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Aspiring teachers can provide critical support for our kids

Note: For more on these ideas, see Deans for Impact’s COVID-19 policy recommendations.

Two weeks ago, I was ready to publish a blog about the commonalities between the NBA’s successful restart and what we hoped would have been a safe and successful restart to K-12 schools. Instead, the restart of schools, particularly in the southeast, has led to a proliferation of COVID-19 cases and even death among teachers and students. Now, Hurricane Laura stands to further disrupt the health, safety, and education of millions of southeastern kids. 

So, here I am, as an education advocate and a lifetime resident and lover of the southeast, admitting: We’ve failed our students. We’ve failed our families. We’ve failed our teachers. 

But we can course correct. And, in many ways, we already are. 

For example, school leaders in my coastal hometown recently made headlines in The New York Times for actively trying to keep outbreak information from the community. Quickly realizing their policy failures, these leaders addressed the issue head-on by making their COVID-19 Notification Process transparent to the community. Missteps and corrections like this are happening across school buildings and virtual classrooms every minute of every day — with little coordination or investment on behalf of our elected officials. 

School leaders and policymakers will continue to adjust plans nationwide, and especially in the southeast, where Hurricane Laura threatens added calamity and complexity. Our nation’s future teachers must play an essential role in those plans. To do so, here are a few things that school leaders and policymakers should keep in mind:

First, reopening safely requires immense creativity. Threatening to withhold critical funding for schools that are not able to physically reopen is not a winning strategy — and the courts seem to agree. Instead, school leaders — supported through policy — must continue to work tirelessly to develop and implement nuanced plans for reopening schools based on the best available health data. They’re going to need to employ creative, flexible staffing options to do so successfully. 

At Deans for Impact, we believe that the nation’s 450,000 future teachers represent a significant and creative source of support for K-12 schools, regardless of where student learning takes place this fall. Specifically, these aspiring teachers can provide virtual and in-person tutoring to combat the expected learning loss associated with the pandemic. 

These future teachers can also build the capacity of schools to provide socially-distant, in-person learning opportunities by allowing K-12 schools to hire teacher-candidates to supplement their current workforce. For example, these ‘associate-teachers’ can staff ‘learning pods’ in low-income communities, closing equity gaps in access to private, small-group instruction. They can also ensure current, vulnerable teachers don’t have to choose between their health and their paycheck by allowing vulnerable teachers to plan lessons, deliver instruction and mentor from home while younger ‘associate-teachers’ provide in-person instruction and supervision. 

Second, reopening safely requires new thinking about resources. To support the implementation of these ideas, the federal government should authorize additional funding to support schools of education to train, match, and compensate aspiring teachers to serve as tutors and ‘associate-teachers’ in high-need communities. Further, lawmakers should expand national service and loan forgiveness opportunities  (i.e. Americorps, TEACH Grants) for individuals willing to serve students. Similar ideas in the U.S. and abroad have been introduced as necessary, albeit costly. 

The thing is, they don’t have to be if we harness the collective power of the future teacher workforce. These aspiring teachers want (and are usually required) to be in front of students to practice their craft. Many institutions are struggling to find enough placements to support these necessary practice opportunities for their candidates.These candidates can be incentivized to serve as tutors by allowing the tutoring services they provide in-person, online, or in non-school based settings (e.g. Boys & Girls Clubs) to satisfy state requirements. 

Finally, reopening requires a commitment to justice and equity. The systemic racism that has been embedded in our nation for hundreds of years is made more apparent in the face of an international pandemic. Collectively, we must harness the creativity of the moment and direct it toward supporting communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, particularly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color. 

For example, future teachers at the University of Tennessee Knoxville are providing virtual tutoring to K-8 students in the care of Centro Hispano — a community organization dedicated to providing critical resources and education to Latinx families in Knoxville. Further north, Governor Hogan of Maryland announced $100 million to support targeted tutoring for at-risk students; these funds are quickly being put to use by local schools to partner with institutions, like Salisbury University on the eastern shore, to pay their teacher-candidates as tutors. 

These ideas create learning opportunities for kids, flexible staffing models for school leaders, additional childcare for parents and guardians, and meaningful practice experiences for the future teacher workforce. 

Even at a time when partisan politics are naturally hitting their peak (68 days before a presidential election, but who’s counting), the tragedy unfolding in the southeastern schools that raised me does not have to be the path we continue. I remain optimistic that our nation’s leaders will quickly get comfortable pivoting to a strategy that prioritizes the health and safety of our schools through creative preparation and the equitable distribution of resources. The lives of our students, families, and teachers depend on it. 


Patrick Steck

Director of Policy


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