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The Ed Tech So Valuable That It Will Outlive the Pandemic

An EdWeek Market Brief survey asked district leaders what kinds of ed-tech they will continue using after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Inside the Florida K-12 Market: District Priorities and Pain Points

EdWeek Market Brief, Florida Special Re

Many states have taken a cautious approach to reopening schools for in-person instruction during the pandemic. Florida was much more ambitious.

The vast majority of school districts across the nation’s third most populous state were required by the state’s department of education to offer an in-person learning option at the beginning of the academic year. That meant the state’s 67 main, county-based districts were tasked with finding a way to serve not only families who wanted face-to-face instruction, but also those who chose online instruction at home.

As such, Florida’s experiences offer a preview of what an increasing number of school districts around the country are now going through, as they transition into more fully in-person and hybrid instructional models. A new special report, available exclusively to EdWeek Market Brief members, provides education companies and other organizations keen on working in Florida with an in-depth look at the biggest needs that the state’s 67 school districts face, as they continue to straddle the brick-and-mortar and online learning worlds.

Through our reporting and analysis, readers will learn about Florida school systems’ hunger for academic interventions and other strategies to address learning loss, and their need to bolster the well-being of students whose emotional states have been made fragile by the upheaval of COVID-19.

Readers will get districts’ perspectives on the massive scale of their device purchasing over the past year, and prevailing worries about lackluster internet connectivity in students’ homes. And they will learn about the pressure Florida districts face to implement new state academic standards — and to scaffold myriad instructional materials, assessments, and professional development for teachers on top of those standards.

This special report is the final installment in a three-part series on state markets that have enormous importance for companies in the K-12 market. The first two reports focused on Texas and California. This report, like the others, includes original research drawn from surveys of Florida K-12 officials. But the heart of the analysis is interviews EdWeek Market Brief’s editorial team conducted with key district administrators, including superintendents and their top deputies, curriculum directors, finance officials, and others.

Student Engagement, Standards, and Remediation

The Florida report includes perspectives of district officials like Robert Bixler, the associate superintendent for curriculum and digital learning in the Orange County school system, based in Orlando.

Bixler explains how his district began turning its attention to students’ anticipated learning loss as early as last summer, offering targeted academic programs and focusing on students thought to be most vulnerable, particularly in elementary grades.

Since then, the 212,000-student district has been exploring strategies for remediation that can be delivered in a variety of in-person and online settings.

“You are always concerned about the kids who are most at risk and what they’re missing in school,” Bixler said. “We’re all trying to find ways to meet their needs–with intervention, tutoring, all those things.”

Among the other insights offered in the report:

  • Survey data collected from Florida K-12 officials about their top academic priorities over the next year – which include both instructional and non-academic needs.
  • Perspective on the key factors that will drive Florida district officials’ decisions on selection and purchasing of curriculum and other academic resources to align with new state academic standards.
  • Details on the current blend of in-person vs. remote instruction in Florida districts, and their plans for offering summer instruction focused on learning loss.
  • The results of in-depth interviews with district officials from across the state about their biggest needs from vendors, the state policies shaping their work, how they plan to spend federal funding.

Another major school system highlighted in the report, the Palm Beach County district, is – like many in Florida — trying to navigate two different worlds, with about 50 percent of its students taking classes in person, and remainder working remotely.

Teachers have found “unbelievable and inspiring” ways to help students and encourage them to think creatively in online settings, particularly through technology, said Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Schools Keith Oswald.

But the 193,000-student district needs more innovation and flexibility from education companies, to keep students locked in no matter what their learning environment.

“Engagement has been our number-one priority,” he said. Every day the district looks for “little things that can enhance how [tech] is used in this environment,” and vendors who can “enhance what students do in a distance learning space.”

EdWeek Market Brief members can access the report here.

Image by Getty

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Teachers Should Not Carry the Weight of Education Alone


Last spring, no one knew how much chaos the pandemic would impose on our lives, or how long the pain would last. The weeks have stretched into months as COVID-19 continues to spread in many parts of the country. The return to “school” in the forms of in-person classes, virtual coursework, and pandemic pods has proven no less chaotic than the abrupt transition to virtual learning we experienced last spring.  

Unfortunately, very few of the conversations around school reopenings have been about students and what is best for our children, or the families struggling with job loss, illness, or food insecurity unable to meet all of their children’s needs when school buildings are closed. The closures of school buildings are at the core of many challenges families are experiencing that have to do with more than just learning — a clear sign that our schools play a critical social service function for students.

Schools have long provided several social services for students—everything from mental health and nutrition to career guidance. When schools offer these types of wraparound services, students’ achievement rates improve. Conversely, when schools fail to provide comprehensive support, educators are overextended, leading to high burnout rates. 

We have relied too heavily on teachers and schools to provide these various services our children require without providing adequate resources and budget to do so. The stress the pandemic has put on school systems has exposed how untenable this model is, physically, emotionally, and financially for everyone involved. 

Schools Need to Help Teachers Support Student Well-Being

COVID-19 has given us a chance to rethink how many of these essential services, including education, mental health, and nutrition, schools should carry alone.

We now have an opportunity to reimagine what our schools can provide for children. We can do so by tapping into a broader range of community resources to share responsibility. Low-income and special needs children are at the most risk of suffering consequences for a lifetime, as many school districts cannot sustain the temporary relief models used last spring. The ongoing, multifaceted crisis many districts face from COVID-19 continues to threaten the emotional and physical well-being of our most vulnerable children.

In May, a survey reported on by The Conversation found that one of the most stressful aspects of teachers’ jobs during the pandemic is addressing the needs of vulnerable students. The report also cited that teachers need more support from parents and administrators. So what can we do to help?

Here are three immediate steps we can take to expand the help and support we extend to our teachers and students.

  1. Schools must prioritize children who have been impacted the most this fall. School boards, administrators, educators, and community organizations can work together to spread the responsibility of childcare and other essential services across different platforms and services. State and federal agencies, local companies, and nonprofit organizations can all step in to provide additional support, funding, and relief. Pandemic pods have been an example of an immediate solution, and some nonprofits have stepped-up to provide equity in this model for every student, including homeless students. For example, Nevada has created the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy to provide micro-schooling options for those who cannot afford pandemic pods.


  2. Rather than scrambling to support students properly during times of crisis, school districts can coordinate with parents and community partners to proactively provide educators with the budgets and resources they need. For instance, in Minnesota, Belle Plaines Public School District supplemented its mental health support for students by partnering with a community-based intensive therapeutic services center for teenagers. School districts and communities across the country should look to models like this when coming up with their own plans to increase support for students this school year. 
  3. Perhaps the most urgent service we can offer students and teachers right now is social emotional learning. Policymakers, local governments, school boards and districts need to allocate within their budgets so that  schools can implement SEL programs for PreK-12 classes as well as teacher training to implement those programs. Educators ought to offer all students the time and space to process their emotions and build the skills required to persevere through challenges, like the pandemic. To that end, carving out time for SEL in their daily schedules (online and in person), providing reliable resources to both teachers and families, and empowering teachers to put relationships first are important steps to take. Durham Public Schools in North Carolina has been solely virtual for the first 9 weeks of school, and have dedicated Wednesdays to social emotional learning. They call them Wellness Wednesdays, and there is no instruction on those days, just social emotional learning. This is a district-wide commitment to making time for SEL when students and teachers need it most.

We cannot expect educators to manage and support students’ mental health and other needs when their own have been overlooked. As we try to adapt to all of the new challenges of remote or hybrid learning, we ought to be intentional in how we provide both children and teachers resources designed to support them. That’s why we must see districts partner with community organizations, parent associations, and more. 

For most of us, COVID-19 has represented a significant and ongoing disruption in our lives. But we continue to move forward, and our educational system can, too. We have a chance to work with a new generation of parents, educators, and community leaders that has been forever altered by the pandemic — to rethink how to help juggle all the priorities surrounding education and build something better.

We must find creative solutions and work together to build a solid foundation upon which we can layer a series of wraparound services for children that can be implemented immediately and expanded upon over time. By doing so, we can design our educational system in such a way that it can weather a global pandemic while still meeting the long-term needs of students, families, and teachers.

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Inside New Guidelines for How Districts Will Judge Social-Emotional Learning Products

Guidelines released by the influential group CASEL place an emphasis on programs and products supporting equity, and whether materials are developmentally appropriate for students.

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Where Venture Capitalists Are Investing as Districts Shift to In-Person Education

Investors are putting a premium on companies that have the products and expertise to span distance learning and a return to in-person lessons.

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How Two School Districts Have Adapted to COVID-Era Realities

Recently we at Cognitive ToyBox inte rviewed Melissa Mendoza-Thompson, the principal of the Marycrest Early Childhood Center in the Joliet School Public Schools District 86 in Illinois, and Chandra Youngblood, director of elementary education at the Battle Creek School District in Michigan. We wanted to find out more about how their summer planning has prepared districts for remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic, and what we could learn from it.

More specifically, the product team at Cognitive ToyBox is prioritizing our 2021 product roadmap. As part of that process we conduct field research to make sure that the feature and user interface improvements on the top of our list are also on the top of our customers’ list. We found for the most part that our plans are aligned to their needs — with a few slightly surprising differences.

Cognitive ToyBox’s recent reviews of teachers’ struggles, and students’ experiences during COVID has shaped its product planning.

Below are takeaways from our conversations with officials in those school districts on how they’re trying to overcome challenges posed by COVID-19, as well as the support they’re looking for.

Joliet School Public Schools District 86

District 86 began proactively planning for this fall’s hybrid and remote scenarios as early as June. The early childhood team was invited to the district planning meetings, which doesn’t always happen because early childhood sometimes gets overlooked by K-12 district leaders.

A cross section of technology, curriculum, administration, and other representatives from the district met weekly to discuss both hybrid and remote options, with the goal of being able to flip back and forth if necessary.

Over the summer, the district sent each parent a survey, called each of those parents, and also surveyed its teachers. Ninety-one percent of its teachers answered the survey, and of those, the vote was about 50/50 between those who favored hybrid learning, as opposed to solely distance learning in the fall. In early August, the district notified parents that the start of the school year would be fully virtual at all grade levels, with the exception of the district delivering in-person instruction to some special needs children.

It was not an easy decision. Mendoza-Thompson and her teachers have been cautious about increasing screen time, given a growing body of research that indicates that our youngest learners can especially be adversely affected. Distance learning poses a balancing act for preschool parents because they and their children need to be online to interact with their teachers and classmates, as well as to access recommended activities, yet there is also pressure to stay offline. In response, the district has provided educational products that emphasize offline activities for caregivers to do at home with their children. This was one of the areas in which our thinking aligned strongly with the district’s. We had already made sure that the daily activities we curate for at-home use were mostly offline rather than digital experiences, and this confirmation renewed our commitment to that policy.

Another important data point for our assessment product that we learned is that teachers have been creating activities that they can use to assess children when they are on live instructional time, via Zoom. We had already been thinking about ways to make the process of capturing observational data via Zoom easier for teachers.

Hearing more precisely about some of the successes and failures that teachers encountered as they braved the world of remote assessment for the first time sparked a bunch of ideas for our product team.

One more surprising and creative finding was that a strong partnership with their local park district has provided teachers with more flexibility in terms of having additional outdoor facilities to utilize for various in-person (socially distant) purposes. Finding out that the district hadn’t given up on physically being together opened up ideas for how we could develop technologies for a modality that is mostly virtual yet occasionally an outdoor, in-person experience.

Instead of collecting a high volume of assessment data, the district is going deep on the data that it is able to collect. This shift evolved out of necessity, due to the difficulty of evaluating students remotely. However, now they are thinking that approaching assessment with more focus and intentionality will continue as a positive offshoot from this pandemic-enforced virtual learning situation. This finding was more unanticipated, as we had previously assumed schools would still place an emphasis on collecting myriad mandated assessment data points. As some states are relaxing the data collection requirements that some have long argued are overblown, we are watching to see if this is a trend or simply a short-term blip.

Battle Creek School District

Virtual learning has made it necessary for educators to ask parents to take on a lot more academic responsibilities at home, said Chandra Youngblood, the director of elementary education at the Battle Creek School District, in Michigan. She made this observation this spring, as part of a panel discussion moderated by Mort Sherman from AASA — the School Superintendents Association —  at the Young Child Expo and Conference.

Youngblood highlighted a number of developments in her district that reflect the changing role of parents. She said the district’s elementary education team was planning to survey parents to determine interest in educational programs and support over the summer. The school system’s literacy tutors were poised help kindergartners with learning loss at the beginning of school.

This fall, the Battle Creek district’s pre-K-5 children returned in person, while students in upper grade levels all started virtually.

The elementary schools are utilizing a face-to-face cohort system, in which kids remain in one classroom except during recess. Specialized instruction such as art is provided by teachers who rotate into the classroom rather than having kids move into an art room. The district can then contract-trace more effectively if necessary. Their class sizes are 21 students or fewer with some as low as nine per class.

Youngblood recently updated us how different aspects of the Battle Creek district’s learning model have evolved during COVID.

Teachers Were Nimble During Summer Learning

A survey sent out by Youngblood’s team revealed that most parents did want a summer program. Battle Creek ended up providing a virtual summer program focusing on literacy for K-5 students. The program was very well-received, although one unanticipated glitch occurred when the district did not receive their hard copy materials due to the vendor’s NYC distribution center being shut down due to COVID restrictions. Teachers stepped up and adjusted as needed. They taught the lessons and substituted other books that families already had on hand until the book shipment arrived during the last week of the program.

Youngblood noted that the supply chain for various products including digital devices was a problem over the summer, and that’s a lingering issue this fall. The district did not run their usual summer Pre-K program because the state’s licensing rules were too difficult to meet. Instead, they created a program for the preschoolers by placing Pre-K and K resources and activities into backpacks that were distributed to the Pre-K families.

Elementary School Classroom at Battle Creek SD
Battle Creek, MI, Elementary Classroom, fall 2020

Literacy Tutoring Was Set Back

The district’s literacy tutoring program has been negatively affected by COVID-19. The 25-hour per week positions were mostly filled by elderly adults, many of whom are now caring for grandchildren or spouses at home.

There are currently 14 vacancies in the program. Unfortunately, the assessment data are showing that the children educated through virtual learning are not scoring as well as those who are in-person, even part-time.

Teachers’ Roles Changed

Youngblood noted that a good deal of the teachers’ energy is focused on sanitizing and cleanliness. The district brought an expert health official to meet with the teachers to establish a collective understanding about how contract tracing works and to help support the district’s sanitation process.

Unanticipated Tech Support Requirements

Providing tech support for families has been an unanticipated burden on the district. Many parents and caregivers who know how to use apps on their phones are struggling with more unfamiliar yet basic computer skills such as turning on a Chromebook and logging into and navigating a website. The district has needed to hire additional personnel to answer the increased demand for tech support. Learning about this gave us advance warning so we could put additional support in place.

One positive side effect that Youngblood shared is that even though they are back in the classroom for now, kids are being taught using the district-provided digital devices. Their hope is that this will lead to students and their parents being more comfortable with virtual learning and technology in the future. She believes that the district will only increase its use of technology as time goes on to account for when children may be unexpectedly homebound for various lengths of time.

Both of these districts have made broad adjustments in the face of challenges posed by COVID. Hopefully, their experiences can help other other school systems adapt during these difficult times.

Image courtesy of Chandra Youngblood, Battle Creek School District

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School Districts’ Most Pressing Social-Emotional Learning Needs

Market Brief SEL Special Report

District leaders quickly came to recognize the need to address students’ myriad social-emotional learning challenges during the chaos of the COVID era, almost from the time in-person classes were halted in the spring.

A newly published EdWeek Market Brief special report sheds light on the specific social-emotional learning needs districts face during the ongoing upheaval—and the help they want from the private sector.

The report includes a nationally representative survey of 700 district administrators and school principals. One of the questions put to them was: “In which areas do you believe you will need support from SEL programs/product providers as your school district moves to reopen?”

The biggest district needs squarely reflect the COVID era: 60 percent of those surveyed said that creating a positive learning environment amid social-distancing is a priority.

The second-largest number of district and school officials, 57 percent, said easing the concerns of parents and families is a top need.

That finding also reinforces the needs of the moment. Because many school districts have been forced or chosen to conduct learning remotely, parents have become de-facto at-home teachers’ aides, shadowing their children during lessons and trying to keep them focused.

The nationally representative survey was conducted in July. The full report is available to EdWeek Market Brief members.

Other areas where district and school leaders said they’d needed SEL support during reopening are supporting students with mental health challenges (55 percent), creating safe opportunities for students to interact with each other (53 percent), and engaging students amid a reliance on online learning (51 percent).

The special report delves into a variety of other questions about the expectations that districts are setting for the SEL programs and products offered by companies:

  • What are the specific qualities and features that district and school leaders want delivered within SEL products and programs?
  • To what extent are districts purchasing SEL resources developed by external vendors, as opposed to developing those resources in-house?
  • How much are districts anticipating spending on SEL over the next year—and what are the key sources of funding they’re tapping to do so?
  • How are districts conducting up-front assessments of students’ social-emotional learning needs?
  • Which district and school decision-makers have the greatest influence on buying SEL products and services?
  • What kinds of professional development, and PD delivery methods, are most needed by teachers?
  • Where do K-12 officials believe SEL should be embedded in the curriculum, and where are they doing it now?

Ryan Voegtlin, the director of student services in the Anne Arundel school district in Maryland, who spoke to EdWeek Market Brief for the report, said that the pandemic has lent new urgency to finding creative and targeted ways to help students.

Students and teachers feel squeezed not only by the pressures heaped on them by COVID, but by the social unrest felt in communities across the country.

“Our question has been, how do we transition them back into schools and make them feel safe?,” Voegtlin said. “How do you create a positive learning environment when everyone’s wearing masks and social distancing?”

EdWeek Market Brief will be delving into social-emotional learning topics during a panel at next month’s EdWeek Market Brief Summit, a virtual event that will feature district officials, business leaders, and policy experts from across the country.

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RLL #88: Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Kids with Jim Delisle

This week, Colleen has a conversation on the social and emotional needs of gifted children with Jim Delisle, her graduate school mentor and one of the nation’s foremost experts on raising and teaching gifted children.  Jim Delisle is an accomplished author of numerous books and has been a professor, teacher and speaker on behalf of gifted children for over 40 years. He has a keen insight into how these children “tick” and shares solid advice on how parents can help them grow into their very best lives.

RLL #88 Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Kids with Jim Delisle

Links and Resources from Today’s Show:


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