By: Carlos R. Rodríguez Silvestre
Executive Director, Flamboyan Foundation Puerto Rico
(Published on El Nuevo Día on April 29, 2020)
Last week, the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) announced its decision to end the current school year in early May because of the COVID-19 health pandemic. Distance learning will end by May 8, teachers will submit final grades by May 15, and families will enroll their children for the upcoming school year in August. All students – regardless of their academic standing – are expected to be promoted to the next grade. This leaves us with real questions before us, what can PRDE do to ensure that ALL students are ready to start the school year in the next grade? And, how can it support educators and students NOW to ensure students finish the year successfully?
If PRDE is truly committed to the plan it recently laid out, it must do so with the utmost care. Children and families must be at the center of not only what is contained in the plans, but also how the plan is rolled out to ensure students are as prepared as possible for a strong start next school year. Those actions should begin immediately and include two key considerations:
Food assistance and accessibility right now: Food insecurity in Puerto Rico is a troubling reality. With schools closed, students and families who rely on meals during the school day are not getting them. Despite PRDE donating more than 364,000 pounds of food to nonprofits, the amount of food and its dissemination is insufficient. 364,000 sounds like a lot – yet it is only equivalent to about seven days of meals and there is no evidence that the food is reaching the students and families for which it should be reserved. Nearly $9 million is allocated each week to provide students with 2 meals a day. PRDE has a responsibility to ensure that the nearly 300,000 students who rely on school meals and are currently experiencing food insecurity are fed. Access to food is a basic human right and the government must meet its obligation the young people on the island.
Transparent, detailed plans for this summer and next school year: Students, some of whom have already missed more than half the school year, are at risk of permanent achievement gaps. Studies show that under normal circumstances, students in elementary school lose about 20% of their school-year gains in reading and 27% in math during summer break. There’s no doubt that academic losses will be exacerbated by the early start of summer and even more compounded due to the earthquakes that occurred earlier in the school year. To give students the strongest start and ongoing learning possible, PRDE must create, share, and implement a comprehensive plan for how students will return to school and remain on track that includes reimagining academic supports, assessments, and educator professional development. Additionally, included in this plan should be considerations for improved distance learning strategies, re-imagining physical learning environments, and evaluating phased entry for summer learning opportunities in 2021.
As students prepare for promotion to the next grade, particular attention on providing academic supports that are calibrated to students current learning levels is essential. PRDE has stated that the first few months of the school year will be focused on remediation of basic skills. There is much opportunity to support students’ readiness as early as this summer even though traditional summer school will not occur. Equity-focused strategies like extra academic time during the school year and next summer, improved technology access, and high-quality family engagement should be investigated.
An assessment plan should be designed to help teachers identify every child’s learning level as a baseline. Recommendations for remediating loss or recognizing gains should be synced with these assessments so they are tailored to students individually. For students to meet grade-level standards and be successful, we must understand where they are – especially in literacy and math – as quickly as possible when school resumes.
In order for those important assessments and academic supports to be the most meaningful for students, teachers need to be prepared for this undertaking. Educator professional development is critical and must start as soon as possible this summer. At the elementary level, emphasis should be placed on literacy instruction, to ensure all students are reading on grade level, and assessment and intervention strategies to make up for student learning loss need to be implemented. Further, teachers need continued support for providing both remote instruction and social-emotional support for themselves and their students. The academic and emotional impacts of this health crisis will have effects long after restrictions are lifted, and we need adults prepared to support students.
These are difficult times. And there is no singular or simplistic solution that will get us through them. Yet, PRDE has a real opportunity to meet these challenges with inclusion and innovation. We encourage PRDE to rise to the occasion and provide the best planning, communication, and support possible to students, families, and educators. Action needs to start right now to ensure ALL students have access to a good education that can guarantee them a brilliant future. The students of Puerto Rico deserve the absolute best PRDE has to offer.