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Comments of Andrew Feinstein On Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan

The Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan document accurately reflects the requirements of the Connecticut’s American Rescue Plan Act Guidance, issued by the State Department of Education on June 3, 2021, https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Digest/2020-21/ARP_ESSER_Guidance.pdf. Unfortunately, the Safe Return document provides little beyond a recitation of the state requirements (which are, in turn, little more than a restatement of the federal requirements). We need to come up with a bold plan, based on extensive stakeholder input, for reimaging education, fertilized by what we have learned from the experiences of the last year.

Our first focus should be on students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §1400 et. seq. and Connecticut’s special education law, C.G.S. §10-76 et. seq., continued in full force and effect during COVID. There was no waiver, no reduction in requirements, no lapse in coverage. There was a provision for Learning Model IEP Implementation Plans if the precise requirements of a student’s IEP could not be met. But the Learning Model Implementation Plan had to be developed in consultation with parents and had to provide for a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Not withstanding this requirement, many students with disabilities failed to receive a FAPE during COVID closures and hybrid learning. Some needed hands-on instruction or therapy that could be provided. Some students could not attend to computer-based learning. Some had behavioral dysregulation which could not be worked on at-home or in limited, socially distanced cohorts. The failure to provide these students with a FAPE was not the fault of the school system. Fault, however, does not play a part. Students who were denied a FAPE are entitled to services “calculated to provide the educational benefits that likely would have accrued from special education services the school district should have supplied in the first place.” Reid v. D.C., 401 F.3d 516, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

There is a legal doctrine know as compensatory education under which such services can be awarded as a result of a due process filing, a state complaint, or a voluntary agreement. Yet, compensatory education only benefits those students and families with the knowledge and resources to fight for such a remedy. Instead, there is a developing concept of compensatory services, first posited by the United States Department of Education on March 12, 2020. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/idea-files/q-and-a-providing-services-to-children-with-disabilities-during-the-coronavirus-disease-2019-outbreak/. The idea is that a substantial portion of the ARP ESSER funds be set aside to establish a program to remediate loss from failure to provide a FAPE for students with disabilities. Consistent with the IDEA, services would need to be individualized based on the needs of each student. But rather than waiting for a few parents to demand compensatory education, the local school district would systematically review the past and present levels of performance of all students with IEPs and, in consultation with parents, design services and interventions to remediate the loss. The services provided would, in some cases, be creative to make up for loss of social skill experience. In other cases, the services would be additional tutoring or related services. The result would be meeting the needs of students with disabilities, consistent with the law, and without the acrimony and cost of compensatory education litigation.

We also have a remedial obligation for regular education students. The federal law is clear that our focus needs to be as much or more on social emotional learning as it is on academics. We do not have a very precise national picture of learning loss, see https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/20210608-impacts-of-covid19.pdf, but local school districts do have a very granular picture of where each student stands academically. The state guidance, contained in https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/AccelerateCT/-AccelerateCTFramework.pdf, makes plain that the focus should not be on deficits, but on moving forward academically, while backfilling for missed fundamentals. More critically, however, many students returning to full-time, in-person education in September will come back dysregulated. We need to devote resources to making school both a welcome structure and a warm sanctuary for these children. We do this by supporting activities that students want to do, especially group activities, role-playing, team building and non-academic activities.

Beyond the remediation obligation, the COVID-19 closures and hybrid learning have afforded us a remarkable and frankly unprecedented opportunity to recreate our education system. We know the current system is not working well for many students. The Common Core curriculum is well designed for those students going on to liberal arts higher education and to careers of the mind. It is not effective for many students, particularly males, who find abstract learning to be difficult and unpleasant. Even for students who excel at abstract learning, the pressures of persistent testing can be dispiriting. The use of testing for teacher evaluation is a serious morale destroyer for teachers. Let’s use this money to ameliorate these issues.

Here are six ideas we can fund with ARP ESSER funds to make education cutting edge and productive

  1. Apprenticeship. Many students who are not interested in abstract learning love to work with their hands. At the same time, the trades – carpentry, electricians, plumbers, HVAC techs, etc. – are increasingly filled by men in their 50’s and 60’s. We can start an apprenticeship program in the Middle and High School whereby students attend school part of the time and work as apprentices the rest of the day and earn credit for doing so. Let’s use some of the ARP ESSER money to hire a coordinator to get such a program up and running and to provide the necessary transportation to make it work.

  2. Nature. There are numerous reasons to get kids out of the classroom and into the woods. They can learn a whole lot more about science by looking at trees and insects in the woods than they can by reading books. Being outside puts them in touch with their bodies creating a level of personal balance and integration which the classroom does not permit. We are fortunate to have seashore, wooded paths, hills to climb, and inland ponds all within the town. We should create a structured, but not overtly academic, program whereby virtually all students are outside for at least one hour each day, winter and summer. Having students in nature may be the single best antidote to screen addiction that exists.

  3. Class Size. One abundantly clear lesson from the last year is that class sizes of 15 lead to better learning, more participation, and less disciplinary issues than larger classes. Using the current staffing model of a certified teacher in every class makes reducing class size unaffordable. It is time to follow medicine and dentistry into another model. We can move to a model where a trained professional, paid less than a certified teacher, would oversee each class. Such a professional would discharge administrative responsibilities, oversee behavior, proctor testing and ensure that students worked on the academics assigned by teacher. Teachers would be interventionists, who would teach new material and assign review material to students. Changing paradigms will not be an easy process, but we can use ESSER funds to start the transition.

  4. Testing. The quantity of testing at all levels diverts from education, is oppressive for students and for teachers, and distorts the curriculum. Some tests are mandated by state or federal law. Many others are used to fuel the data-based education system we have created. This is rather unfortunate. We can continue to collect longitudinal data on students while discontinuing many of the mind-numbing, curriculum-interrupting tests we use now. The way to do that is by devoting some of our resources to devising better, more student-centered means of assessment. High on that list should be student self-assessment. Students are often far harsher critics of their own work than are teachers. Self-assessment is, unlike formal tests, a learning exercise in itself. While self-assessment makes student-to-student comparison unreliable, it does provide strong longitudinal data on the individual student, which is the best data to see if learning is happening.

  5. Teacher Evaluation. The state has mandated an arcane, highly complex and thoroughly unreliable method of teacher evaluation. We need to create a system of teacher evaluation that identifies the great teachers and that provides helpful guidance to all teachers. A critical piece of this would be twice-yearly surveys of students, parents, and other teachers. The most critical feature of a good teacher is connection with the student. A survey would quickly show which teachers connect with their students. Every teacher in the building knows who the strong teachers are and who are the weak ones. We need to tap that resource. We should use some of our resources to create the teacher evaluation system that teachers can respect, and which serves the purpose, which is communicating to teachers what they are doing well and what they are doing poorly. Having created a workable model of evaluation, we can convince the Legislature and the State Department of Education to abandon the failed system it has instituted.

  6. Sustainability. The money under ARP ESSER must be committed by September 30, 2024. Our goal needs to be to find a way to make this money continue to pay dividends through the rest of the decade. We do not do so by hiring staff members who need to be laid off in three years. We do so by uptraining the existing staff. All employees of the school system – teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, custodians, kitchen workers, drivers – as well as police officers who are assigned to schools, should be provided with extensive training in suicide prevention, de-escalation, restorative practices, group counseling, and relaxation techniques so that students find school a warm, welcoming, safe and supportive place. The goal needs to be to make school something that a child would not dream of missing, the place the child wants to be, the site at which the child can fulfill his or her potential.

Bricks and Mortar. We must avoid the temptation to use ESSER ARP funds to repair and replace HVAC systems or to build new structures. It is certainly important that students and teachers work in a comfortable environment. Still, the construction and maintenance of the physical plant should come from regular local tax payments, not from this special pot of COVID related money. By spending ARP money on bricks and mortar, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to create an education system for the 21st Century.

Stakeholder Involvement. The American Rescue Plan was quite specific on the need for stakeholder involvement in developing plans to spend the funds appropriated. The Board of Education should go beyond those requirements and create a set of task forces, involving teachers, parents, providers, and Board members to develop specific plans to make our town a leader in education for the future.