Should students be held back because of coronavirus?

Social media was filled with prank posts about kids in California, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states all having to repeat this school year. There was so much discussion online about them that they reached the offices of governors and state education departments.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert tweeted, “Now is not the time for irresponsible April Fool’s Day Jokes.” Washington’s state education department tweeted a similar message, calling it “an unfortunate” joke. The Sapulpa Times newspaper in Oklahoma apologized for a prank story saying kids had to repeat their grades, with owner and editor Micah Choquette writing that the “attempt to draw some humor into a time where it’s sorely needed” was “a mistake” and “not funny.”

In Florida, the state Department of Education issued a “THIS IS FAKE NEWS” warning on social media: “We’ve been made aware of a post that is circulating as an #AprilFoolsDay joke that Governor Ron DeSantis announced that students will repeat a year of school. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Do not fall for this prank.”

What DeSantis did say is that parents have the option of holding their children back a year because of the coronavirus, raising a question being asked, in all seriousness, as schools around the country remain closed to curb the spread. More than a dozen states have said they will not reopen for the 2019-20 school year, and others are expected to follow.

Some school districts are successfully delivering lessons online, even if they do not replicate what students and teachers would have done in the classroom. But many other districts are struggling with distance learning, and there are some districts that are not providing instruction at all. Even where districts have put together credible distance learning plans, there remain inequities in quality and accessibility.

While school districts and state officials grapple with the here-and-now problems related to the mass move to distance learning, many are wondering what comes next for students who will have missed several months in their school buildings.

School districts could institute large-scale summer school, but that could be prohibitively costly in many places, especially with the American economy grinding to a halt. Douglas Harris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimated that six weeks of summer school nationwide would cost $8.1 billion.

Starting the 2020-21 school year early is a possibility, giving teachers more time to help students catch up. And some children could be required to repeat a year — especially in states that do not relax requirements that students get 180 days a year in instruction. Many have, but not all of them.

“For those that do not follow suit, millions of students would be retained in their current grade,” Harris wrote. “This would make little sense. While research is somewhat mixed about the effects that grade retention has on student outcomes, this evidence probably doesn’t apply in the present circumstances. More relevant is that holding everyone back is equivalent to requiring an extra year of school to graduate high school, which will no doubt reduce graduation odds.”

There is strong research, in fact, that holding children back does not have long-lasting benefits for most, especially if their education programs are not improved during the second year.

Yet some in the education world are making the case that many students, especially those from historically underserved populations, should repeat a grade.

Kevin Huffman, a former education commissioner of Tennessee and a partner at an education nonprofit called the City Fund, said in a Washington Post opinion piece that many students could be set back as much as six months as a result of the crisis, and “the impact will not simply disappear.”

He quoted former U.S. education secretary John King, now chief executive of the nonprofit Education Trust, as saying: “The risk is that in some schools next year, you are going to have a kid with parents who were able to provide high-quality supplemental instruction at home, sitting next to a kid who hasn’t received meaningful instruction since February.”

In response to Huffman’s piece, Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, tweeted that if Huffman is right, and “I think he basically is,” then “the default for the fall should be for most kids to start over and repeat the grade. Especially in high poverty elementary schools, where most kids were already below grade level and are probably not learning much now.”

Petrilli’s tweet generated some opposition, with Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, responding, “And when this virus hits us again this fall (and it most assuredly will), what then?”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, cautioned restraint. “This school year is not a wash,” she said in a statement. “We’ve had seven months of instruction, and students have learned and experienced so much already.”

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo held a special news conference from her home recently to answer questions submitted from children across the state, Patch reported. Asked whether students would have to repeat a grade, she said: “That’s not gonna happen. I won’t let that happen. But you need to do all your schoolwork.”

A Gallup poll taken at the end of March found that 42 percent of parents in the country are worried that the coronavirus will affect their children’s education, which means that a majority of parents aren’t concerned. Only 2 percent said the current school year should not be extended and students should repeat a grade.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said students who complete a formal distance learning program should advance to the next grade in the fall, while 22 percent said students should be allowed to move to the next grade no matter what kind of work they did or didn’t do this spring. Another 27 percent said the school year should be extended into the summer.

Weingarten said she thinks holding every child back “is a terrible idea.”

“We have to be more creative than that,” she said.

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