Friday, March 20, 2020

Coronavirus presents new challenges and opportunities to higher education

The coronavirus public health emergency has triggered deep, and possibly lasting, changes in many industries and institutions — airlines, cruise ships, public schools, entertainment venues and other places where large numbers of people congregate in limited space. Colleges and universities, especially those with traditional on-campus residential models, are no exception.

The Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued specific guidance for higher education institutions to follow to prevent and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. The CDC guidance includes advice on updating emergency operation plans, communicating with students and faculty, ensuring safe housing and meal deliveries, and coordinating with public health officials when making decisions to cancel classes or study-abroad programs. The Education Department’s guidance focuses primarily on flexibility in adjusting financial aid for students affected by class and internship cancellations that may reduce their credit load below the minimum level for eligibility. 

The American College Health Association has issued guidance for student health centers on planning and responding to coronavirus outbreaks, including stockpiling appropriate medical supplies and informing the campus community.

Already, universities are beginning to cancel courses for the remainder of the winter term, shifting instruction and final examinations to an online format. Among the first were the University of Washington, University of Seattle, and the Seattle campus of Boston-based Northeastern University. Beyond the state of Washington, which to date has had the highest concentration of COVID-19 deaths, other universities are warning they may follow suit.

Duke University issued advice to students leaving for spring break on how to stay healthy, noting that classes could be canceled if any member of the campus community tests positive for the coronavirus. Yale University told students leaving for spring break to take essential items home in case the campus delays re-opening. Kahlil Greene, Yale’s undergraduate student president, noted that having spring break coincide with the disease outbreak made things more uncertain. “Everyone’s dispersing and then everyone’s coming back together. In many people’s minds, that makes it more likely that something is going to happen on campus,” Greene told the New York Times.

Many people remember the H1N1 — or swine flu — outbreak in 2009, which affected between 11 and 21 percent of the global population, according to the Washington Post. Fortunately, its effects proved to be mild and it’s now part of the periodically-recurring family of flu-like viruses. Optimists hope that COVID-19 will be either completely eradicated or at least relegated to the same status as H1N1.

The longer-term impact on colleges and universities is likely to bring forward some opportunities. The most apparent benefit is online education. So many major universities have adopted online degree programs in recent years that opposition from old-school professors has dwindled. Most research on online college coursework has concluded that benefits outweigh its limitations. A 2017 study by the Brookings Institution noted, “Online courses offer the promise of access regardless of where students live or what time they can participate, potentially redefining educational opportunities for those least well-served in traditional classrooms. Moreover, online platforms offer the promise, through artificial intelligence, of providing the optimal course pacing and content to fit each student’s needs and thereby improve educational quality and learning.”

Online education mostly originated in the for-profit sector of higher education around 20 years ago, and during its formative period, it was roundly criticized for lower quality curriculum design, susceptibility to student cheating, and lack of classroom support services. Fortunately, as technology improved and competition arose, including nonprofit competitors, the online experience today offers many features that arguably improve upon the traditional “chalk and talk” classroom. The regulatory purge of many poor-quality for-profit schools during the Obama administration has left a more responsible cadre of higher-quality for-profits remaining in the online space. 

Experts in online higher education report a strong interest in adopting online courses from universities that have had little or no online presence. Luyen Chou, chief learning officer for 2U, sees the coronavirus scare as part of a longer-term trend toward more online coursework. “Events like the coronavirus give you a short-term spike in interest, but this is part of a much larger trend,” Chou observes.

New public health menaces also have expanded higher educational marketplaces for health care education. The 10-year employment growth contained in the Department of Labor’s 2018 Occupational Outlook Handbook projects nearly 155,000 new jobs for medical assistants, a 23  percent growth rate (considered much faster than average), and more than 35,000 new jobs for clinical lab technologists, an 11 percent growth rate. Importantly, these projections were made before the emergence of COVID-19.

These are just two of the health care jobs on the front lines of the response to the coronavirus outbreak. Medical assistants typically are the “first faces” people see in their doctor’s office, checking vital signs, updating medical charts and performing routine tests. Clinical lab technologists will perform the lab work on COVID-19 test kits. Both medical assistants and entry-level lab technologists can be trained within one or two academic years. Most, and sometimes all, of the coursework can be offered online.

Higher education has been reshaping itself for the past decade because of disruptive changes brought about by dramatic shifts in the labor force, new technologies and differences in generational preferences for gaining knowledge and skills. The coronavirus is yet another type of disruption likely to accelerate the radical transformation of higher education.


California’s Anti-School Tax Revolt

Something unexpected happened in California on Super Tuesday. While most media attention was focused on the state’s presidential primary for the Democrat party, there was also one statewide proposition on the ballot, which would have authorized the state government to borrow $15 billion to repair and upgrade schools, to be paid for by raising taxes on Californians.

KTLA describes what was at stake for the state’s voters on 2020’s Proposition 13:

"The only statewide measure on Tuesday’s California primary ballot is a $15 billion bond to repair and modernize aging schools, many of which are more than a half-century old and have issues ranging from leaky roofs and old wiring to toxic mold.

Some $9 billion from Proposition 13 would go to K-12 schools, with priority given to addressing health and safety concerns such as removing asbestos and eliminating lead from drinking water.

Of that, $5.8 billion would go to updating school facilities, followed by $2.8 billion for new construction and $500 million each for charter schools and facilities for technical education.

The borrowed money does come with a price tag: taxpayers would owe an estimated $11 billion in interest over the next 35 years, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office."

In addition to the state’s teachers’ unions, who would directly stand to benefit from the measure, Proposition 13 was backed by leading state political leaders, including Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and all of the national presidential candidates for the Democrat Party competing in the state’s Super Tuesday primary.

The high level of competition among the Democratic party’s presidential candidates brought high numbers of enthusiastic supporters to the polls, which should have bode well for Proposition 13 because registered Democratic Party voters in California outnumber registered Republican voters by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

And yet, they refused to pass 2020’s Proposition 13. The Associated Press‘ Michael R. Blood writes an epitaph for the measure:

"Everyone knows that living in California comes with a price: Its residents pay some of the nation’s highest taxes on the money they earn, the gas they pump and the clothes they wear. But for the moment, at least, it appears voters have had enough.

The defeat Tuesday of the largest borrowing proposal in the history of California schools—$15 billion for repairs—has opened the question of whether Californian voters put a temporary halt to the growth of government debt because of the unsettled political scene, or because they are on the cusp of a tax revolt akin to one in the 1970s that brought landmark changes to property taxes.

By itself, the crash of the question on the March 3 primary ballot was striking—it’s been a generation since a state school bond failed and there was no telling moment prior to the election indicating voters had soured on it.

But it didn’t stop there. Voters rejected more than half of the 237 local tax and bond measures on that ballot, with several dozen contests still undecided as California authorities wade through hundreds of thousands of uncounted ballots, according to a tally by the California Taxpayers Association."

Blood cites a range of comments across the political spectrum to explain the election outcome. He quotes Dan Newman, a spokesman for a group backing the proposition, as chalking up the loss to voter “grumpiness toward taxes statewide.” Similarly, low-tax advocate Jon Coupal reportedly described the outcome as the result of voters having “grown cynical after repeatedly authorizing more money and debt for government with scant evidence that services or classrooms are improving.”

There may be something to that latter view. One of the biggest issues facing states across the nation is the role public employee pensions are playing in diverting tax dollars from the public services desired by voters. That problem is very pronounced in California, where EdSource, a California education advocacy group, produced a video describing the undesirable effects rising teacher pension costs are having on California’s schools:

EdSource’s video makes a point of the teacher with a $90,000 final income getting an annual guaranteed pension of $60,000, but no Social Security income. In 2017, the Motley Fool estimated that a person earning $100,000 a year while working would collect over $32,000 in annual Social Security income after they retired. California’s teachers who become fully vested in their government-provided pension plans retire much wealthier than most Americans.

It costs a lot to provide these very generous guaranteed pensions. The average cost for teacher pensions in California doubled to $1,000 per student in the 2017-18 school year. Since student enrollment in California’s public schools is falling, the cost to taxpayers of providing exceptionally generous pensions to teachers in the state has only been rising.

That means less and less money that voters approve for schools will be used to do the things that they expect schools to do. Is it any wonder that California’s voters are becoming tax fatigued?


We’re All Homeschoolers Now

In the fight against coronavirus, 33 states have closed some 64,000 schools, affecting more than 32.5 million students, Education Week reports.

Texas is waiving state testing requirements for school districts, New York is relaxing state requirements for how many days a year schools have to be open, and, in California, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a partnership with PBS to put school lessons on television for students at home.

The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico also have closed schools to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus disease, which health experts call COVID-19.

Like other institutions, schools should implement social-distancing policies. Keeping that policy in mind while trying to help needy students, some schools—including those in Ohio, Michigan, and New York—have begun providing pick-up breakfasts and lunches at designated places for eligible students.

A rapidly flourishing market of online resources is beginning to meet the content needs of millions of students across the country.

Numerous companies such as Zearn and STMath are providing their materials online for free during the coronavirus outbreak. Existing options such as Khan Academy offer a wealth of educational resources for families navigating homeschooling for perhaps the first time. Prenda microschool is offering its coursework to families for just $100 for the remainder of the year.

Here is a fantastic list of online learning resources that every family should bookmark on their computers during this pandemic.

National School Choice Week has online resources categorized by content area. You can find online tools such as communications platforms, math, social studies, English language arts, and foreign language education.

Be sure to check out “Daddy School” while you’re at it.

Also available are virtual visits to museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and 2,500 other museums that have partnered with Google to make their art and virtual tours available online.

The Met will offer opera performances online for free beginning at 7:30 every evening through March 22. When you have a chance, check out some 450 online courses available for free from Ivy League universities.

Many of these online learning providers have been doing this for a long time, and traditional school districts should look to either imitate them or work with them—so that districts don’t try to create something from scratch and then realize it doesn’t work.

The list of online resources for families and teachers is growing as social distancing becomes the necessary, new normal. But policy actions by officials in school districts and state governments, as well as at the federal level, can maximize health and safety and provide learning opportunities for students.

District and State Level Policies

States and school districts should put online learning resources on their websites. They could include links such as those above to existing private resources and tools, along with links to virtual platforms (such as Blackboard) enabling families to contact teachers directly, access lessons, and stay in touch virtually with classmates.

State restrictions on teacher certification should be lifted temporarily to free up the supply of online tutors, allowing anyone with a bachelor’s degree to provide instruction online.

States should restructure per-pupil K-12 education funding in the form of emergency or temporary education savings accounts for families of children with special needs, so that they may continue to receive the therapy they need. Five states currently have ESA options in place. (Parents receive a portion of their child’s per-pupil public school funding in a restricted-use account that they then can use to pay for any education-related service, product, or provider of choice.)
Federal Policies

At the federal level, Congress should immediately but temporarily make funding authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act both student-centered and portable, allowing children with special needs to access learning services to which they’re entitled under federal law. These IDEA funds could be used to pay for in-home tutors and behavioral therapies, among numerous other allowable uses, to help children with special needs continue to have access to service providers that are so critical in their lives.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires every state to administer reading, mathematics, and science assessments annually to all students in tested grades, the outcomes of which are used in state accountability plans. Although the U.S. Department of Education currently is providing targeted waivers to federal testing provisions under ESEA, it temporarily should provide a blanket waiver to all states, enabling them to postpone testing until this pandemic has subsided.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented health challenges, which have affected schools from the earliest grades through college. These temporary measures can provide some relief and flexibility, helping schools to better meet the needs of families during this challenging time.

And the growing body of online learning resources can help parents as they navigate this new normal.


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