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The Optimist

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Schools and students during the COVID-19 outbreak in America: A conversation with Allan Golston

1. One of the things this pandemic has done is lay bare all the ways that school is knitted into the fabric of American life. Now that the U.S. education system is operating remotely, what are the biggest challenges you’re seeing for teachers, students, and parents?

Well, right now, roughly 54 million students in the United States are unable to go to school because of the COVID-19 outbreak. That’s about one sixth of the country’s population. So, you’re right, the scale of the disruption is enormous.

With college campuses closing, it means significant challenges for faculty, administrators, and most importantly, for students—many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and might not have places to go that allow them the safety, security and access they need to continue their studies.

It also means that parents of K-12 students across the country are navigating disruptions in their work and home lives while also stepping in as partners in their children’s education in new ways.

And teachers are also having to come up with creative ways to continue students’ learning.

2. What are some of the ways you’ve seen teachers adapt to this challenge?

Bill Gates and I actually just got off the phone with Dr. Sonja Santelises, who is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. They have a ratio of one computer for every four students. And many students don't have computer or Wi-Fi access at home.

So, some teachers are holding FaceTime learning sessions, which students can access on phones with regular data or wireless plans. Some are posting prompts on Instagram to teach students and keep them engaged. Some are delivering printed materials, and students are actually coming and asking for those materials because they want to stay involved.

These teachers are doing an amazing job. So are teachers and parents all over the country. But they need more support.

3. What is the Gates Foundation doing to help?

Well, the foundation’s U.S. Program is focused on the needs of our education system, both within the context of COVID-19 and as we plan for recovery. We have already started moving roughly $4M in emergency aid focused on two areas:

In our work on higher education, we’re providing funding that will enable emergency aid to help reduce the impact of campus closings on students across the country—and particularly low-income students who could be losing their access to housing, food, and wages.

In our work with K-12 education, we’re supporting states and state education commissioners as they develop their online learning options, as they coordinate meals and support for students who rely on schools for day-to-day services, and as they advocate for the kind of federal assistance they need to meet this challenge.

This is just the first set of actions we’re taking. We’re also working with our partners, thinking about how this pandemic is going to impact the education system over the longer term. Specifically, exploring how this unprecedented situation will affect the long-term learning, growth, and prosperity of students—particularly for Black and Latinx students, as well as those experiencing poverty—and what can be done to address those issues.

4. I know the foundation works with a large group of partners to help improve education in the U.S. Can you talk about how some of them are responding?

Absolutely. I’ll give you a few examples.

We know, for instance, that high-quality digital learning has never been more important. Zearn Math is inviting parents to set up “teacher” accounts to allow them to access high-quality math content from home.

In this very fluid environment, a coalition of state education chiefs, Chiefs for Change, has created a web page that provides guidance for systems leaders from their state and district superintendent members.

Then there are other institutional partners, like Arizona State University. In addition to moving 55,000 students from on-campus learning to their digital platforms, ASU is finding ways to support the higher ed and K-12 fields more broadly. They’ve created a single landing page, ASU for You, that gives students and educators free access to their teaching and learning content.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing creative ways that other organizations are leveraging philanthropic and individual giving to help teachers and students. Donors Choose has set up a Keep Kids Learning fund to get essential resources out to the students and teachers who need them, and Bill and Melinda are personally matching individual donations today with the goal of providing $1,000 in funding to every teacher at schools where the majority of students receive free or reduced lunch.

5. You mentioned before that you’re thinking about how this pandemic will impact students long-term. Do you have a sense of what the impact will be yet? What are some of the challenges the education system will have to confront after this immediate crisis passes? What will change?

After this crisis, we will have millions of students who were or will be behind in their learning journey—so part of our work going forward will have to involve innovation, acceleration, and catch-up supports deployed at a scale we’ve never seen before to help students get back on their grade level path.

But one thing to be hopeful about is that in order to take on this crisis, we’re also having to face down some of the inequities that our education system has been trying to address for years—whether that involves meals, or after school programs, or community resources, or even support for students who are facing basic need losses at home.

For example, some estimates say that nearly 20 percent of students don’t have at-home internet access. That’s a serious problem at the best of times—and when social distancing is critical, we’re seeing it rise to the level of the national conversation. Similarly, there has traditionally been very little talk at scale about distance and digital learning as a way to supplement and support traditional education models, but with schools and campuses closed across the country, we’re being forced to find ways to scale up effective distance learning in ways that could be effective long-term. And even before this crisis, there were hundreds of thousands of students who were behind on their learning journey without a clear strategy to bring them up to speed. As we think about how to accelerate learning for the millions of students who will need to catch up after this crisis is over, we can also apply those lessons to engage students who fall behind in more normal circumstances.

The truth is, we don’t know what the future will look like. But if we approach these challenges in the right way and use our resources effectively, our actions can result in innovations that help to ease inequities and strengthen our educational system overall. 

About the Interviewee

Allan Golston
Allan Golston, president of U.S. Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leads the foundation’s efforts to advance educational opportunity and student achievement in the United States.

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