9 minute read 4 Apr 2020
students using laptops

How the US K-12 education system can navigate COVID-19 challenges

By

Robert Lytle

Global EY-Parthenon Education Leader

Global professional in education markets. Passionate about the private sector‘s role in advancing outcomes. Frequent speaker at global industry gatherings. Self-acknowledged sci-fi and fantasy nerd.

9 minute read 4 Apr 2020

The US public K-12 education system is facing challenges associated with COVID-19 and must figure out how to drive student learning.

The nation’s public K-12 education system, composed of approximately 14,000 independent school districts, is confronting the challenges associated with the COVID-19 crisis in a variety of ways. 

The current crisis highlights structural and performance differences between districts, and it also creates significant pressure on states and districts across several common dimensions:

  • Supporting student learning while addressing issues of equity and access
  • Providing technology solutions and infrastructure to support remote learning and operations
  • Ensuring sources and absolute levels of funding
  • Navigating autonomy and governance relationships between state and local education authorities

While higher education institutions rapidly closed campuses and instituted remote learning, most K-12 systems found themselves navigating challenging and uncharted territory with limited information and little time to prepare for closures. It was not until major districts closed and state governors stepped in that schools shut down en masse. Even so, communication to families, access to devices and resources to support remote learning, and school reopening projections varied widely district to district within a state, and even between schools within some districts. With few fully equipped to support remote student learning, many districts were effectively shut down in mid-March as they explored options and developed remote instructional plans and materials.

As of mid-April, most districts are now moving forward with some version of remote delivery, often using commercially available collaboration tools as the foundation. This makeshift remote learning solution should not be confused with best-in-class online courseware, delivery infrastructure and supporting services, but it will likely remain the solution for the rest of the 2019–20 school year — and potentially into the 2020–21 school year.

As the school year closes, states and districts will continue to face myriad challenges over the coming weeks and months. Yet, they must start to plan for how to deliver instruction and drive student learning in a complex and ever-changing situation. Given this unknown, schools, states and districts will be contemplating a variety of scenarios for the next school year and beyond.

What to anticipate?

In these uncertain times, discerning “what is next” for K-12 education requires some speculation. Regardless of when the threat of COVID-19 subsides, states and districts will need to help their students and families regain some level of “normalcy” in the near and long term. Students will have been learning outside of their normal classroom setting for an extended period of months and may face delayed or interrupted schooling in the fall. As we consider the remainder of this school year and start to look toward the 2020–21 school year, here are a number of developments that we anticipate.

Below we highlight several developments that we anticipate for the K-12 sector, as well as sequence some of the actions that districts will need to take over the next six to nine months. While no means comprehensive, this table is intended to identify the most critical activities.

Standards, access and accountability — CAO agenda
  • Anticipate

    • Need for significant ELA and math review or remediation across the majority of students, many of whom will experience a combined “spring/summer melt”
    • Stressed instructional staff with limited preparation for either high levels of ELA and math review, remediation or continued remote learning
    • Access and equity pressures brought to the forefront by lost school weeks and ad hoc remote learning, including:
      • Significant gaps in normal services provided, and thus academic progress, among high-need student populations (students with disabilities, English language learners, etc.)
      • Students with home situations that may delay or interrupt their ability to return to schooling in the fall
      • Inaccessible nutrition programs for students who are no longer able to come to school
    • Parents in confusion over the progress and status of their child’s academic progression, particularly around seminal transition points (e.g., third grade/middle/high-school progression, AP/IB classes, graduation)
  • Now: Ensuring continuity of education operations (largely complete)

    • Establish remote learning delivery protocols
    • Assess which portions of curriculum will be taught balancing:
      • Accessibility
      • Equity
    • Deploy professional development (PD) programs to support educators’ remote learning
    • Assess summer learning and programming scenarios
  • Next: Building resiliency (late spring and fall)

    • Plan to diagnose learning losses and remediate for lost time by “doubling down” on ELA and math:
      • Altered curriculum
      • Altered schedules
    • Develop and implement PD to accommodate:
      • Lost PD time in the spring
      • Continued remote training
      • Lost observations, coaching
    • Develop a remote learning nutrition plan
  • Beyond: Reframing the future (fall and winter)

    • Develop ability to switch between proximate and remote learning, assuming that:
      • A future crisis will occur
      • Some students will be remote at any time
    • Train for/practice online education
Technology solutions and infrastructure – CIO/CTO agenda
  • Anticipate

    • Short-term bandwidth and system load issues as technology infrastructures reach historically high use levels
    • Challenges acquiring, distributing, accounting for and supporting technology 
    • Issues associated with remote tech support
    • Data security and privacy concerns
    • Cyber-attacks on less secure systems 
    • Inevitable migration from interim to long-term remote education solutions/platforms
  • Now: Ensuring continuity of education operations (largely complete)

    • Prepare for immediate remote learning:
      • Technology (instructor and student)
      • Systems scalability
      • Collaboration platforms
      • Remote technical support
    • Assess vendor/partner risk
  • Next: Building resiliency (late spring and fall)

    • Enhance business processes around remote operations (e.g., systems, technology, training)
    • Upgrade asset management strategy to support remote devices
    • Scale systems infrastructure 
    • Ensure that cybersecurity protocols for altered technology infrastructures are in place
  • Beyond: Reframing the future (fall and winter)

    • Invest in online learning infrastructures 
    • Integrate with education delivery and instructional strategy
Funding – CFO agenda
  • Anticipate

    • A chaotic budgeting process at the local, state and federal levels, including:
      • o   Disproportionate budget allocations in districts that are heavily reliant on state revenues
      • o   Lack of clarity regarding timing and size of federal funding to be made available 
    • The need for flexible versus static planning (e.g., return to normal, extended virtual, hybrid)
    • Fiscal pressures to offer “level-services” budgeting as a best-case scenario, including:
      • Lower turnover, which, in turn, raises total payroll costs
      • Potential funding “clawbacks” from municipalities/states in anticipation of fiscal deficits next year
      • A push to revisit costs, or take a “zero-based budget” approach, and consider options that enable the same or similar levels of service at a lower cost (i.e., through outsourcing, renegotiated vendor contracts, shared services) 
      • A potential need to delay or reconsider negotiated raises or other aspects of current collective bargaining agreements
  • Now: Ensuring continuity of education operations (largely complete)

    • Understand the impact on cash and budget
    • Assess cash needs through summer/fall
    • Plan a scenario for the 2020-21 school year
    • Prioritize investments
  • Next: Building resiliency (late spring and fall)

    • Protect reserves 
    • Freeze hiring to protect against future layoffs
    • Reduce recurring costs
    • Delay capital expenditures
    • Communicate often and clearly with constituents around budget realities (current and anticipated)
    • High level of contact with state funders 
    • Prepare for insurance/emergency funding requirements
  • Beyond: Reframing the future (fall and winter)

    • Examine benefits packages
    • Drive costs down in relation to activity drivers (the last recession did not see budget declines in relation to activity drivers)
    • Enhance business disruption planning
Governance – state, superintendent and board agenda
  • Anticipate

    • State departments of education seeking to leverage learnings from this experience to develop emergency remote learning plans, infrastructure and statewide protocols to ensure continuity and a threshold educational quality in a future disruption
    • Rising tensions around decisions formerly left to districts that the crisis has consolidated at the state level 
    • Short-term dislocation and confusion as local school boards, city governments, state departments of education and regulators begin to fully understand and respond to the issues that schools, districts, educators and families are facing on the ground
  • Now: Ensuring continuity of education operations (largely complete)

    • Close schools and establish remote working protocols
    • Ensure the safety of the staff and community (duty of care)
    • Create a crisis center and communication project management office (PMO)
  • Next: Building resiliency (late spring and fall)

    • Prepare for potentially protracted financial pressure
    • Proactively communicate priorities in anticipation of real investment restrictions
    • Connect with political leaders to identify emergency funding opportunities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
    • Communicate with key political leaders/educate them on the impact of the crisis and the need for relief
    • Request regulatory flexibility 
    • Develop reopening protocols/checklists
  • Beyond: Reframing the future (fall and winter)

    • Work with states to understand roles for crisis management:
      • Closure protocols
      • Redundant systems
      • Curriculum truncation
    • Develop a coherent set of plans for sustained or temporary remote learning:
      • Roles and responsibilities
      • Funding 
      • Infrastructure
      • Training

Special thanks to EY-Parthenon Principals Seth Reynolds and Phil Vaccaro for co-authoring this work, as well as EY-Parthenon Vice President Ali Huberlie, Senior Consultant Kate Pinto and Senior Associate Nour Abdelmonem for their contributions.

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Summary

The nation’s public K-12 education system is confronting the challenges associated with the COVID-19 crisis in a wide variety of ways. The current crisis highlights structural and performance differences between districts, and it also creates significant pressure on states and districts across several common dimensions:

  • Supporting student learning while addressing issues of equity and access
  • Providing technology solutions and infrastructure to support remote learning and operations
  • Ensuring sources and absolute levels of funding
  • Navigating autonomy and governance relationships between state and local education authorities

Read our full report to learn more.

About this article

By

Robert Lytle

Global EY-Parthenon Education Leader

Global professional in education markets. Passionate about the private sector‘s role in advancing outcomes. Frequent speaker at global industry gatherings. Self-acknowledged sci-fi and fantasy nerd.