It’s been a busy few years—both inside and outside schools. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated adoption of online and hybrid modes of education alongside uptake of educational technologies that facilitated virtual learning. As educators and students return to schools, administrators in school districts around the U.S. figure out how to most effectively apply funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and how to reimplement state testing (if at all). On a national scale, political polarization has brought conflict in connection with race and gender and sexual identity to the forefront—often with schools as the battleground.
Let’s learn about the critical national events that have had the most impact on K-12 education in SY 2021/2022.
First and foremost, in-person learning is back in session for many students across the country. While reopening started slowly for SY 2020/2021, schools began to weigh the uncertainty of reopening with the clear harms of keeping children out of school. By summer 2021, pressure from parents and teachers, not to mention persistent learning gaps and declining mental health among students made it difficult to justify school closures in most places.
As of 2022, mayors, governors, and the U.S. Secretary of Education were all strongly in favor of school reopenings. This was complicated by the emergence of the Omicron variant in early 2022, which led to regional closings in some districts accompanied by frequent testing upon reopening. Young children haven’t shown as strong a risk of Covid-19 transmission and most contracted cases are mild.
Now, schools have continued to use hybrid and virtual class selectively as a tool that complements in-person learning rather than their main method. According to NYC Mayor Eric Adams, “The safest place for our children is in a school building.”
After a couple years of eased grading requirements, reopening has meant educators now need to grapple with reinstating state testing. In many cases, standardized tests have been shown to exacerbate educational inequality, and some districts are considering doing away with them entirely.
Passage of the American Rescue Plan
Before the ARP was passed, only 46% of schools were open. Today, 99% of P-12 schools are open and making use of the $122 billion the ARP made available for P-12 education.
No school is using their funds in exactly the same way, but there are some key trends. In general, there is a large divide between how much different states spend per-capita on their pupils, and educational resources can vary widely from district to district. A White House fact sheet “The American Rescue Plan Is Keeping America’s Schools Open Safely, Combating Learning Loss, And Addressing Student Mental Health” states that the “overwhelming majority of funds are being used for priorities like teachers, counselors, academic recovery, mental health, and health and safety measures like ventilation improvements.”
Nearly 60% of funds are being used to invest in staffing and retention (which suffered heavily during the pandemic due to educator burnout), combat learning loss through student support programs like tutoring, summer school and other enrichment programs, purchase new learning materials, and support student and educator wellbeing.
Anti-transgender legislation and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill
Today, there are more openly LGBTQ+ students in K-12 schools than ever. We’ve talked before about how important it is for students to feel included and safe at school, and students who are questioning and exploring their sexual and gender identity are no exception.
But discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth is still a hot-button issue. As of April 2022, there are hundreds of laws and proposed laws aiming to exclude transgender childen from gender-affirming bathrooms and sports teams or banning discussion of gender in the classroom entirely. A UCLA study shows that 0.7% of children aged 13-17 identify as transgender (the youngest age group for which data is available).
According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been proposed in 2022, on pace to see more legislation targeting transgender youth than any prior year.
Most recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Parental Rights in Education,” dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents, into law. Opponents see it as a barrier to a “gender-expansive” classroom where students can read relevant children’s books, safely express gender dysphoria, and choose pronouns they identify with. It will likely inspire similar legislation in other states.
The debate over Critical Race Theory
The May 2020 murder of George Floyd, subsequent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 has brought the interconnected issues of racial conflict and mental health to the forefront nationwide.
In 2021, Critical Race Theory (CRT) quickly became an educational flashpoint regarding discussion about race, which filters down from the national conversation, in K-12 schools. Nine states have since passed legislation, mostly to “ban the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression” in schools. In effect, the law stigmatizes classroom discussion about the connection between the history of slavery and Jim Crow with racial discrimination and systemic inequality in the U.S. today.
Though there is a big difference between discussing CRT—an approach most often taught in law school—and discussing the relevance of racial identity in students’ lives, state school boards in Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Alabama have introduced new guidelines barring CRT-related discussions. Twenty others are considering similar legislation, making it difficult for students of color to feel affirmed at school.
In spring 2022, Florida state guidance banned “social justice” in textbooks on the heels of Governor DeSantis’ signing of the “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricts how educators discuss race, oppression, and the founding of the U.S. The Act is expected to discourage inclusion of topics like CRT, the impacts of racial discrimination on our history, and social and emotional learning in new educational materials.
The continued Covid-19 pandemic
Though schools have successfully reopened, periodic spikes in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, as well as the emergence of new variants, mean the pandemic is still not over. Epidemiologists believe Covid-19 will continue to circulate in society, and that we might contract it two times a year (like educators might catch a cold or flu).
It’s important that schools make strong Covid-19 backup plans, including support for teachers’ physical and mental well-being in particular, a continued priority.
How Teachers on Demand can help
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