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Policy Hackathon: How to get schoolkids back on track

What happens when reading, writing and ‘rithmetic all happen in the same room, on the same Zoom, minus breaks for recess or lunch with friends? A year into the coronavirus pandemic, we’re finding out.

Most of the results, sadly, aren’t good.

Already, educators say they are seeing the damage. By last fall, in math, white students were about one to three months behind and students of color were about three to five months behind where they were in previous school years. Everyone is about a month and a half behind in reading. And once testing resumes in earnest, that lag is likely to have grown worse.

Researchers know that gaps like these tend to grow over time and become permanent, leading to long-term harm such as lower lifetime earnings, particularly for minority and low-income students.

As most schools shifted to remote learning for much of the past year, educators have been working hard to connect with students, figuratively and literally. But observing kids only over Zoom or Google Meet, it’s hard to tell if students are not speaking up because they don’t understand the trigonometry lesson or if a weak internet connection makes it hard to chime in. And that’s if children managed to connect at all; millions may have drifted away because of limited technology and family needs.

The question is not who’s to blame. After all, the nation’s schoolchildren and their teachers were completely unprepared for the sudden interruption in schooling caused by the pandemic. The question now is what to do about it. In recent months, as school districts around the country have begun to return, however haltingly, to in-classroom instruction, educators have begun to grapple with the challenge of catching up the millions of students who’ve fallen behind.

That’s why POLITICO convened a virtual “policy hackathon” with eight of the most astute education leaders from across the country. Over Zoom, we asked them to compare notes, identify emerging challenges and share the best ideas for helping K-12 students, many of whom haven’t seen a classroom in a year, get back on track.

Our policy hackers — who came from cities like Baltimore and Newark, N.J., suburban areas like San Diego County and rural states like New Mexico and Mississippi — said they have already learned critical lessons about what works. Over the course of the discussion, they touched on tough topics, such as whether students should repeat a grade, and found surprising areas of agreement, such as on the need to pay some students to return to school. And they identified some areas where the federal government could step in with support, in terms of financing and strategy.

Here are the key takeaways from their conversation.


One of the first things that educators had to stop when Covid-19 lockdowns began last spring was educational testing. The timing was terrible, since the lockdowns began just before standardized tests are usually administered in late spring. And while the Biden administration has urged school systems to resume testing before the end of this school year, it’s not clear how many will be able to do so.

As a result, education officials are struggling in real time to gauge just how deep the learning losses might be.

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said his members are reporting that while students have struggled to keep up with both reading and math, math is worse.

“We’re seeing basically what amounts to at least over about a year lost in mathematics,” Domenech said. “For our students of color, Black and Latino students, as well as low-income students, the loss for them has been even greater, perhaps as much as a year and a half.”

Just one in three New Jersey students are performing at grade level, “which is heartbreaking and staggering,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the chair of the state Senate Education Committee. “It’s Black and brown students who are losing out the most in this process.”

For some of the hackers, even understanding how much learning students had missed is its own challenge because of insufficient data.

“I think our assessment systems have taken a major hit during the pandemic,” said Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s education secretary. “It’s going to really make us think much more deeply about what does assessment look like in the virtual setting? How do we be more innovative and creative about it?”

The participants noted that there were differences in how the disrupted school year affected older versus younger students; those who were older, and more tech savvy, seemed to fare better.

“We do see our greatest challenges with our youngest learners and their ability to adapt to remote learning,” said Lewis Ferebee, chancellor of D.C. public schools. “They came in this year further behind than what we typically see.”

Some of the participants expressed concern about kids who have essentially dropped out, some because they needed to work to help support their families, some because of difficulties getting online.

In California, “130,000 students never logged on to Zoom,” said Lorena Gonzalez, a member of the California State Assembly who chairs the Appropriations Committee. “We have kind of a missing group of kids. Another 20,000 dropped out of private schools.”

When the pandemic hit, several school districts rushed to provide laptops and Wi-Fi to students in need, but districts soon realized many families would require more than that to master remote learning.

“We have a lot of families for whom it wasn’t just receiving a device and a hotspot,” said Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore public schools. “The digital divide was about how do you navigate virtual space when you’ve been kept out of navigating that space for a long time.”

Some of the policy hackers took issue with the focus on academic losses, noting that students faced other losses as a result of the pandemic. “I can tell you right now that the majority of superintendents see that as the number one priority, even more so than the academic loss we have,” Domenech said. “The rate of suicides, the rate of students on drugs, abuse, child abuse. All of these things have increased significantly over this past year.”

Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, emphasized that many Native students are dealing with severe trauma on top of going to school. She noted the emotional support that students receive at school is needed now more than ever because so many students have seen family and friends die or become seriously ill.

“You have some children now who are going back to school that are orphans,” she said.

Finally, many of the hackers stressed that it was important not to stigmatize students for falling behind this past year. “We [ask], how are we going to accelerate learning?” said Casey Wright, Mississippi’s state superintendent of education. “Our fear was that this was going to be a finger-pointing exercise and the fingers are going to end up being pointed at children. And it’s not their fault that they’ve been out of school.”


The policy hackers traded ideas — some innovative, some controversial — for making up for lost learning. Some require money, some need time and some just a change of attitude.

Here are nine of them.

1. Address emotional needs first.

Several of the hackers noted that many students will return to school traumatized by their experiences during the pandemic, perhaps because of losing family members, perhaps because of living through a year of anxiety or perhaps because of loneliness or isolation. Whatever the cause, students will not be able to learn until they are in a better emotional place.

“I have superintendents that are telling their staff that when the children are coming to school for the first time in person, don’t tell them to open the book to page 55. Start with, ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘What can we do to help?’” Domenech of the superintendents association said.

“We need to work with students collectively as educators and help them understand you’re going to be okay, you’re going to be safe here. You’re not going to get the Covid,” said Cournoyer. “As hard as it is as educators, we can’t worry about academics right now. We need to get our students in the right frame of mind.”

2. Don’t change the standards.

Mississippi’s Wright noted that some educators might be tempted to first work with students on last year’s curriculum before moving on to this year’s. But that would be a mistake.

“If I’m in fourth grade and I go back and grab all of third grade standards to be teaching in fourth grade, those fourth graders are always going to be behind,” Wright said. “If we start with grade level standards … that is going to be able to bring children along quicker than if we defaulted to last year standards.”

New Mexico’s Stewart said that the right thing to do is to add supports, like extra tutoring, not change the standards.

“It really does have to be about accelerated instruction, taking this year’s standards and putting in the right kinds of supports and systems for those students who have fallen behind and who need additional supports in order to catch up,” he said.

3. Tackle the digital divide.

It’s clearer than ever, the hackers said, that teaching and learning is now deeply dependent on technology and internet access. Providing devices like tablets and hotspots has become as important as paper and pencils, if not more so.

“The pandemic has taught us [that] there’s no excuse for every kid not having a Chromebook and a hot spot,” said Gonzalez of San Diego County. “We know that that’s possible, right? When forced to do it, we did it.”

4. Pay students for attending summer school.

The chancellor of D.C. public schools said he’s using cash to incentivize students to keep learning through the summer.

“We’ve had a very robust summer youth employment program where individuals from age 14 to 21 can earn income over the summer. And now they can do that by either learning themselves or being a tutor and supporting another student,” Ferebee said.

Other hackers said that was a good approach, particularly for students whose families need the income they would otherwise get from a summer job. Santelises of Baltimore public schools pointed out that $15-hour jobs at Amazon can draw a lot of older students, so her city provides opportunities for students interested in a work-school combination.

“We’ve had a long standing YouthWorks partnership with the city of Baltimore for summer employment, and so we’ll be leaning on that this year,” said Santelises. “Young people who agree to do early Advanced Placement study and prep are guaranteed a job in the afternoon. So we’ll be building on that.”

Other policy hackers wanted to know how they could bring this idea to their jurisdictions.

“That’s something that I hadn’t actually thought about,” said San Diego’s Gonzalez. “I think that’s a fabulous idea and something we should explore more.”

5. Give high school seniors pass/fail grades where needed.

With learning being so disparate this past year, Gonzalez said California is considering a softer way of measuring how students performed in various subjects. College-bound high schoolers may be graded on a pass/no pass basis to prevent low GPAs from disqualifying them for college admissions, she said.

“Especially our kids of color who have been working so hard, but maybe a language class or a math class got them that C or D, but otherwise their GPA would qualify them,” Gonzalez said. “We want to give them that opportunity.”

6. Lengthen the school year, one way or another.

Some of the policy hackers are betting on increased classroom time to catch students up. Options for adding instructional time include afterschool programs, Saturday programs, summer school or “acceleration academies.”

New Mexico is literally stretching out the current school year longer by adding on instructional days.

“We’ve made the opportunity for every school in the state to have the opportunity to extend the school year by between 10 to 25 days,” Stewart said. “We think this is certainly a time where that can help not only with the academics, but also the social-emotional pieces that our students are going to need.”

7. Consider adopting a year-round schedule.

Another way to build in extra time for catch up or acceleration would be to adopt a year-round school calendar that has the same number of school days spread over 12 months instead of nine or 10 months. One of the benefits is that a year-round calendar divides the summer vacation into several longer breaks that can be used for extra learning, enrichment or acceleration courses for students who want it or need it.

“I’ve got superintendents who are now saying, ‘You know what? I really want to think about a year-round calendar,’” said Mississippi’s Wright. “A year-round calendar that then encompasses in those intercessions time for additional help for children, whether they are struggling or whether they need excelling.”

Another benefit is that it reduces the usual “summer slide” during which students forget some of what they knew, a phenomenon that particularly affects minority and lower income students who have already suffered the most during the pandemic.

8. Beef up tutoring, hire more teachers and support them.

Wright also shared with the other hackers that increasing the number of educators is one strategy Mississippi is using to bring students up to speed.

“We’re going to be hiring math coaches, like we have done with our literacy coaches, and then deploy them based on the data around the state,” she said.

Stewart responded that New Mexico is focusing on a similar initiative.

“We’re going to try to put more supports in the classroom through a teaching fellows program. We see this as both a support in the classroom and also a way to recruit more teachers,” he said.

“I don’t know about everybody else, but I lay awake at night worrying what impact the pandemic has on our teachers and decisions they make about their careers in the years to come.”

9. Let students repeat a grade.

Having students repeat a grade is regarded as “something we don’t want to do in education. However, this is a special year,” said San Diego’s Gonzalez. “When you have 130,00 kids who never logged on to Zoom, it might be time to start discussing allowing parents the ability to have — especially young kids — redo the year. So we have a bill going through that would provide that in California.”


The federal government has been sending more money to states to help school systems recover from the pandemic; the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan includes $122.7 billion for K-12 education.

But the policy hackers say money won’t be enough on its own to guide them through this next leg of pandemic recovery.

“Yes, we are getting a lot of money, but we also need the flexibility in terms of how to spend it,” said Domenech.

They are looking for fresh ideas for how to design a classroom for kids who’ve spent a year learning almost everywhere but school, from bedrooms to parks to parking lots near buildings with free Wi-Fi.

“What I’m most encouraged about is that we’re thinking creatively outside of the four walls classroom space,” said N.J.’s Ruiz.

Whatever approaches they adopt will not be short-term programs, the educators agreed. It will likely take many years of such efforts to help students make up all the learning they lost to the pandemic.

“This is not going to be a flip of a switch. This is going to be a multiphase, multi-year approach where we need to rebuild, recover and most importantly, reimagine what’s possible for our students,” said D.C.’s Ferebee.

It’s also a potentially unique opportunity to fix problems that preexisted the pandemic for many students. The goal, said Ferebee, is “not to strive to get back to what we call normal [because] normal wasn’t working for everyone.”

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