained engaged after schools were closed. Still, he acknowledged that after the system announced grades would not count for the fourth marking period, some students checked out.
“It would be naïve to say we didn’t know there was a risk some kids would take that position, but given the circumstances I don’t know how we could avoid that happening,” he said.
Special education services such as occupational and physical therapy are challenging to provide remotely, and some services can only be provided face-to-face, survey respondents said.
Schools also rely heavily on parental support. “For any therapy, the parents will need to follow the instructions of the teacher to complete the exercises with the students,” said Dr. Jason Lind, superintendent at Millburn School District 24 in Illinois. “This works well if parents have time to spend helping their children. If parents are also working full-time, this does not work.”
When Fort Wayne’s public school district shut down, Eliza’s mother, special-ed teacher Dawn Cortner-McCord, called the parents of her students. She gave them her personal cell number, and talks with about a third of her students daily, dropping off books and other learning materials at their homes.
But talking on the cell phone is no match for in-class teaching, Dawn said. She cited the example of twin third-grade girls who do math at a first-grade level and had been making progress with hands-on learning. Now she worries they, and other students, are falling back.
“We are just trying to maintain the skills that they have,” she said. “A lot of my students still need that sensory input.”
In Broward County Public Schools in Florida, where Jennifer Panditaratne’s daughter has not seen a reading specialist since schools closed, the district found not all teacher engagement is equal. Panditaratne said her third-grade daughter has a daily 15 minute group Zoom call with her class teacher, going over assignments for the day. Her daughter in fifth grade is getting more live video instruction, but it varies by teacher.
In March, the teacher’s union and district agreed teachers would provide at least three hours a day of deep engagement with students. Many teachers conducted live video instruction, while others used email, phone calls or discussion boards, said Daniel Gohl, the district’s chief academic officer. That left a sense of inequity. So starting this summer, all teachers will provide at least three hours of live-video instruction daily.
“We now know students and teachers need to see and talk to each other,” Gohl said. “We acknowledge we did not get everything right and we are committed to improving.”
By law, U.S. public school districts are required to provide free or reduced-cost meals to children in need. With schools shut, getting those vital meals to the qualifying students has been hindered, in several instances, by significant hurdles.
Despite school districts’ efforts, Reuters found children are missing school meals they should have received. Thirty-four districts, or about three-quarters of those that responded, said they were providing fewer meals a week than before the closure, the Reuters survey found.
Miami-Dade County Public schools provided 1.33 million free breakfasts, lunches and after-school meals a week to its students prior to the March 16 closure. As of May 1, the district said it was serving less than one-third of that number, about 420,000 meals a week.
One reason, according to four parents in the county, was that the district made meals available, but limited pickup to twice a week, leading to long lines. Another roadblock: Lack of transportation to reach the pickup locations. Three of the parents said they were forced to find other sources of food, such as a food bank or a state-funded lunch program.
Victoria Lynn Dennis, a 29-year-old customer service agent in Miami, said she hasn’t been able to access school meals for her 5-year-old pre-kindergartner and 6-year-old kindergartner because she doesn’t have a car. A week after the schools closed, someone from a nonprofit program that partners with the district came to her door with macaroni and cheese. There have been no visits since.
“Telling my kids they can’t eat as much, because we have to save it, it kills me,” she said.
Penny Parham, the food and nutrition officer for Miami-Dade schools, said her heart goes out to the students they aren’t serving. But while they are serving many students, the system can feed more young people in school cafeterias than in the district’s 50 remote distribution sites. As unemployment rises in Florida, she’s seen the lines at these sites grow longer.
“How long can it keep up and are you missing the most critical person?” she asked.
Budget deficits, questions loom
As they look ahead, nearly 70% of districts told Reuters they face a budget deficit. The total shortfall of these districts alone exceeds $450 million.
Philadelphia already faces a $38 million deficit, even after receiving federal assistance. With local revenue plummeting, that number could expand in the weeks to come.
Many school districts are now confronting a question most on the minds of parents: Will they reopen schools in the fall, or continue the distance learning?
Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA The School Superintendents Association, a group representing school district chiefs, meets every week with a task force on reopening consisting of 30 superintendents from across the country.
Three options are being considered for the fall, he said: fully reopening schools as they were prior to the pandemic; a hybrid model in which some students attend school in-person and some continue with remote learning; and continuing with complete remote learning.
The hybrid option, Domenech said, appears to have the most support. But staying entirely remote, he added, is “beginning to get some traction because the cost of opening schools and following the guidance the CDC has offered is going to be cost prohibitive.” The added costs include more buses to maintain social distancing, protective equipment for students and staff and the daily cleaning of each school.
As districts weigh that question, some parents and teachers worry what comes next.
Portia Hudson, a math teacher at Edwin Fitler Academics Plus School in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, recalls teaching virtually this spring and watching one student, already battling anxiety problems, fall five weeks behind. During another session, a second student played on a swing during class time.
“If we have virtual learning in September, that’s when I’m really going to be concerned, because virtual learning will look like it does now,” Hudson said. “Kids not logging on. Kids on swings.”
When Covid-19 closed schools, Black, Hispanic and poor kids took biggest hit in math, reading
An analysis of 4.4 million student test scores showed most children fell short in math — and the most vulnerable students likely fell further behind.
When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of most U.S. schools in the spring, students were thrown into new and unfamiliar ways of learning. Special education students and children learning English lost support that their schools struggled to provide online. Many students had no access to computers or the internet and were completely cut off from their teachers.
The true toll these disruptions have taken on student learning won’t be known for months or years, but new reports from national education-testing organizations have begun to offer an early look at that impact.
The latest is a report from NWEA, formerly the Northwest Evaluation Association, which analyzed the results of tests given to nearly 4.4 million U.S. students in grades three through eight this fall and found that most fell short in math, scoring an average of 5 to 10 percentile points behind students who took the same test last year.
While a majority of students did better than expected in reading — scoring at levels similar to typical nonpandemic years — this wasn’t true for Black and Hispanic students and those who attend high-poverty schools. Those groups of students saw slight declines, suggesting the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing educational disparities, possibly setting children who were already behind their white and more affluent peers even further behind.
“It’s a reason for concern and it’s a reason to really focus our attention on helping catch kids up,” said Megan Kuhfeld, an NWEA senior research scientist and the lead author of the study.
Kuhfeld and her colleagues analyzed scores from NWEA’s MAP Growth assessments, which thousands of U.S. schools give to students multiple times a year to track their progress in math and reading. They found evidence that pandemic-related school closings have robbed some vulnerable students of important skills that could hamper their progress unless their parents and teachers act quickly to help them catch up.
“They could fall further and further behind if they have holes in their learning,” Kuhfeld said, noting that, for example, it’s hard to learn to multiply fractions if you haven’t mastered adding and subtracting them.
But more worrisome than the findings themselves is the fact that they only capture part of the picture. The study was limited by the fact that a high number of students — 1 in 4 — who typically take the NWEA’s widely used MAP assessment in the fall didn’t take it this year.
Students might not have been tested because they couldn’t connect with their online classes on test day. They might have been absent from school because of illness or quarantines. They might attend schools that decided not to test at all this year, given the many new challenges schools face because of the pandemic. Or the students missing from NWEA’s data might not be in school at all.
Many districts across the country have reported significant drops in enrollment this fall, with one study estimating that 3 million of the nation’s most vulnerable children — those who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are learning English — could be displaced from school.
That means that while NWEA researchers found some good news — student scores in both reading and math came in higher than NWEA predicted in an earlier report — it’s hard to know how significant that is.
It’s possible students are learning remotely better than had been feared, or that parents have been able to supplement their learning with extra lessons, Kuhfeld said. But another big factor is the students who didn’t take the test — and who would have been more likely to post lower scores.
“The students we’re most worried about are likely the ones who are missing,” Kuhfeld said.
NWEA’s findings echo the results of another national testing organization, Renaissance Learning, Inc., which reviewed scores from more than 3 million U.S. students in grades one through eight on another widely used school assessment called Star and found that reading scores were down slightly and math scores were down significantly compared to a typical year. Renaissance, which also noted a drop in the number of students who took its assessments this fall, similarly found that Black, Hispanic and Native American students, as well as rural students and those who attend schools that serve high-poverty populations, lost more ground than students with more advantages.
For many parents and teachers, this year’s scores were tough to see.
“It made me feel like I was failing as a parent,” said Angélica González, a mother of three from Seattle whose middle child, Lolly, a third grader, had always excelled in school until her classes went virtual last spring.
Lolly, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, found sitting in front of a computer screen to attend classes so stressful, González said, that she was crying on a daily basis. González eventually gave Lolly permission to skip those remote classes, opting to teach her daughter herself instead. That was the best decision she could make for her daughter’s mental health, González said, but when the girl returned to school this fall, taking advantage of a program that let some students come into the school building for their online classes and to get help from school staff, Lolly’s MAP scores showed her reading skills had dropped back to where they’d been at the beginning of second grade last year. Her math scores, slightly below the national average, hadn’t budged since last winter.
González worries about the long-term consequences of the disruption, especially as the Roman Catholic school Lolly attends on a scholarship recently responded to rising Covid-19 rates by ending the option to take classes from inside the school. Lolly was better able to focus on her online classes in a classroom with school staff on hand to help. Now, she’s back home again and is struggling as much with remote learning as she did in the spring, González said.
“I know children can catch up, but it’s going to take tutoring and resources and money, and we don’t even do that for kids who are struggling right now,” González said.
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She herself had been homeless in her childhood and bounced around from school to school. She was eventually able to finish high school despite becoming a teen mom and went on to college. She recently graduated from law school and is working as a paralegal until she becomes a licensed attorney. But the gaps in her education have dogged her, she said.
“Even to this day, things are way more difficult because I didn’t have that foundation,” González said.
She recalled teachers treating her differently because she was behind her grade level and worries that could happen to Lolly.
In Dallas, teacher Kevin Culley has similar concerns for his students at Joseph J. Rhoads elementary school.
He expected to see some lower-than-usual scores when his third grade math students took the MAP assessment this year, but he didn’t expect to see that so many of them were half a grade level behind.
“Those scores were a little scary,” he said.
He’s implemented interventions, revamping his lessons to include fun, dynamic demonstrations and competitive math games that teach third-grade concepts, along with a second-grade review, to both his in-classroom students and those who watch him on a livestream from their homes. But he worries about what could happen to his students if they don’t catch up before they take Texas’ high-stakes state STAAR exam in the spring. The exam can affect whether poor-performing students advance to the next grade, and scores are used to evaluate teachers and grade schools.
“The test is something that looms over their heads, and I really am concerned about how this is going to affect their confidence,” Culley said. “Once you have broken a child’s confidence, it’s difficult to get them to continue to push forward.”
Beyond reopening schools: How education can emerge stronger than before COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in at least one positive thing: a much greater appreciation for the importance of public schools. As parents struggle to work with their children at home due to school closures, public recognition of the essential caretaking role schools play in society has skyrocketed. As young people struggle to learn from home, parents’ gratitude for teachers, their skills, and their invaluable role in student well-being, has risen. As communities struggle to take care of their vulnerable children and youth, decisionmakers are having to devise new mechanisms for delivering essential services from food to education to health care.
We believe it is also valuable to look beyond these immediate concerns to what may be possible for education on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to imagine there will be another moment in history when the central role of education in the economic, social, and political prosperity and stability of nations is so obvious and well understood by the general population. Now is the time to chart a vision for how education can emerge stronger from this global crisis than ever before and propose a path for capitalizing on education’s newfound support in virtually every community across the globe.
It is in this spirit that we have developed this report. We intend to start a dialogue about what could be achieved in the medium to long term if leaders around the world took seriously the public’s demand for safe, quality schools for their children. Ultimately, we argue that strong and inclusive public education systems are essential to the short- and long-term recovery of society and that there is an opportunity to leapfrog toward powered-up schools.
A powered-up school could be one that puts a strong public school at the center of a community and leverages the most effective partnerships, including those that have emerged during COVID-19, to help learners grow and develop a broad range of competencies and skills in and out of school. For example, such a school would crowd in supports, including technology, that would allow for allies in the community from parents to employers to reinforce, complement, and bring to life learning experiences in and outside the classroom. It would recognize and adapt to the learning that takes place beyond its walls, regularly assessing students’ skills and tailoring learning opportunities to meet students at their skill level. These new allies in children’s learning would complement and support teachers and could support children’s healthy mental and physical development. It quite literally is the school at the center of the community that powers student learning and development using every path possible (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Powered-up schools
Adapted from Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
While this vision is aspirational, it is by no means impractical. Schools at the center of a community ecosystem of learning and support is an idea whose time has come, and some of the emerging practices amid COVID-19, such as empowering parents to support their children’s education, should be sustained when the pandemic subsides. In this report we draw upon: 1) the latest evidence emerging on both the dire effects of the pandemic on children’s schooling and on the new strategies that hold promise for strengthening children’s education post-pandemic; 2) a series of dialogues between March to August 2020 with former heads of state and education leaders from around the globe on the big questions facing education in the pandemic response and recovery; and 3) our ongoing research on harnessing innovation to leapfrog education toward a more equitable and relevant learning ecosystem for all young people.
This central question has guided our inquiry: “Is it possible to realistically envision education emerging from the novel coronavirus pandemic stronger than it was before?” To spark the discussion around this question, we describe four key emerging trends resulting from the impact of COVID-19 on education globally and propose five actions to guide the transformation of education systems after the pandemic.
FOUR EMERGING GLOBAL TRENDS IN EDUCATION FROM COVID-19
1. Accelerating education inequality: Education inequality is accelerating in an unprecedented fashion, especially where before the pandemic it was already high
Even before COVID-19 left as many as 1.5 billion students out of school in early 2019, there was a global consensus that education systems in too many countries were not delivering the quality education needed to ensure that all have the skills necessary to thrive. It is the poorest children across the globe that carry the heaviest burden, with pre-pandemic analysis estimating that 90 percent of children in low-income countries, 50 percent of children in middle-income countries, and 30 percent of children in high-income countries fail to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive in work and life. It is children in the poorest countries who have been left the furthest behind. As economist Lant Pritchett explained in his 2013 book “The rebirth of education,” although countries in the developing world had largely succeeded in getting almost all primary-aged children into schools, too many students were not learning even the basic literacy and numeracy skills necessary to continue learning. The World Bank’s “2018 World Development Report” called it a “learning crisis,” and the global community mobilized to seek more funding to support education systems across the world. The Education Commission’s 2016 report, “The learning generation: Investing in education for a changing world,” emphasized that technology was changing the nature of work, and that growing skills gaps would stunt economic growth in low- and middle-income countries; it called for increasing investment in education in these countries.
Yet, for a few young people in wealthy communities around the globe, schooling has never been better than during the pandemic. They are taught in their homes with a handful of their favorite friends by a teacher hired by their parents. Some parents have connected via social media platforms to form learning pods that instruct only a few students at a time with agreed-upon teaching schedules and activities. These parents argue that the pods encourage social interaction, improve learning, and reduce the burden of child care during the pandemic. However, they often exclude lower income families, as they can cost up to $100 per hour.
There is nothing new about families doing all they can for their children’s education; one only has to look at the explosion of the $100 billion global tutoring market over the last decade. While the learning experiences for these particular children may be good in and of themselves, they represent a worrisome trend for the world: the massive acceleration of education inequality.
While by mid-April of 2020, less than 25 percent of low-income countries were providing any type of remote learning and a majority that did used TV and radio, close to 90 percent of high-income countries were providing remote learning opportunities. On top of cross-country differences in access to remote learning opportunities, within-country differences are also staggering. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the COVID-19 school closures, 1 in 10 of the poorest children in the world’s largest economy had little or no access to technology for learning. And UNICEF estimates that 463 million children—at least one-third of the world total, the majority of whom are in the developing world—had no chance at remote learning via radio, television, or online content. However, this does not take into account the creative use of text messages, phone calls, and offline e-learning that many teachers and education leaders are putting to use in rural and under-resourced communities. Indeed, these innovative practices suggest that the school closures from COVID-19 are setting the stage for leapfrogging in education, as we discuss next.
2. A leapfrog moment: Innovation has suddenly moved from the margins to the center of many education systems, and there is an opportunity to identify new strategies, that if sustained, can help young people get an education that prepares them for our changing times.
This unprecedented acceleration of education inequality requires new responses. In our ongoing work on education innovation, we have argued that there are examples of new strategies or approaches that could, if scaled up, have the potential to rapidly accelerate, or leapfrog, progress. Two years ago, in “Leapfrogging inequality: Remaking education to help young people thrive,” we set forth a leapfrog pathway laying out a map to harness education innovations to much more quickly close the gap in education inequality. We argued that at two decades into the 21st century, the goal should be for all children to become lifelong learners and develop the full breadth of skills and competencies—from literacy to problem-solving to collaboration—that they will need to access a changing world of work and be constructive citizens in society. We defined education innovation as an idea or technology that is new to a current context, if not new to the world. And we proposed that those innovations that could help provide a broader menu of options for delivering learning were those with the potential to help leapfrog education, namely: 1) innovative pedagogical approaches alongside direct instruction to help young people not only remember and understand but analyze and create; 2) new ways of recognizing learning alongside traditional measures and pathways; 3) crowding in a diversity of people and places alongside professional teachers to help support learning in school; and 4) smart use of technology and data that allowed for real-time adaptation and did not simply replace analog approaches.
When we surveyed almost 3,000 education innovations across over 160 countries, we found that some innovations had the potential to help leapfrog progress, as defined along our four dimensions, and many did not. We also found that many of the promising innovations were on the margins of education systems and not at the center of how learning takes place. We argued that to rapidly accelerate progress and close the equity gaps in education, the wide range of actors involved in delivering education to young people would need to spend more time documenting, learning from, evaluating, and scaling those innovative approaches that held the most leapfrog potential.
Today we are facing a very different context. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced education innovation into the heart of almost every education system around the globe. Based on a recent 59-country survey of educators and education administrators, Fernando Reimers and Andreas Schleicher note that: “The crisis has revealed the enormous potential for innovation that is dormant in many education systems.” The question is no longer how to scale innovations from the margin to the center of education systems but how to transform education systems so that they will source, support, and sustain those innovations that address inequality and provide all young people with the skills to build a better future for themselves and their communities. By doing this, we ultimately hope not only that those who are left behind can catch up, but that a new, more equal education system can emerge out of the crisis. Fortunately, across the world, communities are increasingly valuing the role that schools play, not only for student learning, but also for the livelihoods of educators, parents, and others, as we discuss below.
3. Rising public support: There is newfound public recognition of how essential schools are in society and a window of opportunity to leverage this support for making them stronger
March 2020 will forever be known as the time all the world’s schools closed their doors. As teachers and school leaders around the world struggled with hardly any forewarning to pivot to some form of remote learning, parents and families around the globe who had relied on schools as an anchor around which they organized their daily schedule faced the shock of life without school. An outpouring of appreciation on social media for teachers from parents deciding between caring for their children and earning money quickly followed. To underscore this sentiment of appreciation, Gabriel Zinny of the Buenos Aires government says: “Societies are recognizing that schools and teachers are heroes … that schools are the place not only where we get to learn and progress, fulfill our hopes and dreams, but also where we learn to live in community. Just recently in Buenos Aires, families went out to their balconies to applaud not only doctors and nurses, but teachers.”
This broad recognition and support for the essential role of education in daily life can be found on the pages of newspapers across the globe. It can be found in emerging coalitions of advocates urging that education be prioritized across communities and countries. The global education community is also mobilizing from UNESCO’s broad consortium with the newly formed Save Our Future campaign that brings together a broad coalition of actors in the international development sphere to advocate for sustained education funding, especially among international aid donors, for low- and middle-income countries.
Ultimately, today for the first time since the advent of universal education, the majority of parents and families around the world share the long-standing concerns of the most vulnerable families: They are in urgent need of a safe and good enough school to send their children to. This reality, which is so well known to the families of the 258 million out-of-school children, has brought the issue of education into the living rooms of middle class and elite parents around the globe. And they are forging, at least for a moment, common cause between many of the parents of the 1.9 billion school-aged children around the world. As a result, new stakeholders are getting involved in supporting education, an emerging trend we describe next.
4. New education allies: The pandemic has galvanized new actors in the community—from parents to social welfare organizations—to support children’s learning like never before.
Alongside increasing recognition of the essential role of public schools, the pandemic has galvanized parts of communities that traditionally are not actively involved in children’s education. As school buildings closed, teachers began to partner with parents in ways never done before, schools formed new relationships with community health and social welfare organizations, media companies worked with education leaders, technology companies partnered with nonprofits and governments, and local nonprofits and businesses contributed to supporting children’s learning in new ways.
The idea of children’s education being supported by an ecosystem of learning opportunities in and outside of school is not new among educationalists. The community schools movement envisions schools as the hub of children’s education and development, with strong partnerships among other sectors from health to social welfare. Schools remain open all day and are centers for community engagement, services, and problem-solving. Proponents of “life-wide” learning approaches point out that children from birth to 18 years of age spend only up to 20 percent of their waking hours at school and argue that the fabric of the community offers many enriching learning experiences alongside school. In our own work on leapfrogging in education, we argue that diversifying the educators and places where children learn can crowd in innovative pedagogical approaches and complement and enrich classroom-based learning. More recently, the concept of local learning ecoystems has emerged to describe learning opportunities provided through a web of collaboration among schools, community organizations, businesses, and government agencies that often pair direct instruction with innovative pedagogies allowing for experimentation.
There is evidence ranging from the U.K. to Nicaragua that young people engaging in diverse learning opportunities outside of school—from classic extracurricular activities such as music lessons to nonformal education programming—can be quite helpful in boosting the skills and academic competencies of marginalized children. But until recently there has been only limited empirical examples of local learning ecosystems. Emerging models are appearing in places such as Catalonia, Spain with its Educacio360 initiative and Western Pennsylvania, where several U.S. school districts have engaged in a multiyear Remake Learning initiative to offer life-wide learning opportunities to families and children. One of the opportunities emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic may just be the chance to harness the new energies and mindsets between schools and communities to work together to support children’s learning.
FIVE PROPOSED ACTIONS TO GUIDE THE TRANSFORMATION OF EDUCATION SYSTEMS
Given these four emerging trends and building on previous research, we put forth five proposed actions for decisionmakers to seize this moment to transform education systems to better serve all children and youth, especially the most disadvantaged. We argue that because of their responsibility to all children, public schools must be at the center of any education system that seeks to close widening inequality gaps. We highlight the creative use of technology—especially through mobile phone communication with parents—as examples of strategies that have emerged amid the pandemic that, if sustained, could complement and strengthen children’s learning in public schools. We acknowledge that the highlighted examples are just emerging, and there is more to learn about how they work and other examples to consider as events unfold. For this reason, we propose guidance for identifying which new approaches should potentially be continued. We argue that innovations that support and strengthen the instructional core, namely the interactions in the teaching and learning process, will have a greater chance at sustainably supporting a powered-up school. We also argue that the urgency of the moment calls for an adaptive and iterative approach to learning what works in real time; hence, improvement science principles should accompany any leapfrogging effort to build evidence and correct course in real time.
1. Leverage public schools: Put public schools at the center of education systems given their essential role in equalizing opportunity across dimensions within society
Public schools play a critical role in reducing inequality and strengthening social cohesion. By having the mandate to serve all children and youth regardless of background, public schools in many countries can bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds and needs, providing the social benefit of allowing individuals to grow up with a set of common values and knowledge that can make communities more cohesive and unified.
The private sector has an important role to play in education—from advocating that governments invest in high-quality public schools because they help power economies and social stability to helping test innovative pedagogical models in independent schools. In many low-income countries, low-cost private schools have expanded in recent years, helping to address the challenge that fiscally- and/or capacity-constrained governments have long faced in expanding access to education. Many families in developing countries, ranging from Chile to India to Nigeria to Kenya, opt to send their children to these low-cost, often for-profit, private schools. Indeed, the expansion of private schools in low-income countries has in some locations played a role in increasing universal access to primary education.
However, there are a range of concerns with private schools, both in terms of their effectiveness as well as their impact on inequality. For example, the extent to which private schools might provide a better education, the so-called “private school advantage,” has been a long-standing debate. While it is difficult to isolate the impact of private schools, a recent analysis of over 40 countries that participated in the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) concludes that public schools outperform both publicly subsidized private schools, as well as independent schools, in a majority of countries.
In addition, in many countries, the expansion of private schools has not been accompanied by regulations to guide student selection processes or the fees schools may charge (which also directly affect selection). A troubling unintended consequence of the unregulated expansion of private schooling is an increase in segregation of students by socioeconomic and other background characteristics. In many countries, private schools select students based on multiple factors, including academic ability, religious affiliation, and socioeconomic background. As a result, private schools tend to be less diverse than public schools. Further, entry into private school may not be entirely merit-based. In middle- and high-income countries, the private sector has stepped in to provide services to help students gain admission into selective education institutions. Since these services are costly, they select for wealthier families that can afford the help to get their students into the “right” schools, further excluding low-income families. In the U.S., for example, data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that public schools are much more diverse than private schools: In 2017, 67 percent of private school students were white, compared with just 48 percent of their public school counterparts.
A growing body of research shows that segregation can have a negative impact on children’s academic and social outcomes. For example, in Chile, where a school choice program was introduced in 1981, there has been a steady exodus from public schools over time, and today more than half of its students are enrolled in private schools. Not only did national average test scores stagnate, but unfettered school choice also led to student segregation into private and public schools based on parental education and income. Achievement gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students began to decline after a reform to the per-student subsidy (or voucher)—called the Preferential School Subsidy Law—was introduced in 2008. The reform introduced higher value per-student subsidies to schools serving low-income students and required schools who accepted the higher value vouchers to take part in a new accountability system. Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged households soon improved their performance, leading to an increase in national average test scores and a reduction in the income-based achievement gaps.
In many countries, a central debate is whether education should be seen as a public good or a private consumable. Advocates of expanding private school choice see education as a private consumable. Advocates who argue that education is a public good put forth that schools are about more than preparing individuals for the labor market, and that they have an irreplaceable role in generating multiple public benefits, including public health and in developing citizens to participate in democratic societies.
We follow Levin (1987) in arguing that schools play a crucial role in fostering the skills individuals need to succeed in a rapidly changing labor market, and they play a major role in equalizing opportunities for individuals of diverse backgrounds. Moreover, schools address a variety of social needs that serve communities, regions, and entire nations. And while a few private schools can and do play these multiple roles, public education is the main conduit for doing so at scale. Hence, we argue that public schools must be at the center of any effort to build back better or, in the words of UNICEF’s chief of education Robert Jenkins, “build back equal,” after the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. A laser focus on the instructional core: Emphasize the instructional core, the heart of the teaching and learning process.
To develop powered-up schools, it will be essential to figure out how to identify what strategies, among the many that communities are deploying amid the pandemic, should be sustained to power up a school as the crisis subsides. We argue that decisionmakers should ground their actions on rigorous evidence of what works to improve student learning, as well as how school change happens and ultimately should include a heavy emphasis on the heart of the teaching and learning process, what is often called the instructional or pedagogical core. Indeed, how educators engage with students and instructional materials, including education technology, is crucial for learning given the strong evidence that educators are the most important school-side factor in student learning.
In our forthcoming CUE publication co-authored by Alejandro Ganimian, Emiliana Vegas, and Frederick Hess, “Realizing the promise: How can education technology improve learning for all?,” the authors note that significant research has shown that one of the main reasons many education innovations and reforms have failed, despite serious effort, is that they have paid insufficient attention to the instructional core. While there have been several variations and terms associated with the instructional core, at its heart is the understanding that it is the interactions among educators, learners, and educational materials that matter most in improving student learning. For example, higher quality learning materials—whether they are new online resources or revamped curriculum—will not on their own improve student learning. Only when educators use them to improve their instruction can students have an improved experience. The authors build on this model of the instructional core to integrate parents, given not only their predominant role in children’s lives but also the new ways in which they have supported children’s learning amid the pandemic (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. The instructional core
Using the instructional core as a guide can help us identify what types of new strategies or innovations could become community-based supports in children’s learning journey. Indeed, even after only several months of experimentation around the globe on keeping learning going amid a pandemic, there are some clear strategies that have the potential, if continued, to contribute to a powered-up school, and many of them involve engaging learners, educators, and parents in new ways using some form of technology.
Grounding decisions on existing evidence is necessary, but not sufficient. It will also be essential to ask people—students, families, teachers, school leaders—what their experience has been and what new educational practices they hope will continue post pandemic. The Just Ask Us Movement in the U.S., for example, aims to discover and share at least a million student and family perspectives on how school systems should respond to the pandemic and its effects. Communities will certainly identify important strategies that fall outside the instructional core, such as essential collaboration between health and social protection services, that could be vital to developing a powered-up school. For example, Sierra Leone’s new “radical inclusion” policy aims to bring together health and banking services to help marginalized girls stay in school. Or in the U.S., where David Miyashiro, the superintendent of Cajon Valley, a school district with one of the highest populations of refugee students in California, has heard from parents that they need more help with child care and hence has established a new Extended Day Program.
While we focus in this report primarily on those innovations that support the interactions in the instructional core, we recognize that there will be a myriad of strategies needed to support marginalized children and bring a powered-up school to life. Ultimately, communities should have a view on what these strategies should be. Grounding decisions in the lived experience of the people at the center of education, especially students and teachers, is one of the central principles of designing for scale and will be an essential component of developing a powered-up school. When asked what her one piece of advice would be to heads of state today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of Liberia, said “Listen to your people, they may not be educated but they are knowledgeable.”
3. Harness education technology: Deploy education technology to power up schools long term in a way that meets the teaching and learning needs of students and educators; otherwise, technology risks becoming a costly distraction.
Leveraging technology to help with educational continuity is a topic front and center in schools around the world. Countries are using whatever they have at their disposal—from radios to televisions to computers to mobile phones. For many families, accessing educational content through technology is not easy. For example, a nationally representative survey in Senegal conducted approximately three weeks after schools closed found that children were far more likely to continue their education through work assigned by their parents than accessed through any technology. Less than 11 percent of survey respondents said students accessed educational material using either radio, television, or web-based resources.
This is not necessarily surprising given education’s past record of using technology to support learning. Indeed, while there has been the expectation that ed tech would radically transform teaching and learning, the impact of ed-tech interventions on student learning has been mostly disappointing. But, as put forth in “Realizing the promise: How can education technology improve learning for all?,” this is most likely because most ed-tech interventions have paid limited attention to the instructional core. However, when we consider rigorous evidence on the comparative advantages of technology vis-a-vis traditional instruction, we find that ed tech can help improve learning by supporting the crucial interactions in the instructional core through: (1) scaling up quality instruction (by, for example, prerecorded lessons of high-quality teaching); (2) facilitating differentiated instruction (through, for example, computer-adaptive learning or live one-on-one tutoring); (3) expanding opportunities for student practice; and (4) increasing student engagement (through, for example, videos and games).
While we envision powered-up schools after COVID-19 using technology in these four ways to improve learning, we emphasize the need to support educators to embrace the comparative advantages of technology. Without involving and supporting educators in innovation, efforts will not be sustainable over time. Indeed, throughout the global school closures, we have seen the heroic efforts of educators, many of whom are in poor communities with limited ed-tech resources, and yet have innovated to continue engaging students in learning. For example, from Chile to the United Kingdom, we have seen teachers coming together to rapidly lend their expertise to develop relevant remote-learning content for students. In Chile, a network of teachers came together to develop a series of 30-minute radio lessons for secondary students who had no access to online learning. The initiative, which the teachers dubbed La Radio Enseña, is supported by the civil society organization Enseña Chile, and the radio lessons went from being distributed by a handful of radio stations to over 240 only one month after schools closed. Similarly in the U.K., a group of teachers worried about learning continuity for their students when schools were about to close, developed within two weeks an online classroom and resource hub to help educators and parents help their children learn. As of the end of July, users accessed lessons 17 million times and this initiative, called Oak National Academy, has been a significant feature of the government’s remote learning strategy.
Listening to educators as technology is deployed for learning and responding to their concerns with real-time iteration is also essential in helping make ed-tech rollouts successful. In response to the school closures, Peru’s ministry of education embarked on an ambitious national-scale remote-learning strategy called Aprendo en Casa using multiple channels—television, radio, and online resources. Curriculum-aligned lessons were recorded, and, to make the content engaging, the ministry hired actors to serve as content facilitators. After the initial rollout, the government requested feedback from school leaders, teachers, and parents, which led to the inclusion of a teacher and a student in each lesson. Additionally, reporting requirements of teachers were initially quite onerous leading to overburdening already stretched teachers and were adapted to a more manageable streamlined approach. Feedback from users was solicited regularly, not only on usage (which was reported to be as high as 74 percent among students), but also on quality (59 percent of parents reported being satisfied with the program). In addition, over 90 percent of teachers reported having been in regular communication with principals and students. Interestingly, a very recent study confirms that teachers’ sense of success was higher in school systems that had strong remote working conditions, including communication, training, collaboration, fair expectations, and recognition of their efforts.
These examples are just a few of the education technology experiments underway during the pandemic. Some rely on good internet and connectivity, and the OECD and HundrED have curated a list of online learning resources for schools. Others utilize offline technology or basic cellphones to facilitate learning for those less-resourced communities. Ultimately, the evidence is clear that there is no single “ed-tech” initiative that will achieve the same results everywhere because school systems vary in multiple ways. However, after COVID-19, one thing is certain: School systems that are best prepared to use education technology effectively will be better positioned to continue offering quality education in the face of school closures. Learning about those strategies that have emerged due to the closures and that have forced school leaders, educators, parents, and students to engage with technology in new and productive way will be important for developing powered-up schools in the long term. One such strategy is how technology, often through low-tech texts and phone calls, has helped engage parents in a whole new way, which is where we turn to next.
4. Parent engagement: Forge stronger, more trusting relationships between parents and teachers.
Rarely is the topic of parent engagement at the top of the “to do” list for education administrators and educators whose days are filled with numerous decisions—from bell schedules to safety to lesson plans—around how to deliver education to children. In the recent OECD-Harvard survey of educators and education administrators across 59 countries on school reopening strategies, three-quarters of the respondents stated that the reopening plans were developed collaboratively with teachers, but only 25 percent said that collaboration included parents as well.
This limited engagement with parents and families should come as no surprise given that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of parent engagement occupied a relatively marginal place in the education discussions. Practitioners working with schools and families to build strong parent-teacher relationships frequently point out that strategies for community outreach and collaboration are frequently missing in teacher preparation programs and are given short shrift in professional development courses for administrators. Additionally, researchers are much more likely to focus their study on school-based factors such as curriculum development or assessment policies. In a recent search of the Education Resources Information Center database, which has close to 20 years of articles, the citation “teachers” was used almost four times the amount that the citation “parents” was used.
But the coronavirus pandemic has put the topic of engagement with parents and families at the center of today’s education debates, and education leaders across the globe are finding out just what powerful allies parents can be in their children’s learning—including parents from the most marginalized communities. From Asia to Africa to North America, examples are emerging of new ways of partnering with parents and families that provide real promise for supporting children’s learning in and out of school over the long term.
For example, creative mechanisms for real-time guidance to parents on their children’s education are popping up around the globe using the low-tech but, in many places, ubiquitous ability to make a phone call. In Argentina, the government of the State of Buenos Aires developed a call-in center staffed by the Ministry of Education to provide real-time information and guidance to any parent with concerns or information requests about their children’s education during the pandemic. In the first five months, over 100,000 calls were received. In some places, civil society organizations are collaborating to provide this type of live, real-time support to parents. In the U.S. for example, the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative, a coalition of over 50 local organizations serving families and children, has created a family hotline to help provide parents and families with guidance and resources to assist with their children’s learning. In its first month, the hotline received 1,000 calls.
Mobile phones have also helped parents directly facilitate their children’s learning in India. In Himachal Pradesh, a state of almost 7 million people, the government is using a multilayered approach to remote learning that engages parents in a new way. In response to pandemic-related school closures, in April the government launched the Har Ghar Pathshala initiative. The initiative developed thousands of videos and digital worksheets and then deployed 48,000 teachers to connect to all parents in the state through WhatsApp. The goal was to develop a clear understanding among parents of the materials children should be accessing, including taking a weekly WhatsApp assessment that would come to their phones. Students themselves are unlikely to have electronic devices and a family phone—the main avenue for accessing online learning—so the materials are shared between parents and the children in the household. Over 92 percent of parents engaged with teachers through “ePTMs,” electronic Parent Teacher Meetings, and ultimately 70-80 percent of students in the state have engaged with the digital materials and 50 percent of students are taking the WhatsApp assessments.
Perhaps the most significant part of the government’s strategy, and the component that holds the most promise for powering up schools long term, has been building a relationship between students’ caregivers and their teachers and schools. “Until now, in India we have not been able to establish the parent-to-teacher connection for first-generation learners at scale,” said Prachi Windlass, director of India Programs at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. “The pandemic has brought to light how parents of first-generation learners can—and now clearly do—help with their children’s learning.” Parents themselves are eager to continue being allies in their children’s learning, with 88 percent of parents saying they would like to attend future ePTMs.
It is not only the government that is realizing what is possible when they invite parents and families into the teaching and learning process. Civil society organizations such as Pratham pivoted during school closures to engage directly with parents and families on children’s learning by using a combination of daily WhatsApp or text messages and weekly phone calls. “While we are further away physically, we have gotten closer,” says Samyukta Subramanian, a Pratham team lead and former CUE Echidna Global Scholar. The text messages provide activities to keep children engaged in learning and can include fun and interactive activities such as asking children to count how many teeth their parents have or how many buckets of water their family uses and text the answers back. The Pratham staff members call each family once a week to see how the activities are going, and by June they were sending over 100,000 text messages and reaching parents in over 12,000 rural communities. Noting that this approach to engaging parents is something they hope to continue after schools reopen, the Pratham Education Foundation CEO Rukmini Banerji says she hopes “there is a celebration for parents when children return to school to recognize all that they have done to continue their children’s learning and to give parents the confidence to stay engaged.”
The Ministry of Basic Education of Botswana has also learned the power of harnessing mobile phone technology to partner with parents and boost children’s learning. Prior to the school closures, the Ministry had been working closely with a coalition of partners to scale up an approach to teaching numeracy that involved interactive teaching methods geared to students’ learning levels rather than their grade. This Teaching at the Right Level initiative brings together a range of partners, including a Botswanan nonprofit called Young 1ove working with the government and university partners to implement and evaluate the approach, and the Real-Time Scaling Lab team at Brookings to help guide and document the scaling process.
During the closures, Young 1ove worked with the government to rapidly pivot from working with teachers to deliver numeracy lessons to working with parents. They reached out to over 7,000 parents and invited them to take part in remote learning during school closures—60 percent of whom accepted the invitation. While they tested several approaches, the most successful included a weekly math problem sent to parents by text message and followed up with a weekly 15-20 minute phone call. On the phone call, Young 1ove facilitators would ask parents to get their child and put the phone on speaker so they could ask if they had seen the math problem and then discuss it. A rapid and rigorous evaluation of the intervention, which included a control group, showed startling results. For the children whose parents received text messages and phone calls from Young 1ove, the drop in innumeracy levels was 52 percent. Clearly, when invited in as partners to their children’s learning, parents in Botswana also showed how powerful their partnership can be for children’s schooling.
While likely surprising to many, these examples of the capability of low-income or marginalized parents and families to be powerful allies in support of their children’s learning aligns with existing evidence on effective parent engagement and will come as no surprise to the select group of practitioners, researchers, and advocates working on this issue around the globe. In the U.S., for example, several decades of research have shown that parents, especially for low-income students, have a positive influence on student academic achievement largely through equipping parents to support their children’s learning at home. Rigorous evaluations in Ghana and the U.K. also demonstrate this.
When a respectful relationship among parents, teachers, families, and schools is at the center of engagement activities, powerful support to children’s learning can occur. A thread running across the above examples is schools inviting families to be allies in their children’s learning by using easy-to-understand information communicated through mechanisms that adapt to parents’ schedules and that provide parents with an active but feasible role. The nature of the invitation and the relationship is what is so essential to bringing parents on board.
Getting this relationship right is no easy task, and there are many dimensions to parental involvement in their children’s schooling, which can also reflect tension and power dynamics active in society writ large. Schools and teachers can find it difficult to navigate the range of expectations, many of them conflicting. At times, engaging parents does not always lead to desirable outcomes for children’s learning. For example, a randomized control trial using longitudinal data in Ghana’s preschools found marked improvement in student outcomes that were sustained over several years in schools that received a yearlong teacher training and coaching program aimed at making classrooms more student-centered. The program incorporated play-based learning approaches and influenced the instructional core by improving teacher-child interactions. But this improvement was only seen when the busy working-class parents of the students were not informed about the shift in the teaching approach. In the schools where the teacher training was paired with discussion sessions with parents about the purpose of the training and what the new teaching methods entailed, the opposite happened. The parent awareness sessions counteracted any of the benefits of the teacher training, and the children’s outcomes were worse than those in the control group. Ultimately, the parents who took part in the information sessions had a cooling effect on the teachers, leading them to stop using many of the techniques learned in the training. The researchers posited that rather than building support for the new pedagogical approach, the information sessions, which were infrequent and passive, raised concern among parents that the teaching was becoming less rigorous. This phenomena is not unique to Ghana. Through our own Brookings research initiative on parents and education, we have found stories of this parental cooling effect in interviews with educators and education leaders across 50 countries.
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to forge stronger, more trusting relationships between parents and teachers. It is an opportunity for parents and families to gain insight into the skill that is involved in teaching and for teachers and schools to realize what powerful allies parents can be. Parents around the world are not interested in becoming their child’s teacher, but they are, based on several large-scale surveys, asking to be engaged in a different more active way in the future. Perhaps the most important insight for supporting a powered-up school is challenging the mindset of those in the education sector that parents and families with the least opportunities are not capable or willing to help their children learn.
5. An iterative approach: Embrace the principles of improvement science required to evaluate, course correct, document, and scale new approaches that can help power up schools over time.
As we have seen above, there are some promising new approaches that have the potential to enable a broader learning ecosystem to support children’s schooling. However, in most countries around the world, there is a long road to travel before we fully understand how to leverage technology or transform parent engagement to realize a powered-up school for each community. The speed and depth of change mean that it will be essential to take an iterative approach to learning what works, for whom, and under what enabling conditions. In other words, this is a moment to employ the principles of improvement science. Traditional research methods will need to be complemented by real-time documentation, reflection, quick feedback loops, and course correction. Rapid sharing of early insights and testing of potential change ideas will need to come alongside the longer-term rigorous reviews. CUE’s own work on system transformation and scaling change in education provides one possible model for doing just this. Through our Real-Time Scaling Labs, teams of practice-oriented researchers are working to scale and sustain transformative change in education systems. These teams learn, document, and share emerging insights in rapid, iterative cycles making sure peers across the different components of an education system are included in the process and that failures, one of the most valuable insights, are documented alongside successes.
A key principle underlying the Real-time Scaling Labs is that scaling is an iterative process that requires ongoing adaptation based on new data and changes in the broader environment. The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has indeed brought this reality front and center. In the Real-time Scaling Labs, two categories of adaptation have emerged: (1) adaptations and simplifications to the model being scaled itself and (2) adaptations and adjustments to the scaling approach and strategy. While both are critical to scaling, adapting the scaling strategy is especially challenging, requiring not only timely data, a thorough understanding of the context, and space for reflection, but also willingness and capacity to act on this learning and make changes accordingly.
Conclusion: Having a vision of the change we want to see matters and can help guide discussion, debate, and—ultimately—action.
We acknowledge that emerging from this global pandemic with a stronger public education system is an ambitious vision, and one that will require both financial and human resources. But we argue that articulating such a vision is essential, and that amid the myriad of decisions education leaders are making every day, it can guide the future. With the dire consequences of the pandemic hitting the most vulnerable young people the hardest, it is tempting to revert to a global education narrative that privileges access to school above all else. This, however, would be a mistake. There are enough examples of education innovations that provide access to relevant learning for those in and out of a school building to set our sights higher. A powered-up public school in every community is what the world’s children deserve, and indeed is possible if all stakeholders can collectively work together to harness the opportunities presented by this crisis to truly leapfrog education forward.
Why are public schools closed when nearby private schools are open?
Pricey private schools are seeing a surge in enrollment in places where public schools say they will go virtual this fall. Where private schools are following public schools’ lead and planning to offer virtual classes, the private schools fear they will lose enrollment. There are so many interesting angles to this developing story.
We are seeing this unfold all over the country — public schools opting for a hybrid schedule or going all virtual for the fall semester, while in the very same community private schools are opening their doors to students.
The key reason is, as it often is, money. Public schools, which teach about 90% of America’s schoolchildren, don’t have the money they would need to constantly sanitize classrooms, find new ways to serve lunches and reimagine bus schedules. The New York Times found that it is just one more way that kids whose families can afford to send them to private schools will widen their advantage over public school students.
Fall reopening plans are just another way the pandemic has widened gaps in education. Private schools were able to offer much more robust online learning last spring, and research suggests that school closures have widened achievement gaps. Now, as private schools move forward with reopening plans, it’s the children who most need to attend in-person school — those lacking the necessary technology for online learning, or with parents unequipped to oversee it — who will tend to be the least likely to do so.
A big issue for public schools is how to socially distance in cramped and aging classrooms while, as the Times pointed out, private classes are usually smaller to begin with. The story also said that during a COVID-19-affected school schedule, private schools have a lot more latitude to change teacher schedules, classrooms and other details and duties.
Another key difference for private schools, said Mike Walker, the head of school at San Francisco Day, is flexibility. Independent schools don’t have all the same regulations for the curriculum or facilities that public schools have, and teachers generally aren’t unionized. They also have smaller student bodies, with less diverse needs.
Overall, the average cost of tuition at private schools across all grades is $26,866 a year, with roughly a quarter of all families receiving financial aid, according to the NAIS. With record unemployment and many parents experiencing a job loss or furlough, families may no longer be able to afford a private-school education.
Amid so much uncertainty surrounding what the upcoming academic year will look like, as well as their own financial standing, enrolling kids in public school for a year — or longer — is an increasingly attractive option for some parents.
Further, choosing a local school during a public-health crisis could mean children won’t have to commute or rely on public transportation.
Teachers and their unions have been anything but heroes amid COVID-19
No other group has shown as much contempt for its own work during the coronavirus crisis as teachers.
Their unions are actively fighting to keep kids out of classrooms and to limit remote instruction, lest it require too much time and attention from people who are supposed to be wholly devoted to educating our children.
This has been a wrenching time in the labor market, with tens of millions thrown out of work — and also an inspiring one. Workers whom many of us would never have thought of as essential — grocery clerks, delivery guys, meat-packing workers — have kept absolutely necessary parts of the economy operating while most of their fellow Americans stayed home.
Doctors, health workers, cops and firefighters have all put their lives on the line.
It isn’t correct to say that all these people have done their jobs uncomplainingly — many have worried, understandably, about their safety and wanted more protections. But all have shown up. All have been there, during the horrific spring outbreak, during a brief respite and during the current summer resurgence.
Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge our debt to them is a thoughtless ingrate.
Then, there are the teachers unions.
Theirs has been a diametrically opposed approach to that of the everyday heroes of America. Their first and last thought has been of their own interests. They have sought to limit their labor while still getting paid — at the ultimate cost of the education of kids who may never fully make up the gaps in their learning during their time out of the classroom.
Obviously, any gathering of people has its risks, and school districts should make every reasonable accommodation to the realities of the pandemic. There are many teachers who are better than their unions — or not members of a union at all — and some are truly at high risk from the virus.
All of this is true enough, and yet the unions have represented institutional laziness and selfishness at a time of incredible strain for parents across the country.
The unions have a handy foil in President Trump, who has taken up the cause of school reopening with his usual deftness, which is to say, none at all.
But it shouldn’t require wearing a MAGA hat to acknowledge the benefits of in-person instruction, and the experience of other advanced countries suggests it carries low risks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in June saying that it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” (As a rebuke to Trump, it issued a subsequent statement with the biggest teachers unions saying politics should be kept out of reopening decisions.)
The New York Times has cited research suggesting that the cancellation of classes in the spring cost students a significant portion of their learning for the year, and they might be seven months behind the curve. Online learning, especially for younger kids, is a poor substitute for being in the classroom, and many districts didn’t even offer that.
As states and localities try to avoid a repeat of that debacle, many unions are throwing every obstacle in the way. In California, the unions pushed to delay students coming back to the classroom; in Los Angeles, the union has been negotiating to limit the time teachers spend on online instruction, too.
Unions around the country have offered endless excuses why they can’t even do a simulacrum of their job. Teachers might be abashed about their appearance teaching by video from home. The privacy of teachers might be violated if video instruction is recorded for use by parents and their kids at a convenient time. Teachers can’t handle simultaneous classroom and video instruction.
If the teachers unions get their way, teachers’ letter grade during this crisis will a shameful “incomplete.”
Former public school teacher says unions are becoming ‘what they used to fight’
Former public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs said on Friday that national unions in the U.S. have gotten so corrupt that they “have become what they used to fight.”
“I’m pro-local union,” Friedrichs, founder of For Kids and Country, told hosts Buck Sexton and Don Calloway on Hill.TV’s “Rising.”
“I’m pro-standing together,” she continued. “Of course, a lot of our government agencies — schools, in particular — have become incredibly corrupt, and people feel vulnerable if they have to stand alone.”
“I am anti-corruption, and state and national unions, particularly teachers unions, and other … public sector unions have become incredibly corrupt,” Friedrichs said.
“They are riding on their great past when they did some wonderful things, but they literally have become what they used to fight.”
Friedrichs was the lead plaintiff in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which was argued before the Supreme Court in 2016.
The case questioned whether unions violated public employees’ First Amendment rights through agency shops, which is a form of a union security agreement. It threatened to roll back state laws requiring public sector workers to pay their “fair share” of union fees when a worker opts out of union representation.
The justices were deadlocked on the decision, which resulted in a victory for unions.
Covid contracts: why are courts needed for public to get answers?
In the terrifying, unprecedented onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it did not make headline news that the government had suspended normal tendering processes for its spending of public money.
There were then delays in publishing many of the new multi-million-pound contracts, for test and trace, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other services. But as the contracts were published, the number of questions about which companies were winning work and why quickly grew.
Reporters, including at the Guardian, soon discovered numerous companies with links to Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and other senior Tories that had been granted emergency contracts for government work.
It gave rise to the suspicion – denied by the government and the companies that benefited from its rapid spending – of a “chumocracy” in which contracts bypassing the tendering process went to firms with friends in high places.
Late last year it emerged that the government had created a “high priority lane” for PPE companies referred by an MP, peer or government official. The existence of this route was first revealed by Jolyon Maugham QC, of the Good Law Project (GLP), who was leaked government documents, calling it “the VIP lane”.
Maugham and the GLP, a not-for-profit organisation financed by crowdfunding that describes its mission as achieving progressive change through the law, has been challenging some contracts with judicial reviews, alleging their award was improper.
The GLP’s case claiming “apparent bias” against the Cabinet Office over a £564,000 contract with the research company Public First, whose owners have previously worked with Cummings and Gove over many years, is the first to reach a hearing.
The judge, Mrs Justice O’Farrell, must now decide on the merits of the arguments and the propriety of the contract process. The government says there was nothing inappropriate about awarding a contract to a reputable firm that senior Downing Street officials, including Cummings, knew and trusted.
Public First has always maintained it secured the contract because of its stellar reputation in focus group research, and its ability to help the government at speed.
Whatever the result of the legal battle, one element is clear already: Cummings’ role in the process of awarding Public First a contract has only been revealed as a result of GLP’s legal challenge.
When the Guardian and openDemocracy first reported on the contract in July, we asked the Cabinet Office if the longstanding ties between James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who run Public First, and Cummings and Gove, were a factor in the award. The Cabinet Office replied that this was “nonsense”.
Just last week, the Cabinet Office cited commercial sensitivity and refused a freedom of information request from the Guardian for more documentation, including emails and correspondence, relating to the Public First contract.
The government has responded in a similarly limited way to questions about all its spending: justifying contracts on the basis of the health crisis, saying necessary due diligence was done but releasing little in terms of hard evidence to assuage concerns over conflicts of interest.
It is only due to the GLP’s judicial review challenge that the public can see how the decisions were taken on this one contract, and how centrally Cummings was involved.
Maugham has complained about the government’s legal costs, approaching £600,000, for defending the contract, which the GLP may have to pay if the judge rules against it.
Critics might conclude that the courts are a hugely expensive and unnecessarily adversarial forum for the government to provide public information about how it has spent the public’s money in response to the pandemic.
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With a new administration in the White House, America has a chance to reset. The pandemic has laid bare the country’s gaping inequalities, but new leadership has a historic opportunity to address the country’s deepest systemic challenges, and steer it toward a path of fairness, justice and stability.
It won’t be easy. Misinformation, white nationalism, and crackdowns on voting rights remain clear threats to American democracy. The need for fact-based reporting that highlights injustice and offers solutions is as great as ever. In 2021, the Guardian will also continue to confront America’s other longstanding problems – from the climate emergency to broken healthcare to rapacious corporations.
We believe everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity. That’s why we made a different choice: to keep our reporting open for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. In these perilous times, an independent, global news organization like the Guardian is essential. We have no shareholders or billionaire owner, meaning our journalism is free from commercial and political influence.
GOP Convention Highlights Corruption Surrounding Teachers’ Unions
It’s always frustrating to discover there are still political leaders in this country who think of government employee unions in general — and teachers’ unions in particular — as merely a symptom rather than the disease infecting American society.
That’s why it was so gratifying to hear Rebecca Friedrichs’ comments on Monday night — and that they were given so bully a pulpit from which to be expressed.
Friedrichs, a 28-year California teacher and founder of the nonprofit For Kids & Country, was the second speaker to take the stage at the 2020 Republican National Convention and, not surprisingly, she took dead aim at the teachers’ unions.
“(The voices of teachers) have been silenced for decades by unions that claim to represent us,” she said. “They do not.”
Friedrichs was the lead plaintiff in the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenged the right of unions to make membership, dues or “agency fees” a requirement for employment in the public sector.
Her case was heard by the court and, by all indications, the justices were poised to rule in her favor, but when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly just weeks after oral arguments, the result was a 4-4 tie vote that sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had earlier denied Friedrichs’ claims.
A nearly similar case, Janus v. AFSCME, finally reached the high court in 2018, and the resulting ruling affirmed the First Amendment right of public employees to opt out of union participation and still keep their job.
Friedrichs said she and many of her fellow teachers weren’t originally anti-union; they simply raised objections to union policies they believed failed to serve “children, parents, scientific fact and American values.”
“For our trouble, we were brutalized, booed off the platform, barred from committees, shouted down and even spit upon by union leaders,” Friedrichs said. “This is how the union treats devoted teachers.”
Even worse, she continued, is how the unions’ “agenda of control” deceives students and parents alike.
“They’ve intentionally rewritten American history to perpetuate division, pervert the memories of our American founders, and disparage our Judeo-Christian virtues,” Friedrichs said of the unions. “Their lenient discipline policies morphed our schools into war zones, and they back ‘defunding police’ and abolishing ICE.”
Like all public employee unions, she argued, teachers’ unions have deteriorated into the funding arm of the political left, “collect(ing) billions annually from unsuspecting teachers” with the objective of turning classrooms into indoctrination centers for its radical agenda.
“The only way to keep a free republic is with a well-educated, moral citizenry that can self-govern,” Friedrichs said. “Unions are subverting our republic, so they undermine educational excellence, morality, law and order.”
Most insidiously of all, unions fight tooth and nail against the introduction of charter schools and educational choice, fearing competition not only for their members but for the garbled message they insist on disseminating as fact to our young minds.
Predictably, union leaders were quick to respond.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted out almost before the speech was even finished, “Tonight, let (sic) by Rebecca Friedrichs, the Republican party went all in on vouchers and anti-union rhetoric. Let’s be clear: none of these ideas will help students, teachers, or our communities.”
There weren’t enough characters left to explain how the teachers’ unions want to remove school resource safety officers, abolish rent eviction and enact Medicare-for-all before they go back to the classrooms would help students, teachers, or our communities.
Maybe AFT will explain that during the commercial air-time they purchased for the Wednesday and Thursday broadcasts of the RNC.
One thing is for certain – Ms. Weingarten and the AFT commercials are demonstrating exactly what tens of thousands of teachers have been saying for years: they don’t like money being taken from their paychecks to fund unions with a political agenda that doesn’t line up with their values.
It’s precisely why the Janus v. AFSCME decision was necessary in the first place. Prior to June 2018, public school teachers – and public employees across the country – had no choice but to financially support the union representing their workplace if they wanted to keep their job. And teachers’ unions and other government unions didn’t just start participating in politics – it’s been going on for decades.
Fortunately, forced public school closings and the teachers’ unions’ political demands have opened many parents’ eyes to the dysfunction amid their children’s education.
Rebecca Friedrichs shined a national spotlight on the corruption within teachers’ unions and the destructive impact they have on students.
Thankfully, parents tired of being held hostage to the teachers’ unions’ refusal to get back into the classroom can reclaim their power by making other educational choices for their children – many of them have had to become their kids’ teacher anyway.
As U.S. Schools Move to Reopen Despite Covid-19, Teachers Threaten to Strike
Educators and families around the United States continued to grapple this week with the complicated realities of opening schools in the middle of a pandemic, as teachers’ unions threatened strikes, colleges rethought reopening plans on the fly, and school districts, discovering new cases, improvised quarantines and classroom cleanings.
The voice of teachers in the reopening debate took center stage Wednesday in Michigan, where the Detroit Federation of Teachers voted to authorize their executive committee to call for a strike over plans to open public schools for in-person learning.
“It’s just simply not safe for us to return into our buildings and classrooms right now,” the union said in a video statement before the vote, noting more than 1,400 virus-related deaths in the community.
New York City’s powerful teachers’ union sought to ramp up pressure on the mayor on Wednesday to delay or call off his plan to reopen the city’s 1,800 schools on Sept. 10. The president of the United Federation of Teachers threatened to sue the city or to support a strike if the city could not satisfy a list of safety demands, and called for all students and staff members to be tested before school starts.
Public sector employees are legally barred from striking in New York, but teachers have threatened to hold sickouts if they believe school buildings are not safe.
College-bound students were thrown a curve ball Wednesday when the College Board said that more than 178,000 students who signed up to take the SAT college admission test on Aug. 29 would probably not be able to do so because nearly half the testing sites in the nation are closed or operating at limited capacity. All told, some 402,000 students were scheduled to take the test that day.
The board said it was working with local officials to accommodate as many students as possible, and asking colleges to extend their deadlines for receiving test results so students could take the test at a later date.
Some colleges and universities were backtracking as outbreaks flared on just-reopened campuses.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved undergraduate classes entirely online because of four clusters of infections, and the University of Notre Dame said it would move to online instruction for at least the next two weeks to control a growing outbreak. And Michigan State University, which had planned to open Sept. 2 for in-person classes, announced that all undergraduates would be learning remotely.
Sorority and fraternity houses have had outbreaks. Photos and videos circulated widely on the internet show young people gathering maskless outside bars in college towns, or partying in large numbers.
In Florida this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis compared the commitment of teachers and administrators to the resolve of Navy SEALs going after Osama bin Laden. The state has ordered all schools to offer in-person instruction by Aug. 31, except in hard-hit Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties.
Many students across the country will be starting school from home — and their parents will be getting little help. In a recent survey for The New York Times, just one in seven parents said their children would be returning to school full-time this fall, but four in five said they would have no in-person help educating and caring for the children at home.
We Are Living in a Failed State
The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.
When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.
Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president. But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster. And, like France in 1940, America in 2020 has stunned itself with a collapse that’s larger and deeper than one miserable leader. Some future autopsy of the pandemic might be called Strange Defeat, after the historian and Resistance fighter Marc Bloch’s contemporaneous study of the fall of France. Despite countless examples around the U.S. of individual courage and sacrifice, the failure is national. And it should force a question that most Americans have never had to ask: Do we trust our leaders and one another enough to summon a collective response to a mortal threat? Are we still capable of self-government?
This is the third major crisis of the short 21st century. The first, on September 11, 2001, came when Americans were still living mentally in the previous century, and the memory of depression, world war, and cold war remained strong. On that day, people in the rural heartland did not see New York as an alien stew of immigrants and liberals that deserved its fate, but as a great American city that had taken a hit for the whole country. Firefighters from Indiana drove 800 miles to help the rescue effort at Ground Zero. Our civic reflex was to mourn and mobilize together.
Partisan politics and terrible policies, especially the Iraq War, erased the sense of national unity and fed a bitterness toward the political class that never really faded. The second crisis, in 2008, intensified it. At the top, the financial crash could almost be considered a success. Congress passed a bipartisan bailout bill that saved the financial system. Outgoing Bush-administration officials cooperated with incoming Obama administration officials. The experts at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department used monetary and fiscal policy to prevent a second Great Depression. Leading bankers were shamed but not prosecuted; most of them kept their fortunes and some their jobs. Before long they were back in business. A Wall Street trader told me that the financial crisis had been a “speed bump.”
All of the lasting pain was felt in the middle and at the bottom, by Americans who had taken on debt and lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Many of them never recovered, and young people who came of age in the Great Recession are doomed to be poorer than their parents. Inequality—the fundamental, relentless force in American life since the late 1970s—grew worse.
This second crisis drove a profound wedge between Americans: between the upper and lower classes, Republicans and Democrats, metropolitan and rural people, the native-born and immigrants, ordinary Americans and their leaders. Social bonds had been under growing strain for several decades, and now they began to tear. The reforms of the Obama years, important as they were—in health care, financial regulation, green energy—had only palliative effects. The long recovery over the past decade enriched corporations and investors, lulled professionals, and left the working class further behind. The lasting effect of the slump was to increase polarization and to discredit authority, especially government’s.
Both parties were slow to grasp how much credibility they’d lost. The coming politics was populist. Its harbinger wasn’t Barack Obama but Sarah Palin, the absurdly unready vice-presidential candidate who scorned expertise and reveled in celebrity. She was Donald Trump’s John the Baptist.
Trump came to power as the repudiation of the Republican establishment. But the conservative political class and the new leader soon reached an understanding. Whatever their differences on issues like trade and immigration, they shared a basic goal: to strip-mine public assets for the benefit of private interests. Republican politicians and donors who wanted government to do as little as possible for the common good could live happily with a regime that barely knew how to govern at all, and they made themselves Trump’s footmen.
Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying.
Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. He set about finishing off the job and destroying the professional civil service. He drove out some of the most talented and experienced career officials, left essential positions unfilled, and installed loyalists as commissars over the cowed survivors, with one purpose: to serve his own interests. His major legislative accomplishment, one of the largest tax cuts in history, sent hundreds of billions of dollars to corporations and the rich. The beneficiaries flocked to patronize his resorts and line his reelection pockets. If lying was his means for using power, corruption was his end.
This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.
If the pandemic really is a kind of war, it’s the first to be fought on this soil in a century and a half. Invasion and occupation expose a society’s fault lines, exaggerating what goes unnoticed or accepted in peacetime, clarifying essential truths, raising the smell of buried rot.
The virus should have united Americans against a common threat. With different leadership, it might have. Instead, even as it spread from blue to red areas, attitudes broke down along familiar partisan lines. The virus also should have been a great leveler. You don’t have to be in the military or in debt to be a target—you just have to be human. But from the start, its effects have been skewed by the inequality that we’ve tolerated for so long. When tests for the virus were almost impossible to find, the wealthy and connected—the model and reality-TV host Heidi Klum, the entire roster of the Brooklyn Nets, the president’s conservative allies—were somehow able to get tested, despite many showing no symptoms. The smattering of individual results did nothing to protect public health. Meanwhile, ordinary people with fevers and chills had to wait in long and possibly infectious lines, only to be turned away because they weren’t actually suffocating. An internet joke proposed that the only way to find out whether you had the virus was to sneeze in a rich person’s face.
When Trump was asked about this blatant unfairness, he expressed disapproval but added, “Perhaps that’s been the story of life.” Most Americans hardly register this kind of special privilege in normal times. But in the first weeks of the pandemic it sparked outrage, as if, during a general mobilization, the rich had been allowed to buy their way out of military service and hoard gas masks. As the contagion has spread, its victims have been likely to be poor, black, and brown people. The gross inequality of our health-care system is evident in the sight of refrigerated trucks lined up outside public hospitals.
We now have two categories of work: essential and nonessential. Who have the essential workers turned out to be? Mostly people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk: warehouse workers, shelf-stockers, Instacart shoppers, delivery drivers, municipal employees, hospital staffers, home health aides, long-haul truckers. Doctors and nurses are the pandemic’s combat heroes, but the supermarket cashier with her bottle of sanitizer and the UPS driver with his latex gloves are the supply and logistics troops who keep the frontline forces intact. In a smartphone economy that hides whole classes of human beings, we’re learning where our food and goods come from, who keeps us alive. An order of organic baby arugula on AmazonFresh is cheap and arrives overnight in part because the people who grow it, sort it, pack it, and deliver it have to keep working while sick. For most service workers, sick leave turns out to be an impossible luxury. It’s worth asking if we would accept a higher price and slower delivery so that they could stay home.
The pandemic has also clarified the meaning of nonessential workers. One example is Kelly Loeffler, the Republican junior senator from Georgia, whose sole qualification for the empty seat that she was given in January is her immense wealth. Less than three weeks into the job, after a dire private briefing about the virus, she got even richer from the selling-off of stocks, then she accused Democrats of exaggerating the danger and gave her constituents false assurances that may well have gotten them killed. Loeffler’s impulses in public service are those of a dangerous parasite. A body politic that would place someone like this in high office is well advanced in decay.
The purest embodiment of political nihilism is not Trump himself but his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. In his short lifetime, Kushner has been fraudulently promoted as both a meritocrat and a populist. He was born into a moneyed real-estate family the month Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office, in 1981—a princeling of the second Gilded Age. Despite Jared’s mediocre academic record, he was admitted to Harvard after his father, Charles, pledged a $2.5 million donation to the university. Father helped son with $10 million in loans for a start in the family business, then Jared continued his elite education at the law and business schools of NYU, where his father had contributed $3 million. Jared repaid his father’s support with fierce loyalty when Charles was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2005 for trying to resolve a family legal quarrel by entrapping his sister’s husband with a prostitute and videotaping the encounter.
Jared Kushner failed as a skyscraper owner and a newspaper publisher, but he always found someone to rescue him, and his self-confidence only grew. In American Oligarchs, Andrea Bernstein describes how he adopted the outlook of a risk-taking entrepreneur, a “disruptor” of the new economy. Under the influence of his mentor Rupert Murdoch, he found ways to fuse his financial, political, and journalistic pursuits. He made conflicts of interest his business model.
So when his father-in-law became president, Kushner quickly gained power in an administration that raised amateurism, nepotism, and corruption to governing principles. As long as he busied himself with Middle East peace, his feckless meddling didn’t matter to most Americans. But since he became an influential adviser to Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, the result has been mass death.
In his first week on the job, in mid-March, Kushner co-authored the worst Oval Office speech in memory, interrupted the vital work of other officials, may have compromised security protocols, flirted with conflicts of interest and violations of federal law, and made fatuous promises that quickly turned to dust. “The federal government is not designed to solve all our problems,” he said, explaining how he would tap his corporate connections to create drive-through testing sites. They never materialized. He was convinced by corporate leaders that Trump should not use presidential authority to compel industries to manufacture ventilators—then Kushner’s own attempt to negotiate a deal with General Motors fell through. With no loss of faith in himself, he blamed shortages of necessary equipment and gear on incompetent state governors.
To watch this pale, slim-suited dilettante breeze into the middle of a deadly crisis, dispensing business-school jargon to cloud the massive failure of his father-in-law’s administration, is to see the collapse of a whole approach to governing. It turns out that scientific experts and other civil servants are not traitorous members of a “deep state”—they’re essential workers, and marginalizing them in favor of ideologues and sycophants is a threat to the nation’s health. It turns out that “nimble” companies can’t prepare for a catastrophe or distribute lifesaving goods—only a competent federal government can do that. It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation. Then came the virus and this strange defeat.
The fight to overcome the pandemic must also be a fight to recover the health of our country, and build it anew, or the hardship and grief we’re now enduring will never be redeemed. Under our current leadership, nothing will change. If 9/11 and 2008 wore out trust in the old political establishment, 2020 should kill off the idea that anti-politics is our salvation. But putting an end to this regime, so necessary and deserved, is only the beginning.
We’re faced with a choice that the crisis makes inescapably clear. We can stay hunkered down in self-isolation, fearing and shunning one another, letting our common bond wear away to nothing. Or we can use this pause in our normal lives to pay attention to the hospital workers holding up cellphones so their patients can say goodbye to loved ones; the planeload of medical workers flying from Atlanta to help in New York; the aerospace workers in Massachusetts demanding that their factory be converted to ventilator production; the Floridians standing in long lines because they couldn’t get through by phone to the skeletal unemployment office; the residents of Milwaukee braving endless waits, hail, and contagion to vote in an election forced on them by partisan justices. We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death. After we’ve come out of hiding and taken off our masks, we should not forget what it was like to be alone.
We have spent a life altering year as a country and as individuals. When I started this article I anticipated that I would have no problem finding articles on corruption in the public school system and the teachers union. However, I was not able to find as many as I thought. I don’t know if this was because the actual numbers and cases of fraught have been greatly exaggerated or the incidences of corruption have been squelched by the press. I recently watched an episode of Water’s World with Jesse Waters on Fox News. In that episode he discussed cases of corruption public schools and the work being done to bring the schools up to new Covid-19 standards in regards to air filtration and safety. In this episode, claims were made about questionable contracts and nepotism in the allocations of lucrative contracts. I was unable to find any current information on this matter, I guess they have better sources than I was able to discover.
In this article I have covered the impact that Covid-19 had on this country and its people. It has had a major impact on our younger citizens. A vast majority of our public schools have been closed. While they remain closed in many states, Private, Charter and Christian and Catholic schools have re-opened with little or no negative impact on their staff or student bodies. The main reason that public schools are closed is due to the incredible sway that teacher unions have in this country. I wrote an article entitle “The History of Unions” where I include an in depth discussion of the teacher’s union. There is a question on whether or not the teachers are being well served by their unions. There is also questions being made on the ethics being displayed by the teacher unions. There are allegations on kick backs and bribes and no bid contractual agreements being made for school upgrades. If these allegations are true, the guilty need to be punished and removed from their offices. Teachers need to go back to work. Our schools need to be re-opened. Once our kids are back in school, and only then can our country start on its road to normalcy.
edweek.org, ” The Coronavirus Spring: The Historic Closing of U.S. Schools (A Timeline); reuters.com, “With schools shuttered, learning lags and students left behind, Reuters survey shows,” By M.B. PELL, KRISTINA COOKE and BENJAMIN LESSER; nbcnews.com, “When Covid-19 closed schools, Black, Hispanic and poor kids took biggest hit in math, reading: An analysis of 4.4 million student test scores showed most children fell short in math — and the most vulnerable students likely fell further behind,” By Erin Einhorn; brookings.edu, “Beyond reopening schools: How education can emerge stronger than before COVID-19,” By Emiliana Vegas and Rebecca Winthrop; washingtonexaminer.com, poynter.org, “Why are public schools closed when nearby private schools are open?” By Al Tompkins; nypost.com, “Teachers and their unions have been anything but heroes amid COVID-19,” By Rich Lowry; thehill.com, ” Former public school teacher says unions are becoming ‘what they used to fight’,” By Julia Manchester; npr.org, “Are The Risks Of Reopening Schools Exaggerated?” By Anya Kamenetz; theguardian.com, ” Covid contracts: why are courts needed for public to get answers?” By Dominic Cummings; usatoday.com, ” Rookie middlemen muddle the government’s effort to buy coronavirus supplies,” By Josh Salman, Nick Penzenstadler and Dak Le; theatlantic.org, “We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken,” By George Packer; asumag.com, ” Former Chicago Schools CEO indicted on corruption charges; plans guilty plea,” By Mike Kennedy; freedomfoundation.com, ” GOP Convention Highlights Corruption Surrounding Teachers’ Unions,” By Jason Dudash; nytimes.com, “As U.S. Schools Move to Reopen Despite Covid-19, Teachers Threaten to Strike;”
Are The Risks Of Reopening Schools Exaggerated?
Despite widespread concerns, two new international studies show no consistent relationship between in-person K-12 schooling and the spread of the coronavirus. And a third study from the United States shows no elevated risk to childcare workers who stayed on the job.
Combined with anecdotal reports from a number of U.S. states where schools are open, as well as a crowdsourced dashboard of around 2,000 U.S. schools, some medical experts are saying it’s time to shift the discussion from the risks of opening K-12 schools to the risks of keeping them closed.
“As a pediatrician, I am really seeing the negative impacts of these school closures on children,” Dr. Danielle Dooley, a medical director at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., told NPR. She ticked off mental health problems, hunger, obesity due to inactivity, missing routine medical care and the risk of child abuse — on top of the loss of education. “Going to school is really vital for children. They get their meals in school, their physical activity, their health care, their education, of course.”
While agreeing that emerging data is encouraging, other experts said the United States as a whole has made little progress toward practices that would allow schools to make reopening safer — from rapid and regular testing, to contact tracing to identify the source of outbreaks, to reporting school-associated cases publicly, regularly and consistently.
“We are driving with the headlights off, and we’ve got kids in the car,” said Melinda Buntin, chair of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, who has argued for reopening schools with precautions.
Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya looked at different regions within Spain for his recent co-authored working paper. Spain’s second wave of coronavirus cases started before the school year began in September. Still, cases in one region dropped three weeks after schools reopened, while others continued rising at the same rate as before, and one stayed flat.
Nowhere, the research found, was there a spike that coincided with reopening: “What we found is that the school [being opened] makes absolutely no difference,” Álvarez told NPR.
Spain does extensive contact tracing, so Álvarez was also able to analyze how much schools are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Álvarez said his research suggests the answer is: not much. He found that, for all the students and staff who tested positive, 87% of them did not infect anyone else at the school. They were single cases.
“We are not sure that the environments of the schools may not have a small and systematic effect,” said Álvarez, “But it’s pretty clear that they don’t have very major epidemic-changing effects, at least in Spain, with the measures that are being taken in Spain.”
These safety measures include mask-wearing for all children older than 6, ventilation, keeping students in small groups or “bubbles,” and social distancing of 1.5 meters — slightly less than the recommended 6 feet in the United States. When a case is detected, the entire “bubble” is sent home for quarantine.
Insights for Education is a foundation that advises education ministries around the globe. For their report, which was not peer reviewed, they analyzed school reopening dates and coronavirus trends from February through the end of September across 191 countries.
“There is no consistent pattern,” said Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, who heads the organization. “It’s not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases.”
Some countries, such as Thailand and South Africa, fully opened when cases were low, with no apparent impact on transmission. Others, such as Vietnam and Gambia, had cases rising during summer break, yet those rates actually dropped after schools reopened. Japan, too, saw cases rise, and then fall again, all while schools were fully reopened. But the United Kingdom saw a strong upward trend that started around the time of reopening schools.
“We’re not saying at all that schools have nothing to do with cases,” Grob-Zakhary said. What the data suggests instead is that opening schools does not inevitably lead to increased case numbers.
What about the U.S.?
On Oct. 14, the Infectious Diseases Society of America gave a briefing on safe school reopenings. Bottom line? “The data so far are not indicating that schools are a superspreader site,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan’s medical school.
One place in the U.S. where systematic data gathering is happening — Utah — seems to echo the conclusions drawn by the new international studies. Utah’s state COVID-19 database clearly reports school-associated cases by district. And while coronavirus spread is relatively high in the state, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson believes that schools are not, for the most part, driving spread.
“Where you see cases on the rise in a neighborhood, in a county, we see that tend to be reflected in a school,” Dickson said. “[But] we’re not seeing spread by virtue of being in school together.”
Tom Hudachko of the state’s health department said that after both colleges and schools reopened in early September, there was a rise in cases among the 15-24 age group. But with targeted public health messaging those cases have started to come down.
For the most part, Hudachko said, K-12 school clusters have been concentrated at high schools. “We have had some outbreaks in middle schools. They’ve been far less frequent. And elementary school numbers seem to be one-offs here and there.”
And these clusters — including one large reported outbreak with at least 90 cases — have largely been traced to informal social gatherings in homes, not to classrooms. (Álvarez, in Spain, also said that clusters among young people there have been traced to social gatherings, including rooftop and beach parties).
Few states are reporting school-related data as clearly as Utah. And that’s a shame, said Buntin at Vanderbilt. “One might argue that we’re running really a massive national experiment right now in schools,” Buntin said, “and we’re not collecting uniform data.”
The largest centralized effort at such data collection in the United States — the unofficial, crowdsourced COVID-19 School Response Dashboard — has gotten a lot of publicity. But it is self-reported, not a representative sample of schools.
Buntin and other experts said it’s likely that the dashboard is biased toward schools that are doing an exemplary job of following safety precautions and are organized enough to share their results. Also, the dashboard doesn’t yet offer the ability to compare coronavirus cases reported at schools with local case rates.
In the absence of data, there are scary and tragic anecdotes of teachers around the country dying of COVID-19. But it’s hard to extrapolate from these incidents. It’s not immediately clear whether the educators contracted the virus at school, whether they are part of school-based clusters, or what safety precautions were or were not followed by the schools in question.
A recent study from Yale University could potentially shed some light on these questions. It tracked 57,000 childcare workers, located in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, for the first three months of the pandemic in the United States. About half continued caring for very young children, such as the children of essential workers, while the other half stayed home. The study found no difference in the rate of coronavirus infections between the two groups, after accounting for demographic factors.
Walter Gilliam, lead author of the study and a professor of psychology at the Yale Child Study Center, cautioned that it’s difficult to generalize this report to a K-12 schools setting, because the children were mostly under the age of 6 and kept in very small groups — and, he said, the childcare workers were trained in health and safety and reported following strict protocols around disinfection. However, he said, “I think it would be great to do this study with school teachers and see what we can find out.”
Risk and benefit
When you add up what we know and even what we still don’t know, some doctors and public health advocates said there are powerful arguments for in-person schooling wherever possible, particularly for younger students and those with special needs.
“Children under the age of 10 generally are at quite low risk of acquiring symptomatic disease,” from the coronavirus, said Dr. Rainu Kaushal of Weill Cornell Medicine. And they rarely transmit it either. It’s a happy coincidence, Kaushal and others said, that the youngest children face lower risk and are also the ones who have the hardest time with virtual learning.
“I would like to see the students, especially the younger students, get back,” said Malani at the University of Michigan. “I feel more encouraged that that can happen in a safe and thoughtful way.”
Chicago Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the country, seemed to take that guidance into consideration when it announced recently a phased reopening starting with pre-K and special education.
Kaushal said it’s important to keep in mind that Black, Latinx and Native American communities are much more severely affected by COVID-19. And that many of the “children that are at the severest risk of disease, are also at the severest risk of not having a school open, whether it be for food security, adult time, security, losing the time to learn or losing the skills that they have acquired over the last year or so.”
Any decision made on school reopening, she said, has to focus on equity as well as safety. There are no easy trade-offs here.
Rookie middlemen muddle the government’s effort to buy coronavirus supplies
iddlemen seeking to profit from the coronavirus pandemic have sprung up overnight to score billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 contracts, their stake as small as a mailbox rental or virtual office subscription.
Some never touch the product: They simply buy it from a manufacturer and resell it directly to the government – at an often steep markup.
Global demand for personal protective equipment has attracted hundreds of companies from construction, financing and technology that have shifted the focus of their business to supplying health care products, many of them without any experience. One in 10 federal COVID-19 vendors are government contracting newcomers.
With traditional manufacturers still backlogged – and another surge of cases well underway – this murky segment of the market has forced the government into an unfamiliar corner where it has to rely on unproven middlemen for lifesaving supplies.
Federal agencies cited critical need and noted that if a contract is not fulfilled, the government does not pay. Brokers who spoke with USA TODAY also said that they’re just trying to help fill gaps in the supply chain. But the companies that manufacture these products point to the potential for counterfeits, which swells greatly with unauthorized third-party resellers.
The contracting market has become dizzying for purchasing officers trying to decipher which vendors are credible. When brokers cannot deliver, officials are stuck scrambling to reissue contracts and track down new suppliers, all while the clock ticks away on frontline health care workers.
“It’s clearly opportunism,” said Benjamin Brunjes, an assistant professor at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. “People are aware that there’s a huge amount of new money, and they’re taking a slice.”
From advanced research to emergency travel, the federal government has spent more than $19 billion in response to COVID-19, with agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and NASA all competing for the same supplies. To expedite delivery, the federal government has eased standards on vendor competition.
As part of ongoing reporting on those contracts, USA TODAY scoured more than 1,600 single-source orders awarded to vendors from 15 states, including the largest and those hardest-hit by the virus. Journalists spoke to coronavirus middlemen, along with former procurement officials, public management professors, regulators and attorneys.
That review found nearly 10% of vendors who received a COVID-19 contract without competition listed a residence for their address, often an indication that they are middlemen. In the states analyzed, more than $75 million in single-sourced bids were awarded to these companies. If a similar proportion extends across the U.S., that would mean up to $250 million for home-based businesses.
In all, the government shelled out more than $2.7 billion nationwide to vendors completely new to the market and about $5 billion to hundreds of companies classified as wholesalers, according to an analysis of the spending data.
The coronavirus has created unique needs, ranging from refrigerated trailers to provide overflow morgue capacity at veterans’ hospitals to individually packed breakfast bars to limit the spread at a women’s prison camp in Alabama.
But the staple for these middlemen is the ongoing shortage of basic coronavirus supplies: N95 masks, PPE and other medical gear. A lack of federal oversight allows them to flourish.
“The contracting for PPE was not done at all like normal,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in federal procurement. “The government, by and large, does not work through brokers. It goes to the suppliers.”
The fact that vendors are small, or run a business out of their garage, does not preclude them from government contracts. Nothing in federal law bars newcomers either.
In certain instances, that kind of activity can be the sign of an evolving market, said Trevor Brown, a professor of public management at Ohio State University. Brown pointed to a store owner in Oregon who usually sold trinkets from China but used those same connections to source $1 million in COVID-19 masks.
“In normal times, you would want to go with someone with experience in the business who has been doing this for a while,” Brown said. “In times of crisis, purchasers are scrambling.”
Not all of those contracts were fulfilled as expected. Across the federal government, at least $130 million in mask orders alone were returned, adjusted or canceled, records show. The government has recouped its money, but those crucial supplies never found their way to the health care providers expecting them. In some cases, it meant delays of several months.
In Virginia, retired Army Captain Hans Mumm said an overseas PPE provider contacted him this spring needing help brokering a deal with the Bureau of Prisons for protective gowns.
He already had established his home-based small business and registered with the federal contracting system but had never received a procurement.
Mumm contacted the prisons system about his line on protective gear, and the $640,000 order came through quickly, with no competition. But it disintegrated within a week in early April – with no money ever exchanging hands – when his PPE supplier backed out because it couldn’t source the materials from China, Vietnam or India.
“I wasn’t trying to profiteer; I was trying to connect people in a situation where the (prisons bureau) was desperate for these gowns,” Mumm said. “I got suckered, but I’m one of the good guys. As soon as it fell apart I got in touch to cancel. I didn’t string them along or play games.”
He said the margins were thin and he hadn’t even calculated profit – he was just trying to do his part to help. He has no plans to try again.
Thomas Caulfield, special inspector general for pandemic recovery in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, said some vendors are actually trying to help, while others “see an opportunity to make money and sometimes inflate costs.”
“The government, rightfully so, is trying to figure out how to get the funds to people who need it,” Caulfield said. “You weigh the good of the people versus (oversight) protection, but it usually comes down to getting the supplies out.”
In dire need of surgical masks, the U.S. Forest Service turned to an unlikely source: a used-phone wholesaler that had never sold anything to the federal government. The agency agreed to pay $757,000 in late May for the shipment.
The Forest Service was satisfied with its order. But earlier that month, New York City officials had rejected masks from the same company, alleging the products were counterfeit, according to a federal lawsuit.
GlobalGeeks Inc., which operates from a sleepy New Jersey corporate park, had promised more than 1 million of the Chinese-made KN95 masks to various public and private customers. The company’s soured deal with New York City landed in federal court.
Importer USA Asia Global Inc. filed a civil lawsuit against Global Geeks in May, alleging the company held the masks in question hostage in its warehouse for three weeks, refusing to pay for them or release them back to the supplier.
GlobalGeeks filed a countersuit in June against SZN LLC, a second tier of middleman in the deal who brokered the transaction from a Brooklyn apartment and was working on commission for USA Asia, the suit said.
GlobalGeeks alleged it paid SZN up to $4 a mask, ultimately taking a $1.2 million loss on the rejected products.
Citing the pending litigation, an attorney representing USA Asia Global Inc. and SZN declined to comment. Lawyers for GlobalGeeks also declined to comment for this story, but in April a company executive discussed a plan to donate masks to officials in the Northeast.
“Our police officers, our firefighters: There are a lot of front-line workers that really, really need them,” GlobalGeeks Chief Operating Officer Kalid Loul told ABC 6 in Philadelphia. “We got our facility registered … we did all of our due diligence.”
As with wars or natural disasters, third-party brokers like GlobalGeeks and SZN emerge when demand outstrips availability.
But attorneys and procurement experts say the dynamics also are ripe for the potential of counterfeiting. Middlemen have targeted government officials with a variety of fake offers, mislabeled products and deceptive marketing tactics.
“When you throw that much money at a problem in a matter of weeks, it’s a flood, and it’s going to be much more difficult to control,” said Bruce Dorris, president and CEO of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “There will always be people who take advantage of it, and effectively game the system.”
On a grassy corner lot south of Raleigh in North Carolina, Army veteran Jeffery Agyarko runs an IT solutions company out of his brick home.
Noelani Ventures LLC had done some technology business with the federal government in the past, including $36,590 of contracts in fiscal year 2018-19. But the coronavirus era is its first time sourcing medical gear.
In April, Noelani Ventures committed to provide more than $160,000 in medical gowns to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The supplies were destined for Boston.
Within a week of the deal, the agency canceled the order, paying Agyarko nothing. Agyarko said he defaulted on the contract because suppliers in London – connections he had made in the technology world – skipped out on the transaction. He said he just wanted to help people.
“It’s difficult trying to find a reliable manufacturer or supplier,” Agyarko said. “It’s crazy. The market is saturated with nonsense, and it’s difficult to try to determine what is right and what is not. For small companies, like mine, it’s hard. We don’t have the resources to do all of the research.”
The flood of home-based business has made it difficult for government agencies to decipher who can really come through with supplies. Many agencies are doing minimal screening of the businesses and their owners. And procurement regulations actually give bidding preferences to small companies.
Stephen Berge is a former hospital nurse and Marine who won a $10,000 grant in 2016 from Florida Gulf Coast University’s “shark tank for veterans” to help launch his company, which started by searching for construction projects to sell window sills.
Berge runs the business out of his Cape Coral home, according to the state’s corporation registry. He previously faced a foreclosure judgment in 2010 after defaulting on $286,000 in loans. He also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2011, listing more than $400,000 in liabilities, court records show.
In April, Berge got a $208,000 purchase order from the VA for anesthesia machines to be retrofitted for use as ventilators, which the VA says it received. Just weeks earlier, the Food and Drug Administration had approved the converted machines for treating COVID-19 patients.
That award was among more than $20 million Berge’s company, Bravo Inc., has received in government contracts over the past five years, federal records show.
Berge said he started supplying medical equipment even before the pandemic. He would not answer any more basic questions about his background or his sale of anesthesia machines to the government.
“I try not to give out anything about what we do or how we do it,” he said. “It’s a weird, cutthroat industry.”
Across the country, the federal government has awarded COVID-19 orders to some 5,100 unique vendors, who’ve provided services ranging from security to janitorial cleaning and procuring medical products, according to nationwide data through July 6.
That includes more than 500 companies that had never received government contracting work before the start of 2020 – about one in every 10 vendors.
Among the newcomers was VPL Medical LLC, set up days before it landed more than $20 million in federal contracts.
The company was spotlighted by investigative nonprofit news outlet ProPublica earlier this summer because the government had failed to realize it was run jointly with Jason Cardiff, who is under sanction by the Federal Trade Commission for an allegedly fraudulent scheme involving smoking cessation strips and male sexual enhancement pills.
One of the business partners, Bobby Bedi, told USA TODAY in early June that the company had leveraged previous business relationships in Asia to land the contracts in the new venture.
“I watched closely what was going on in the world and established trusted sources of quality equipment before lots of manufacturers and brokers popped up who produce non-certified, substandard products,” Bedi wrote in an email. “It was solely through hard work and determination that I was able to make contacts in the government and land those contracts.”
A U.S. District Court judge froze the company’s assets in late June, arguing VPL assets should be seized just like the rest of Cardiff’s ventures. Court records from a receiver’s report show Bedi and Cardiff had paid themselves at least $420,000 out of a $5.4 million mask deal with the VA, which said the vendor delivered the 8 million masks.
Bedi, Cardiff and attorneys for VPL all have denied any wrongdoing and sought to unfreeze the government’s hold on the company’s finances.
Typically government purchasers will weigh a vendor’s past performance when deciding among bids. In normal times, that record can count toward as much as a third of the points used to determine who gets the award. COPY TEXTTWEETFACEBOOKLINKEDINREDDITEMAILDerek Cohen, former deputy chief of the fraud section at the U.S. Department of Justice
Whenever you have the government throwing money at a problem, you’ll have folks who look to take advantage of it. For all of these crises that you have to move quickly on, there’s a level of fraud baked in.
A vendor’s past performance is especially crucial during a pandemic, procurement experts say, when many of the safeguards to weed out possible fraud and abuse are circumvented to get supplies out more quickly. Companies lacking prior contracts can be harder to judge.
Hope Peddlers and Profiteers: Hundreds of millions of dollars goes to COVID-19 contractors accused of prior fraud
“Whenever you have the government throwing money at a problem, you’ll have folks who look to take advantage of it,” said Derek Cohen, former deputy chief of the fraud section at the U.S. Department of Justice, who now specializes in white-collar defense. “For all of these crises that you have to move quickly on, there’s a level of fraud baked in.”
Based out of a small suburb of Dallas, first-time vendor Alpha Jalla Services LLC secured up to $1.2 million from the VA through six orders for surgical supplies and PPE, getting preferential federal contracting status as a service-disabled veteran and Black-owned business.
Jeffrey Carter runs the company out of his home in Red Oak, Texas. His website lists a variety of PPE aimed at the pandemic, including hard-to-get N95 masks.
While Carter acknowledges the pandemic has opened up business for more middlemen, he argues the federal government remains too restrictive with smaller and lesser-known vendors. Most contracting officials, he said, still prefer to wait for a major company like 3M, even if it means waiting longer.
Carter says he has been able to meet his various government orders through suppliers in China and Thailand, although he would not explain how he found them. He insisted that all of his COVID-19 contracts were above board. The VA also confirmed it had received them.
But Carter acknowledged the situation is ripe for profiteering, especially by companies with close political ties.
“Right now, suppliers know that they can overcharge (agencies) and get away with it because they have a good relationship with the government,” said Carter, who added that government purchasing officers “go with who they know.”
Others question the ability of unproven vendors to deliver and doubt the quality of the products they’re finding.
“If 3M still cannot get any masks, and some vendor you’ve never heard of is saying they can, just based on common sense, it would raise a red flag in my mind,” said Steve Kelman, who was the top procurement official during the Clinton administration and now teaches at Harvard University. “The big question is whether they deliver, and will it be an acceptable product?”
Experts attribute the middleman phenomenon to a mix of desperation, lax oversight and poor vetting of COVID-19 contractors – with an emphasis on speed over accountability.
“The government threw the kitchen sink at the problem in terms of contracting approaches,” said Jerry McGinn, executive director of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University. “They’re trying to go after anything they can to meet the need.”
In the absence of government vetting, larger companies – like mask manufacturer 3M – have tried to step in and protect their brand by going after third-party distributors in court. 3M has shut down more than 7,000 websites it claims peddle fraudulent or counterfeit masks. It has a particular emphasis on price gouging even with authentic 3M masks since the company has vowed not to raise its prices in the pandemic.
3M pursues middlemen: Arrest, lawsuits provide glimpse into coronavirus price-gouging playbook
What 3M found offers a deeper look at the problems with some middlemen.
“It’s giving bad actors an opportunity to exploit the market and take advantage of need,” said Haley Schaffer, 3M assistant general counsel for litigation. “Vendors are offering millions, billions, trillions of masks, and they don’t have the supply … the danger exposed from counterfeit products is scary.”
3M attorneys claim a Texas man set up a “3M Company Trust Account” to solicit money that was just a UPS Store mailbox – and a fraud.
In another civil lawsuit, a man allegedly living out of a Nevada hotel targeted Indiana state officials with emails offering “a nice Easter gift” of 100 million N95 masks at $2.82 apiece. 3M’s investigation initially led to Zachary Puznak.
Puznak settled his civil fraud case with 3M in July, saying in a statement that “people who contacted me were attempting to take advantage of my best intentions.” In an email to USA TODAY after the settlement, Puznak said he was eager to get back to selling masks.
Earlier this summer, 3M sued Georgia-based 1 Ignite Capital for allegedly offering state governments up to 10 million N95 masks at nearly five times normal cost. The price of a 3M mask can vary depending on the model, but its most common N95s sell for about $1.30 each.
Auta Lopes, founder and CEO of Lopes 1 Ignite Capital, told USA TODAY that she was a financial consultant operating as a medical supplies broker for the first time. The company denied the allegations and settled the case with 3M in May. Lopes said she is prohibited from discussing it.
Undeterred, Lopes also said she plans to continue middlemanning coronavirus supplies “now that the doors are open.”
Its hospitals and clinics battered by the virus, the VA is among the federal agencies that has turned to COVID-19 middlemen and unproven suppliers the most, spending more than $180 million on vendors new to the market. Only three other agencies, including FEMA and the Office of Preparedness and Response, spent more on newcomers.
The agency pointed to the intense demand for supplies and noted that if a vendor doesn’t deliver, or if a contract is terminated for default, the government is not out any money.
“During this time of unprecedented global demand for PPE, VA must cast a wide net in order to ensure we’re procuring lifesaving supplies needed to keep Veterans and employees safe,” agency spokeswoman Christina Noel said in an emailed statement. “All of our contractors have met the relevant criteria to become vendors for the federal government under federal law.”
The federal prison system had a similar response to its COVID-19 contracting.
“The federal government encourages and promotes small business and does not have an exclusion on new businesses,” prisons system spokesman Justin Long wrote in an email. “If a vendor is registered … can meet the specifications, and is competitive in price, they are eligible for an award.”
While many of these vendors managed to come through on promised shipments, court documents and procurement experts indicate the brokers can charge a markup from a low of about 2% up to whatever cut they can muster – an additional layer of cost ultimately paid by taxpayers.
With more traditional suppliers, quality controls like regular government facility inspections are built in, leaving governments less exposed to risk, said Brunjes, the assistant professor at the University of Washington.
“We’re spending so much money, it’s just impossible for anybody to keep track of where it’s all going, and you start to see these suspect businesses,” Brunjes said. “A lot of that is related to a lack of accountability.”
“I don’t see any benefit to using these middlemen.”
Former Chicago Schools CEO indicted on corruption charges; plans guilty plea
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), has been accused in a federal indictment of accepting bribes in return for steering a $20.5 million contract to a consulting firm where she once worked.
UPDATE: Byrd-Bennett plans to plead guilty to some of the charges, prosecutors disclosed at an afternoon news conference, according to The Chicago Tribune.
The indictment charges Byrd-Bennett, 66 with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois announced. Also facing corruption charges are Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas, co-owners of SUPES Academy, the firm that received the contract in question.
“Byrd-Bennett solicited and agreed to accept bribes and kickbacks in the form of personal benefits from and future employment with defendants Gary Solomon, Thomas Vranas, and the SUPES entities in exchange for acts in Byrd-Bennett’s official CPS capacity that were designed to promote and bring about the awarding of CPS contracts to the SUPES Entities,” the indictment alleges.
Byrd-Bennett took a leave of absence from the district in April after news of the federal probe was disclosed; she resigned in May.
Investigators were looking at what role Byrd-Bennett’s played in a no-bid contract the the school system granted to SUPES Academy. The Wilmette, Ill., firm trains principals and superintendents. Byrd-Bennett had worked as a coach for SUPES prior to joining the Chicago school system.
Byrd-Bennett began working for Chicago Public Schools in 2012 as chief education officer in 2012 and became CEO later that year after the resignation of Jean-Claude Brizard.
Byrd-Bennett also has been a school administrator in Detroit, Cleveland and New York City.
After Byrd-Bennett resigned, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed his chief of staff, Forrest Claypool, as head of the city’s public school system, the third-largest district in the United States.