Prioritizing COVID-19 Relief & Recovery

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 28 │Prioritizing COVID-19 Relief & Recovery

Wednesday, September 30, 2020



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Show Notes

Ralph Smith

Will school closures and distance learning be a temporary setback for kids’ learning or will it have a permanent effect on their education? We spoke with Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading to get his perspective on the impact COVID-19 is having in the hardest hit communities. He offers suggestions for parent leaders looking to support the most vulnerable learners and their families during this challenging time.


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Helen: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland. 

LaWanda: And, I'm LaWanda Toney and we're are your cohosts. We've talked a lot about COVID-19 on this podcast. How to help your kid with online learning how to manage COVID anxiety, but today, we're going to do a deeper dive into the coronavirus pandemic, how it's affecting our nation's most vulnerable children and what we can do about it. 

Helen: That's right, LaWanda, and I'm incredibly honored to introduce our special guest today, Ralph Smith. For the last 10 years, Ralph has been the Managing Director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, where he works to ensure children reach the critical developmental milestone of reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Prior to that, he served in several different roles in education, including as the Chief of Staff and Special Counsel to the School District of Philadelphia, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of Planning and Development at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Ralph, we are so happy to have you join us today. Thank you for coming to the show. 

Ralph Smith: Well thank you for inviting me. It's a wonderful idea. It's a great show and I'm just pleased to be here. 

Helen: Thank you. So we like to start off, to learn a little bit about our guests. Could you tell us about some of the work you're doing at the campaign for grade level reading and how you personally got involved in that work and education?

Ralph Smith: Well, the answer to the second half of your question about how, self-described recovering law professor got involved in education is a really long one. But, what I will say is like a whole lot of people, once you get bitten by the education bug, it's hard to get away and even harder to go back to corporate and securities law.

And for me, that was more than 25 years ago at the school district of Philadelphia. I had a chance to see up close and personal, the challenges that so many families were facing and their efforts to get their kids a good education. One that would put them on the path to success and that challenge spoke to me and, changed the direction of my career.

It took me from the University of Pennsylvania to the Casey Foundation and while at the Casey Foundation, we planned and developed the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. And, we see the Campaign for Grade Level Reading as an intervention, as a disruption of generational poverty and we intend to disrupt generational poverty by focusing on one of the predictors of high school graduation, and that's third grade reading. Kids who read on grade level by the end of third grade, tend to graduate from high school, children who do not read on grade level by the end of third grade tend not to graduate from high school. So, we focused in on that particular indicator and we've been working on it for most of the last decade.

Helen: Great, and you've got hundreds of communities across the country. What is the Campaign for Grade Level Reading doing to help achieve that milestone? 

Ralph Smith: Well, our approach really is not a top down approach. It's not primarily a policy change approach. It really is a mobilization approach.

It stems from the belief that the people who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution and what they need is an opportunity, the resources, the tools and the technology to actually make those solutions come to life. So, we work with willing communities across the country, to help them develop a plan around what it will take to improve third grade reading. And, in most of those communities, that plan focuses on the children who start school so far behind that is going to be hard for them to catch up, on the children who, because of health and a range of other issues are absent from schools so often that they don't get the full benefit of school and they fall farther behind while they're in school.

And, those children for whom summer is lost learning time and they often come back to school in September farther behind then when they left in June. And, those three sets of kids, which often really it's the same kid, starting out far behind falling farther behind and losing ground over the summer really become the population and the target around which the community agrees to work.

LaWanda: So Ralph, we've been navigating this pandemic for about six months now. What has changed in those hardest hit communities? 

Ralph Smith: The pandemic has had a significant influence on every community, all across the country. It has had a larger and harsher effect on communities of color. It has had a larger harsher effect on communities that are populated by essential workers. By parents who work in the informal economy, and it has had a larger and harsher effect on communities where there are large numbers of low income, low wealth families who are trapped in those communities. And, that is almost like what we know about the virus itself. It hits hardest folks with preexisting conditions. And in this instance, the preexisting conditions are the conditions related to economic hardship. And, those families that were economically vulnerable before COVID, were the ones that we're most vulnerable to COVID.

Helen: Could you talk a little bit more about that Ralph, like, as some of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading communities have been working on relief and recovery efforts, not just for COVID, but also around some of the racial justice protests and movement that's been going on in this country. 

Ralph Smith: The first thing is that, we need to see relief and recovery as two very different phases of a response to disaster. Relief really is about an immediate rescue, an immediate attempt to stop the pain, to mitigate the hurt and to move people out of harm's way. Relief is a harm reduction strategy.

Recovery is what happens over the long run and in both of those instances, you need to be extremely planful and we plan differently for relief than we plan for recovery. What we're finding in the relief effort, when it comes to education, is that there are so many households for whom what is being called the digital divide and the digital equity challenge for whom this is real. 

And, without the knowledge, without the device, without the connectivity, we've had lots and lots of children in communities across the nation who had no access to the efforts of teachers and educators to try to continue some sort of learning over the last six months. And, for those children and their families, there's a real challenge. This challenge has been complicated by the fact that in some communities you have schools closed as a response to the virus. You have unrest and protests as part of the racial reckoning the country's experiencing. And then there are communities who are faced with natural disasters, fires, and floods and hurricanes.

And in those communities, there is kind of a perfect storm, which is making it extraordinarily difficult for families to navigate their way toward getting what they need, to ensure that their kids don't fall behind and don't fall behind permanently, as a result of the school closures.

LaWanda: Ralph, you just talked about this being a temporary setback for families and children. What can parent leaders do to help with the relief?

Ralph Smith: Well, let me say that we're being optimistic by calling this and hoping, that this is just a temporary setback. We run the risk - and it is important that we all understand what the stakes are - We run the risk, that a generation of children will be affected adversely by what has gone on in the last six months and what is likely to go on much of the coming school year. 

This event, that we're experiencing and is a significant challenge to early school success, whether you measure it in terms of reading or math or social development of children. Early school success is a really good predictor of later school success and high school graduation. So, if kids get hampered in terms of early school success, we ought to be concerned that that's gonna end up meaning retention in grades in middle school. And it will mean, fewer of these children being ready to graduate from high school on time, prepared for college, prepared for careers, prepared for military service and prepared for life. And I sound that dire warning to get to your question is that what parents can do and parents can do a lot.

One, appreciate the seriousness of the situation and join with others to make sure that the local school districts, the local superintendents, local public officials are paying attention to this -- and at the relief side, to essentially demand that every family and every child be fully equipped to participate in safe schools and safe classrooms, or to be able to participate on the internet. Once beyond that, we need to get our public officials and educators developing realistic plans for what will happen this year and that is a relief year.

And, we need to make sure that they are not assuming that parents are going to fill the role of teachers or temporary teachers. Parents have a job to do and need to be equipped and prepared to do it well. But, the challenge of a curriculum that is aligned to standards that has enriching content and a scope and sequence, that is a challenge that parents should not take on because they can't fulfill it well. And so, parents need to be prepared to give themselves a whole lot of grace that they are not going to become good teachers overnight and ought to demand that the school district and educators include them in a partnership with others that will get that for their kids. And, if parents see this as the relief side, and if they say my kid and my neighbor's kids, and every kid in this community should have access, should have a device, should have support, and every parent in this community should be a partner in a larger team to do well by kids, that would be a great beginning. Insist that this is a team sport, not occasion to shift responsibility to parents. But, it's a opportunity to include parents in a meaningful way in the team, so that, we all can do right and better by those kids. 

Helen: Hm, that's good advice. I think Ralph, you're touching on an important tension, honestly, I think many parents are experiencing now of feeling like, what we've got is wholly inadequate. But also, feeling like what schools have to be able to respond, is teachers are doing their best, school district leaders are doing their best. So we're in this difficult place nationally of wanting to demand more, but, also feeling like our system is so strapped for resources time, right? All those things. 

How do you square that tension?

Ralph Smith: I think it's a real tension and the first thing we ought to do is to acknowledge it. And really stop, what I call magical thinking. There is no silver bullet. There's no Cavalry. There is no perfect plan. This year will be a patchwork of things put together, to try to slow the loss. This is a harm reduction phase. But, we can use this year to plan for recovery. And, we ought to be clear that recovery will take time, it will require resources, it will require us to do more than we were doing before this started. Because, we had a lot of kids that were in serious trouble before COVID came along and closed schools.

We have got to build this system that is better and stronger, more responsive and more effective than the system was in January, pre-COVID. And, that will take resources and it will take time and it will also take a team. And, just as parents should not accept the burden of doing it alone, teachers are not going to be able to do it alone. And, parents and teachers are going to need support from tutors, and we've got to figure out how we make that support available and scale tutoring programs to be part of the solution.

And, we're going to have to use technology far more expansively and far more strategically than we have. And so, imagine that we're talking about P for parents, and then we've got three Ts teachers, tutors and technology. And, the parent and the teacher are basically jointly managing this team, to make sure that kids get the high touch support that they'll need from teachers and tutors and high-tech support they're going to need from technology. And, that is a different configuration than we had in January. And parents, are going to have to push the issue. It's going to take a team. What does the team look like? And, how can I play a role in shaping and working with and sometimes pushing this team on behalf of my child, because no one of us is going to be able to succeed in a recovery plan. It's really us being able to work together

And, for parents to bring their passion and their voice to this planning effort and to the implementation of execution of the plan will be enormously important to its success.

LaWanda: Ralph, do you think you can talk to us about some of the promising programs or best practices you've seen so far, just to give our families and parents some examples that they can tell their communities about. 

Ralph Smith: Well, there are some really exciting things happening. We have parents and teachers that are talking to each other. And, we have parents who are saying to the teacher, you know, I just realized something about my kid and the teacher is saying, what is it? Because, there really is an opportunity here for parents to make some exciting discovery, of what their children can do and share those discoveries with the teachers.

We're seeing teachers who were saying to parents, you know, don't try to do everything. Look, here are the two or three most important things. And, if you could reinforce this at home, I'll do the other pieces? You're seeing the job sharing between parents and teachers happening. We've got parents who're working with other parents and some of this has been called pods and whatnot. Well, we've seen parents who themselves having gotten involved in their kids' education and now talking to other parents, well, what's working and how do you do this? And, how do you do that? And, how do you create the time and space? So you're seeing a common cause between and among parents.

I was in a meeting the other day and a young teacher said, look, the most important thing we're going to do is really rebuild the relationship with the parent. And, if I've got to go get my lawn chair and sit in the front yard and talk and have a socially distant conversation with the parent, that's what I'm going to do. We're seeing across the country, great examples where parents are saying, I didn't know how hard it was to be a teacher. I can't imagine having to do this every day, with two dozen kids. And, you're seeing teachers really appreciating the help and appreciating the conversations with parents and realizing how important that relationship is to their sense of self and to the prospects for success.

Of course, we're seeing, teachers who are stressed by not feeling fully competent, because they are now having to teach in a millieu that they didn't expect for which they were not trained or prepared, and who sometimes mess it up as we all do. And, we've seen parents who, have to go to work and can't figure out how they're gonna manage that. And you are seeing them, sometimes with, with short fuses. But, we're also seeing them coming together and we're seeing teachers organizing the delivery of laptops and tablets to homes, on the weekends. We're seeing, libraries open to give hotspots so that we can have it. 

In a couple of communities, they were parking school buses, and turning school buses into, into hotspots so that, folks could get on the internet and those kind of workarounds and little, sometimes idiosyncratic, stitched together things that seem informal, they're really part of the fabric that's going to make the new normal stronger than it is. And so, I've been focusing not on, the really smart technology that's coming out, not on the big ideas for transformation that finally seeing the light of day, not on some of the most exciting things that's happening in terms of rethinking the internet as a public utility. 

But, I think the most meaningful developments have been the deepening understanding, the stronger relationship and the additional channels of communication that have been opened between parents and teachers. Those are the things that give us the most reason to be optimistic. That, when we come out of this we can actually have a system that is better and stronger and more capable of serving children.

Helen: Thank you, Ralph. I like that you shared that optimistic note and what you're seeing from the vantage point of looking across the country as places where we can move from relief to recovery. This is just been such an inspiring and great conversation. Before we go, we want to give you a last opportunity out of all that we've discussed 

If there's one thing you'd like our listeners and families to walk away with from today's episode, what would that be?

Ralph Smith: I think it is the reminder that the decision to close schools that decision probably saved lives, maybe tens of thousands of lives. So even in retrospect, it probably was a really good decision, but like every good decision, there are some downsides. And, we ought to be able to applaud that decision and recognize that the effects were not evenly distributed.

That a good decision had harsh effects on groups of people, many of whom had nothing to do with making that decision. And, we ought to be able to keep that front and center as we move forward and say that we have an obligation, all of us who may be a beneficiary of that decision, have a collective obligation to look at those folks who have paid the price of that decision. And, as a way of saying thank you to them really say, and we are going to attend and prioritize the remedy for those people who have been most harshly affected by that decision. 

We need to lift up that as the principle of fairness that holds us together and it ought to be a commitment that we share and the foundation on which we buildl, as we move from this difficult time into what we hope will be a new normal that is better and stronger and more effective, than the one we saw.

Helen: Hmm. Thank you.

LaWanda: Ralph, thank you so much for your time and all your expertise. We are really excited to share this episode with our families and our parents and our listeners. So I just wanted to say thank you for joining us. 

Ralph Smith: Well, thank you so much for having me.

LaWanda: And to our listening audience, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode check out before you go, we want to remind you National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource webpage for parents, students, and educators. To learn more visit Thanks for joining us.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.