Schools have not been closed—buildings have. Our educators—principals, teachers, and support staff—have worked tirelessly over the past year to address the unprecedented challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presented, including inequitable digital access, diminished learning opportunities, growing food insecurity, and numerous impacts to our students’ and educators’ well-being. Now, with support from the national administration and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, our schools will be more equipped to effectively meet the needs of all students.

In his five-point plan to return students nationwide to full-time, in-person learning, Secretary Cardona painted a clear picture of how we can begin to untangle the web of inequity the pandemic has woven. While NASSP’s Restart and Recovery Briefs were introduced in the fall to guide principals as they navigate the process of safely reopening—as many have already returned to in-person learning—it is deeply encouraging to hear that more centralized resources, data collection, established best practices, and financial support are in the works at the national level to buttress the work underway. 

Cardona says we need to collect better data about how schools are operating during the pandemic. Principals agree—and look forward to building on the data-collection effort that has already begun. NASSP worked in partnership with AASA, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and Brown University Professor of Economics Emily Oster on the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard developed by Qualtrics that collects and collates infection-rate data biweekly from over 5,000 schools. With the Department of Education spearheading data collection of this nature going forward, we can get a far more accurate view of the landscape before us. 

Of course, the path to full reopening is funding. With the narrowest of margins, the passing of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package provides $130 billion in funding for K–12 schools, including $7 billion to close the “homework gap” by providing home internet access for millions of students who lack connectivity. 

Thousands of principals advocated for this relief bill because they know that returning to in-person learning will take significant resources, including additional staffing. Temperature checks, wiping down student desks, ensuring proper social distancing, and other health safety measures have been added to educators’ already full plates. Principals are often leading the contact-tracing efforts when a student or staff member has been exposed to the virus. Moreover, the unrealistic expectation of concurrent teaching (teaching to students in person and online at the same time) has further increased teachers’ workloads. Many schools will need to reduce class sizes to maintain physical distancing—which means hiring more staff to teach in the classroom and provide support to students who choose to learn remotely. We were already facing a critical shortage of principals and teachers pre-pandemic. We simply cannot accelerate learning opportunities without sufficient qualified educators and school leaders to guide our schools.

Cardona hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s not enough to get our students physically back to school. We have to support them.” In my school, we support the whole student—academically, socially, and emotionally—and we listen to what they and their families need. As a principal, I am equally mindful of our educators who have also been stretched, stressed, and tested in unprecedented ways. I have seen teachers go beyond the call of duty to reach their students—from home visits to drop off Wi-Fi hotspots, food, and supplies to teaching outside of the school day in order to accommodate students who had to take full-time jobs to support their family.

For this reason, it is not the time to be making high-stakes decisions based on a single test score. While many of our students lack the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s clear that state tests will only create more disruptions to their learning and result in even less instructional time for our students who need it the most. Educators were pleased that in his first week of office, Cardona offered flexibility to states and districts in the accountability measures tied to federally required state assessments. Given the extremely challenging situation many schools and communities are facing, we hope that the department will grant any reprieve requested by states from the normal requirements for administering standardized tests and have called on ED to provide a blanket federal waiver for the 2020–21 school year standardized testing requirement. Teachers have continued to assess their students’ learning needs through multiple measures, and they know best what their students need to overcome the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Like Cardona, I too believe we “can emerge from this challenge stronger.” During this past year, I have seen unbelievable strength in our students, our families, and our educators. To ensure our children still had a school to attend—even if it was virtual—took a community of support. Yet, these bonds are being threatened as we aim to return to full-time, in-person learning. Political rhetoric attempts to divide and pit parents and educators against one another, when we all want the same thing. Now, more than ever, we need to work together and remain united around the single mission that we all believe in: Success for every student. 

About the Author

Robert Motley is the principal of Atholton High School in Columbia, MD, and president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

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