November 7, 2022, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) released its report titled Pandemic Impact on Public K–12 Education. The report marks JLARC’s third critical report related to Virginia education in just two years (October 2020, Operations and Performance of the Virginia Department of Education; December 2020, K-12 Special Education in Virginia).
According to JLARC’s site, “The 2021 General Assembly (SJ308) directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to review the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s K–12 education system.”
The findings aren’t surprising. They paint the portrait of a state that ignored the warning bells (even though it had almost 15 years to prepare for COVID)—and that to this day has failed to implement practices that ensure past mistakes don’t run into the future.
However, the report falls short in regard to data collection and interpretation.
Not a Surprise: Divisions Weren’t Prepared
In its report, JLARC states:
“Few, if any, divisions were adequately prepared to transition to long-term remote instruction . . . Prior to the pandemic, divisions were required to have plans for several possible disruptions to school. Nearly all of these were related to inclement weather (e.g., tornados), fires, or the threat of active school shootings. . . . School divisions are not required to develop a plan on how to provide remote instruction for a long period of time. Consequently, after the start of the pandemic, it was unclear how: teachers should transition to and maintain remote instruction; school divisions could deliver other school-based supports such as meals or mental health supports; or school facilities should change for additional uses during remote instruction.
JLARC’s Preparedness Recommendations Fail to Include Proposals to Improve VDOE Itself
JLARC proposed recommendations in regard to school preparedness but failed to propose recommendations for Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) as an organization. VDOE had almost 15 years prior to COVID closures to help ensure Virginia’s local education agencies (LEAs) had pandemic plans written, continually updated, and implemented. It failed to do this and failed to ensure VDOE had an updated plan implemented itself. In addition, VDOE is behind the curve on ensuring it and its LEAs are addressing the needs of children impacted by the pandemic.
In 2006, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) warned school districts that pandemics were on the horizon and advised them to prepare pandemic plans. It emphasized that “schools and day care/child care facilities may be closed” and the importance of including a continuity of learning plan within the pandemic plan.
While a flu pandemic was then the pandemic expected, the guide covered best practices for pandemics period, including the following:
- Every district should have an Emergency Management Plan.
- The Plan should be flexible to encompass all hazards.
- Every district should develop a Pandemic Flu Plan
- Plans should be practiced on a regular basis.
- Plans should be based on sound data and information.
- Plans should be continually reviewed and updated as new information is available. [emphasis added]
Some school districts within Virginia took action, only to let their plans collect dust, and go un-updated, -un-practiced, and un-implemented in the almost 15 years that followed. For example, September 17, 2007, Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) was briefed on Fairfax County Public School’s (FCPS) pandemic plans. The documents presented share a view of a school district on its way to being prepared almost 15 years in advance of COVID. (See “Emergency Management Issues” slide presentation, “Fairfax County Public Schools Pandemic Influenza Response Plan” (redacted), “Pandemic Response Matrix“, “Systemwide Emergency Operations Plan“, “Use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) During Pandemic Influenza Outbreak“).
One slide in the briefing focuses on a CDC guidance document titled “Interim Pre-pandemic Planning Guidance” and another slide states, “No one can predict the timing, nature and severity, or what the new virus will be. Experts worldwide believe near term pandemic may be imminent.” Page two of FCPS’s “Pandemic Influenza Response Plan” states, “While the full impact of a pandemic cannot be predicted, planning for operations under such conditions can mitigate the impact of the event on our staff, facilities and mission.”
Ten days later, September 27, 2007, Fred Ellis, then Director/Office of Safety and Security, briefed the school board on FCPS’s emergency management issues, to include pandemic planning. (Click linked text to view 9.27.07 school board briefing slide show and to listen to the presentation.)
Almost 15 years later, FCPS made headline news nationwide due to its spectacular failures to launch an online learning platform. Yet, the draft of its 2007 plan addressed practices and training that, had they been implemented, would have helped prevent FCPS’s online learning disaster.
JLARC’s preparedness recommendations include the following:
- “The Virginia Department of Education should develop and include courses related to teaching remotely or using virtual learning resources in its catalog of professional development that address topics such as: (i) virtual classroom management, (ii) virtual curriculum, (iii) strategies for student engagement, (iv) use of learning management systems, (v) availability and offering of state resources like Virtual Virginia, and (vi) asynchronous strategies for students with limited internet.”
- “The Virginia Department of Education should develop and make available a standard template school divisions can use to develop their own continuity of operations plans for future prolonged periods of remote instruction.”
- “The General Assembly could include language in the Appropriation Act directing the Virginia Department of Education and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to review Virginia’s teacher licensure requirements and process, and propose updates, improvements, and simplifications. A summary of proposed changes could be submitted to the Virginia Board of Education and House Education and Senate Education and Health committees by November 1, 2023.”
In addition, JLARC fails to address VDOE’s snail-like pace compared to other states.
In its section on absenteeism, JLARC cites examples of attendance support programs already in place in Connecticut, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Yet as of October 2022, VDOE was at the request for proposal (RFP) stage, far from having a program in place in the near future.
VDOE’s snail-like pace and failure to address glaring issues in a timely manner has long been a problem. Around the same time JLARC released its two 2020 critical reports of VDOE, the United States Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Special Education Programing (OSEP) issued a critical report itself, in the form of a differentiated monitoring support (DMS) letter and report. Among other things, it cited VDOE for ignoring credible allegations of noncompliance. In other words, VDOE has a history of staring problems in the face and allowing them to continue unchecked. Even when checked, VDOE’s snail-like pace has continued. It had 90 days to come into compliance with USDOE’s recommendations, yet two years later VDOE remains in noncompliance.
Absenteeism: More Complicated Than It Appears
JLARC determined that chronic absenteeism was a “major concern as students return to in-person instruction”, however it failed to dig deep and instead limited itself to a narrow interpretation of its data.
Within its report, JLARC attributed the rise in absenteeism during the 2021-22 school year, when most students were back to in-person schooling, to the following:
“Several factors contributed to the increase in chronic absenteeism following remote instruction. School staff indicated that a substantial portion of absenteeism was due to student illness and quarantines related to COVID-19. However, school staff also attributed a rise in student absenteeism to other factors. According to school staff, many older students began working during the pandemic to address financial concerns or because the flexibility of remote instruction made it easier to find time to work. As students returned to in-person instruction, work schedules conflicted with the academic calendar or caused students earning an income to see less value in attending school. Furthermore, some school staff indicated that students and their families became used to greater flexibility during remote instruction and were more likely to schedule events that interfered with the school schedule, such as a family vacation. Finally, some students simply struggled with regaining a routine, such as waking up on time, once their in-person attendance routine became disrupted by remote learning.”
JLARC failed to consider that absenteeism was greater than reported during the 2020-21 school year that so many students spent at home.
For example, in its collected data (see Appendix E: Chronic absenteeism data), it cites the percentage point change from pre-pandemic levels to the 2022 school year, rather than digging into the overwhelming jump in absenteeism between 2020-21 school year (virtual for most students) to the 2021-22 school year (in-person for most students).
During the 2020-2021 school year, absenteeism declined from the previous school year for grades 6 to 12, and remained about the same for K through 5 — and then jumped dramatically during the 2021-22 school year for grades 9 through 12, with a noticeable rise in other grades.
Not mentioned by JLARC is the increase in absenteeism as the grades become higher.
|Grade level||Pre-pandemic average||SY20||SY21||SY22||% point change pre-pandemic to SY22|
% of students chronically absent
SOURCE: JLARC analysis of VDOE data, 2014–15 through 2021–22.
NOTE: SY20 = 2019–20 school year. SY21 = 2020–21 school year. SY22 = 2021–22 school year. Pre-pandemic average represents a fiveyear average rate of chronic absenteeism from 2014–15 through 2018–19. % point change = difference from pre-pandemic average to
Certainly, more students could be working instead of going to school.
However, how many of the students who “attended” school during the 2020-21 school year really “attended”?
How many logged in and then went back to bed or to work or to help with siblings, or on vacation, or on any other number of things?
Teachers reported students never turning on their cameras or microphones and never participating during chats.
The difference between the 2020-21 school year and the 2021-22 school year is that the first was at home, where students could get away with logging in and then doing everything else but attending school, whereas during the 2021-22 school year, kids were back in school and teachers could see them.
A few questions for JLARC:
- How many of the students who “attended” had passing grades and/or grades in line with their previous grades?
- How many of the students who “attended” participated in class?
- How many of the students who “attended” participated in classwork?
- How many of the students who “attended” turned in assignments?
The large increase seen among high schoolers shouldn’t be ignored.
If you’ve ever attended a citizenship ceremony at an elementary school, you’ll know that there are dozens of kindergarteners and first graders being honored with good citizenship certificates, but by the time you get to the 6th graders, there might be one or two. Why? The older kids don’t care as much. They’ve moved beyond the newness of school and have other focuses and distractions.
The same occurs as students advance into high school. Students start dropping out, stop attending school, and in some cases are burnt out from the years of not having their unique needs met.
So, it is possible that the high school absentee rate was higher during 2020-21? Yes. It is possible. However, it wasn’t probed by JLARC.
How many high schoolers have graduated and/or are now graduating without having the academic and functional holes from their 2020-21 online year addressed?
Where are JLARC’s recommendations to help these students?
SOL Data: Not an Apples-to-Apples Comparison
Prior to COVID closures, counties like FCPS required students to opt out if they didn’t want to take the Standard of Learning (SOL) tests. The SOLs aren’t required to advance from grade to grade, but instead provided data on where children were at in schools. If students failed, FCPS would tutor-up and offer the student another opportunity to pass. Afterall, passing scores are good for counties.
When COVID closures hit, FCPS started requiring students who wanted to take the SOL to opt-in, rather than automatically enrolling the students in the SOLs. At the high school level, FCPS substituted SOL taking with scores from SATs and ACTs. Hence, the data on these students is missing from JLARC’s data collection, as is the percentage change of SOL takers prior to COVID closures and now, for all grades. In its report, JLARC states:
“SOL scores declined by more in divisions that relied longer on remote instruction but have also rebounded more. For example, 2020–21 eighth-grade math SOL scores in school divisions that used remote instruction longer declined, on average, by 7 percentage points more than divisions that returned to in-person instruction sooner.
“However, these divisions that relied longer on remote instruction also generally rebounded by more in 2021–22. As of spring 2022, there was a 1 or 2 percentage point difference in SOL scores between divisions that relied on remote instruction longer and divisions that returned to in-person instruction sooner.”
These statements are based on the assumption that a similar group of students are taking SOLs. It doesn’t take into account variations in the number of students, their backgrounds, where they live, their connection to online school, or any other such background.
So, the questions remain: What does the SOL data really represent? It is representative of parents who read emails and knew to opt their students into the SOLs? Is it representative of high schoolers who didn’t take the SAT or ACT? Is it representative of students who were in school a portion of the 2021-22 school year? What does it really represent?
JLARC’s full list of recommendations follow below. However, as stated above, these recommendations are limited to the data collected and the interpretations of the researchers.
JLARC staff typically make recommendations to address findings during reviews. Staff also sometimes propose policy options rather than recommendations. The three most common reasons staff propose policy options rather than recommendations are: (1) the action proposed is a policy judgment best made by the General Assembly or other elected officials, (2) the evidence indicates that addressing a report finding is not necessarily required, but doing so could be beneficial, or (3) there are multiple ways in which a report finding could be addressed and there is insufficient evidence of a single best way to address the finding.
The General Assembly may wish to consider amending the Code of Virginia to define direct school counseling services to include only those activities established as direct counseling services by the Virginia Department of Education Principals’ Memo 1014-19 and to expressly exclude from the definition administrative and support activities that are not considered direct counseling. (Chapter 3)
The General Assembly may wish to consider amending the Code of Virginia to allow qualified, licensed psychologists in other fields to be provisionally licensed as a school psychologist. (Chapter 3)
The Virginia Department of Education should ensure its model memorandum of understanding to help divisions establish partnerships with community mental health providers (i) reflects effective practices and (ii) is available by March 30, 2023 to allow it to be used by divisions for the 2023–24 school year. (Chapter 3)
The General Assembly may wish to consider including language and funding in the Appropriation Act to create and fund a temporary math instructional improvement program to help elementary school students who fail their math Standards of Learning test. (Chapter 4)
The General Assembly may wish to consider including language and funding in the Appropriation Act to provide additional, temporary funding for a subset of schools accredited with conditions to hire more instructional assistants to (i) help teachers provide small group and individualized instruction necessitated by widening academic needs within classrooms, (ii) help teachers manage challenging student behaviors within classrooms, and (iii) reduce teacher workloads. (Chapter 4)
The General Assembly may wish to consider including language and funding in the Appropriation Act to provide the state share of funding to divisions that experienced an increase in teacher turnover during the pandemic to be used for providing retention bonuses for teachers. Retention bonuses should be structured to maximize the financial incentive for teachers to remain in their position. (Chapter 5)
The General Assembly may wish to consider including language and funding in the Appropriation Act to provide the state share of funding for teacher tuition assistance to divisions that experienced an increase in the number of provisionally licensed teachers during the pandemic to help provisionally licensed teachers in those divisions become fully licensed. (Chapter 5)
The Virginia Department of Education should develop and make available a standard template school divisions can use to develop their own continuity of operations plans for future prolonged periods of remote instruction. (Chapter 6)
The Virginia Department of Education should develop and include courses related to teaching remotely or using virtual learning resources in its catalog of professional development that address topics such as: (i) virtual classroom management, (ii) virtual learning curriculum, (iii) strategies for student engagement, (iv) use of learning management systems, (v) availability and offering of state resources like Virtual Virginia, and (vi) asynchronous strategies for students with limited internet. (Chapter 6)
Policy Options to Consider
POLICY OPTION 1
The General Assembly could include language and funding in the Appropriation Act for Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports to provide training and technical assistance to help staff at more schools better address disruptive classroom behavior. (Chapter 2)
POLICY OPTION 2
The General Assembly could include language in the Appropriation Act directing the Virginia Department of Education to collect and report information from school divisions about existing and potential partnerships between school divisions and mental health providers, including the partner organization, type of partnership, scope, cost, and funding source. (Chapter 3)
POLICY OPTION 3
The General Assembly could include language and funding in the Appropriation Act to help develop and support existing partnerships between school divisions and mental health providers to provide enhanced mental health services to students. (Chapter 3)
POLICY OPTION 4
The General Assembly could include language and funding in the Appropriation Act to provide the state share of funding for one-time signing bonuses to be offered to teachers who agree to accept employment with a school division that has experienced an increase in teacher vacancies during the pandemic. (Chapter 5)
POLICY OPTION 5
The General Assembly could include language in the Appropriation Act directing the Virginia Department of Education and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to review Virginia’s teacher licensure requirements and process, and propose updates, improvements, and simplifications. A summary of proposed changes could be submitted to the Virginia Board of Education and House Education and Senate Education and Health committees by November 1, 2023. (Chapter 5)