A New Normal?

Paulo DeMaria, superintendent of Public Instruction for Ohio

Ohio Superintendent DeMaria answers our questions on the state of education in Ohio today

By Terry Troy

To his colleagues, Paulo DeMaria is passionate, tireless and respectful. As superintendent of Public Instruction for Ohio, DeMaria supports our state’s 3,600 schools, 1.7 million students and more than 600 school districts across the state—each facing unique challenges in what is being called our “new normal.” While public education certainly impacts our state’s future, it also plays a large role in our state’s economy, not just for the companies who do businesses with schools, but also for the families who send children to public schools.

What is the difference between virtual learning versus face-to-face learning in terms of efficacy? Is it just an issue of socialization?

In some respects socialization is the most essential difference. We as human beings are social creatures. Interacting with people face to face brings a lot of benefit. The same is true in business interactions. That face-to-face interaction on the educational experience is important, but I think we shouldn’t discount the fact that people learn in different ways. There are plenty of people who can have successful educational experiences learning in a virtual setting. So you can’t jump to the conclusion that there is no value to virtual learning.

Isn’t there a more valuable structure in a face-to-face environment?

What I have learned is to never paint with a broad brush. There are plenty of people who have two kids where one has really taken to virtual learning while the other one just can’t get used to it. I think what is really more important is how we understand the learning needs of students and make sure that what we deliver makes sense. Watch a child play a video game. They are engaging, they are learning and they are willing to spend a lot of time to master complex behaviors. So there is no inherent wrongness to virtual learning.

Doesn’t face-to-face learning allow both parents to get back to work rather than babysit?

Absolutely. I don’t think we have to be shy in admitting that. While a school’s primary purpose is to serve as a nurturing environment and a place for the acquisition of knowledge, skills and understanding, it does create conditions where both members of a family or household can work—if it is the parents’ desire that they want to work. The minute you change that, it creates a significant challenge and has a disruptive influence from an economic standpoint. But once again, it’s hard to generalize, because there are plenty of families where one parent stays home—and in those cases virtual learning may be more appropriate. I have heard some people say that they have always wanted to be more involved in their child’s education, helping them navigate and function in a virtual setting.

How many districts are completely open now versus how many are using distance learning?

First of all, you have to understand the configuration of the school districts of Ohio. We have what we call the Ohio 8, which are in large urban areas, like Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton. Then you have the next tier, which are called the urban 21, and these include large districts like Lima, Mansfield, Marion and other smaller cities as well as a handful of large suburban districts. The rest of our districts are medium-sized to smaller rural districts. Because of the nature of COVID, a lot of those smaller districts are open full time—so maybe as much as 80% of our districts or more are back either full time, five days a week or some other hybrid model that has students primarily in schools. It’s in urban areas, where districts are in the red zone on the health alert map, where learning is done remotely. So, if you look at the map, there may be a higher percentage of students learning remotely, while there might be a higher percentage of districts that are open.

What kind of stress has the pandemic placed on our school districts?

Once again, that depends on modality. If all of your learning is being done remotely, the amount of money needed for maintenance, cleaning and janitorial services will be a lot less. School districts have been contemplating different scenarios so they are ready. When urban areas decide to bring people back into their buildings, they have plans on managing daily and evening cleanings, making sure teachers have PPE and so forth. We have seen that across the entire state. Our districts have to think about how they will use their maintenance staff, or how to manage class sizes to ensure social distancing. What does that mean? It means deciding if we put classes in rooms we never used before or reconfiguring schedules where we run busses more often to bring students in differently. Some districts are using their buildings differently: spreading out elementary students more and using some middle school space, while letting high school students learn remotely, so that space can be used differently. The bus issue is interesting because it is hard to maintain social distancing on busses. I think most people are managing with masks and making sure students are masked, but you really can’t buy a bunch of new busses and transport half as many children.

Sounds like you’re making a case for distance learning.

On the remote side, you have to make substantial investments on software, hardware and making sure you help students with connectivity. You have to consider all of those things as well.

Do you feel like you’re getting enough help from the federal and state governments?

Absolutely. The federal government, through the original COVID assistance act, provided a significant amount of money nationally for education. The amount Ohio received was about $440 million. The federal government also gives Ohio about $2 billion a year as a part of Title I and Title II and all the different elementary education formats the federal government supports. We have mechanisms in place that allocates those funds and our schools understand the process for drawing those funds down. The state also stepped in with a different pot of federal funds, which also provided around $50 million in connectivity grants. There was also another $100 million to supplement the $400 million—so there has been a good amount of federal funds. However, we, along with other states, agree that we need more money to go to schools. It’s not about the money coming in, it’s about the less amount of money that is coming in from people not being able to pay property taxes, or where some districts are supported by income taxes, which are also taking a hit. People in education are hopeful that Congress finds its way through the barriers of passing the next round of COVID assistance.

Are teachers unions being helpful or hurtful to the process?

I am a big believer that teachers have to be a part of our conversations. There are some districts that run into problems because they make decisions while not talking to teachers. The next thing you know, they find out they haven’t contemplated the practical realities that teachers understand. So the best transitions are happening when teachers are at the table.