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Legislative Column: Avoiding Speed bumps on the Road to Recovery

  • By Manish Naik, Director of Legislative Services

    Despite the persistent rise of COVID-19 variants, the long-term recovery from the pandemic is underway as effective vaccines continue to reduce hospitalizations and the gap widens between cases and deaths. But education policymakers at all levels would be wise to proceed cautiously to ensure the road out of the emergency period is as smooth as possible for schools that are still reeling from the last two years. Any inclination for a quick return to a pre-pandemic normal should be dismissed.

    Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education published guidance for re-starting state accountability systems and identifying schools for support and improvement for the first time since the fall of 2019. At the outset of the pandemic, federal officials allowed States to waive the assessments and accountability required under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) for 2020, and allowed waivers of accountability determinations again in 2021, as well. With the Department’s announcement that both assessments and accountability would again be required in 2022, the guidance included helpful explanations of the options, flexibilities, and areas of discretion that would be available to States.

    Unfortunately, federal officials recently indicated that less than half of States have submitted amendments to their accountability plans so far, despite the importance of restarting the ESEA accountability system correctly. After lengthy school closures and continuous learning disruptions since 2020, States should use this opportunity to reset the innumerable goals and indicators in their differentiated accountability systems, along with revising methodologies and weightings. States should also take advantage of the flexibility in the guidance to use data from this spring’s assessments to establish a new baseline for their long-term goals and measurements of interim progress, rather than merely pushing back their existing targets by two years.

    Resetting the baseline is essential due to significant issues with using 2019 assessment data for comparative purposes, or the use of 2021 data due to problems with participation rates, enrollment declines, high absenteeism, differing levels of hybrid and in-person instruction, and wide variations in the pandemic’s impact among different student groups. We know that student performance will be down in spring 2022 and States should take advantage of the federal flexibility to recalibrate and avoid the overidentification of schools, a real possibility that returns us to the latter years of No Child Left Behind. This spring’s assessment results should help the nation’s still-overburdened school districts identify and target support where it is needed most.

    Federal lawmakers have also attempted to speed past the recovery stage by not including

    an extension of the Child Nutrition waivers in the recent FY 2022 Omnibus appropriations bill. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the waivers have allowed school districts to receive higher reimbursements, serve free meals to all students, and get much needed flexibility to provide meals to students wherever they are. The waivers have also been critical to deal with supply chain and staffing shortages that Food Service departments continue to face. In the end, the price tag for renewing the waivers was too high for congressional Republicans, who insisted that schools have reopened and school meal programs should return to normal.

    Even though most schools have reopened, meal service has not returned to the pre-pandemic traditions. Flexibility for meals in the classroom and grab-and-go options is still needed in schools, and for meal boxes for students quarantining or isolating at home. The loss of waivers will also mean lower reimbursements for each meal served, while school districts are still struggling with increased prices for food and supplies and decreased staffing to run kitchens and cafeterias. Undoing the damage from the pandemic is going to be hard enough, and lawmakers should avoid decisions that will make recovery even harder for schools and districts.