The latest conversation in our Buchanan Leadership Series featuring Jeb Bush, Former Governor of Florida, Chris Sprowls, Speaker-Designate, Florida House of Representatives, and Thomas Rooney, former U.S. Representative, Florida’s 17th Congressional District.
As summer winds down, one question is increasingly top of mind for parents, students, educators, businesses and policymakers: What does education look like in a COVID-19 world?
The path toward a return to in-person education for the 2020-2021 school year has prompted heated debate among lawmakers and at educational institutions nationwide. During a recent webinar hosted by Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Speaker-Designate of the Florida House of Representatives Chris Sprowls, and former U.S. Representative, Florida’s 17th Congressional District Thomas Rooney, each shared his perspective on education and its role in a larger economic recovery underway in Florida and nationwide.
With the school year set to begin and a presidential election looming, the leaders offered insights on what lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and Florida are focusing on and outlined key considerations in providing students, especially at K-12, meaningful education while society navigates this unprecedented crisis. Here are four takeaways from their conversation.
1. Parental Choice in Education is More Important than Ever
As school districts in Florida and across the nation develop and execute plans for the fall semester and beyond, the focus must be on giving parents a choice in selecting the educational approach that will work best for their families. That means proactively developing a plan for in-person learning while maintaining virtual-learning options.
A proactive approach gives parents the opportunity to make a decision based on their specific needs and risk tolerance. It gives individual districts the flexibility to develop an appropriate plan as well. In Florida, for instance, school districts in counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, the three counties which have the highest rates of COVID-19 incidence in the state, will start the year with virtual learning for at least a month, while other areas will begin to offer in-person education for the state’s 2.6 million students. If there are outbreaks in the fall, schools have the option of quarantining and transitioning to a hybrid model with fewer students in the school. The key for policymakers is to give parents a choice – create conditions where in-person schooling is a viable option while continuing to provide resources for virtual learning.
It’s also essential that Americans recognize the broader implications of continuing to keep children home from school. Kids get a lot more out of school than just classroom learning, and prolonged quarantine often comes with a significant social cost. Not every student has a safe and productive learning environment at home, and many parents are making sacrifices to be home with their children that will have lasting economic impacts. Given the choice, many parents want to send their children to a safe, well-planned, in-person learning environment. The best solution for parents, students and society is to help get as many kids as possible back to the classroom safely and adapt the strategy as needed.
The unprecedented challenges of providing students with a meaningful learning experience amid a global pandemic have served to reignite ongoing debates in education, including teacher training and standardized testing and assessments. Past experience has shown that even in the face of incredible adversity, students and teachers are tremendously resilient. In the last several months, countless teachers have become experts in digital learning tools, and students have embraced these learning models. In this new reality, giving parents a choice in their children’s education, supporting the incredible efforts from teachers, and validating that students are gaining the knowledge and skills they need are more important than ever.
2. Access to Educational Resources Must be a Priority
The transition to virtual learning during the pandemic highlights a significant digital divide among students throughout Florida and the United States. Students in rural areas often have limited internet access, severely limiting their ability to utilize remote learning resources. At the same time, low-income students, frequently in urban areas, often lack the necessary devices to access remote-learning tools. Families with multiple children and parents working from home may need multiple devices in order to support all the learning and work that must take place in the home.
It’s a significant challenge with far-reaching repercussions. Ensuring digital access has become as critical as any part of essential infrastructure at the state and national levels. It’s an opportunity for lawmakers, philanthropists and business leaders to come together to develop solutions that help move the country forward. And it’s an issue lawmakers in Tallahassee will be focusing on in the upcoming session.
3. The Realities of Election Season Create Complications
With a Presidential election less than three months away, campaign posturing in Washington and state capitals nationwide is in full swing. That’s had an impact on the landmark efforts to provide relief from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and stimulate an economic recovery, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress earlier this summer. These legislative efforts are large and complex with many moving parts, making it challenging to predict what the final package will include. That’s created major question marks around key aspects of the legislative effort focused on education, including provisions in the Republican-sponsored Safely Back to School and Back to Work Act that would provide childcare grants as well as grants for private schools. The political parties remain at odds on the next set of pandemic relief bills.
Another key legislative debate is whether and what kind of additional relief funding will be provided to state and local governments. Thanks to fiscal prudence over the last several decades, Florida is in a better position than many other states to weather the economic challenges that come with COVID-19. Even so, budget cuts are a likely reality in the Sunshine State as they are nationwide. Flexibility to use federal funds from the CARES Act and any future relief efforts would benefit Florida and all states in executing the most effective recovery strategy.
4. Now is the Time to Start Applying Lessons Learned
The devastating impacts of COVID-19 have been felt across virtually all aspects of society and do not lend themselves to simple solutions. Policymakers should be wary of any one-size-fits-all approach and instead focus on comprehensive evaluation and collective response at all levels.
There exists significant opportunity for improvement and innovation in addressing the challenges of effective education in a post-COVID world. That includes addressing issues related to internet and device access, enhancing virtual learning capabilities and incorporating digital resources into future educational initiatives. There are additional opportunities to find new efficiencies in government and improve systems and structures across many aspects of society. Embracing a proactive approach will be essential to realizing positive change arising from this unprecedented pandemic.
For more cutting-edge perspectives on the legal and business implications of the pandemic, visit the Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney COVID-19 resource center.
To view the entire webinar, click here.