Every state, every district, every school, every teacher faced decisions that they had never anticipated in the last academic year. As the end of the 2020-2021 school year approaches, it’s time to reflect on those decisions, learn from others, and prepare for the fall ahead.

That’s why we invited representatives from the Louisiana Department of Education to share their COVID decision-making process in our recent webinar, CLASS Observations in the Time of COVID. Taylor Dunn, Deputy Assistant Superintendent of Early Childhood Strategy, Pheriche Perkins, Director of Special Projects, and Michael Bock, Early Childhood Education Accountability Manager, have all worked throughout the pandemic to ensure that the health and safety of teachers, children, and observers is a top priority while also maintaining Louisiana’s quality gains in early childhood classrooms across the state.

Let’s take a closer look.

A Shared Understanding

Louisiana began its CLASS journey back in 2013, with pilots of 13 community-based early childhood networks. Their success led to adoption statewide. Now, CLASS is at the center of the state’s quality improvement, support and professional development, and incentive programs. This unity means there is a shared understanding of what children need to thrive - warm, supportive interactions - and agreement on what classrooms that support such interactions look, sound, and feel like.

All publicly funded early childhood programs in the state are assessed using the Pre-K, Toddler, and, as of Fall 2020, Infant CLASS tools twice per year by their local observer. Additionally, a third party conducts additional observations - 50% of all classrooms in the state each semester, and at least one classroom at each site for each age group served. Sites are given a combined performance rating based on CLASS scores, which aligns with a star rating that informs tax credits, bonuses, and any required improvement plans. Since the rollout of CLASS in Louisiana, scores have increased across domains each year, meaning that there are real, meaningful improvements in the kinds of care and teaching children receive.

While the specifics are interesting, the main reason for giving this context is to understand the massive scale at which the state of Louisiana uses CLASS to focus, measure, and improve...and how disruptive COVID could have been to a system that relied on repeated face-to-face interactions and observations with strangers.

Safety and Accountability

This statewide system, like all others across the country, faced a roadblock in spring 2020. To guide their decisions, Louisiana leaders went back to three core beliefs: the paramount importance of health and safety, the critical need (even and especially during a pandemic) for high-quality interactions, and the demand for creative solutions, driven by data and stakeholder engagement. Their driving questions were both if and how they would collect CLASS data to support the critical goals they had for children and programs. The Louisiana Department of Education decided that flexibility was needed.

With the statewide stay-at-home order in place in spring 2020, all CLASS observations were paused. LDOE took a “hold harmless” approach, meaning that sites who had scored higher earlier in the year than in previous years could show those gains in their updated performance score. However, sites with lower-than-previous CLASS scores from the fall wouldn’t have a chance to show improvement on their scores in the spring. Rather than dropping in their performance ratings, they were instead allowed to roll over a previous year’s score. This struck the ideal balance of honoring some sites’ improvement without penalizing others.

Following the Data

With the spring semester behind them, LDOE looked ahead to the uncertain fall ahead of them. Many questions still remained: what would COVID case rates look like in the fall? How would transmission be slowed or exacerbated? And, still: whether and how they should collect CLASS data to support their goals.

It was time to innovate. While relatively low case rates in fall 2020 allowed for in-person observations to resume, the department also piloted virtual observations with an existing partner, the Cecil Picard Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. At the same time, they increased allocations for the community-based agencies doing observations and supporting early childhood providers, provided financial support and stabilization grants directly to child care providers, expanded their partnership with the Tulane Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Program in recognition of the trauma experienced by children and educators, and provided guidance - a lot of guidance - on how to safely conduct observations.

With these additional supports in place, things were back up and running, albeit differently than in a pre-COVID environment, until a case spike in winter of 2020. LDOE allowed the data to guide them. In-person observations were paused, which also gave a little breathing room to process the many classroom-level observation waivers that had been submitted for nearly 12% of classrooms. The data collected and lessons learned from early-in-the-year virtual observations was critical to their ability to pivot to virtual-only observations. Data also showed that many classrooms were, in the face of all the challenges, still providing the high-quality interactions that children needed. LDOE gave permission to do only a single fall observation, rather than the multiple required in a normal year, to classrooms scoring a composite 4.5 or higher.

Once again, changing seasons brought changing opportunities. As vaccines became available, LDOE once again revised their guidance, including the ability to return to in-person observations. Similar to the previous spring, they gave hold-harmless flexibility to sites’ 2020-21 performance profiles - growth was rewarded with the expected increase in performance profiles, but any sites with lower scores were allowed to roll over previous years’ ratings. However, the updated data gave LDOE the opportunity to better target supports for improvements. They recognized that, in the case of this school year, challenging often also meant “more expensive,” and opened up more grant opportunities directly to Pre-K, child care, and Head Start programs.

Through each of these decision points across the 2020-21 school year, the robust data that comes from a unified state system allowed LDOE to make reasonable decisions that were grounded in evidence.

Looking Ahead

So, what’s next? Like many other organizations, LDOE is working hard to determine what’s best for children, families, teachers, and observers, both in the short and long term. They’ll be using this year’s data to prepare for many contingencies. Data analysis will allow them to better understand the implications of virtual observations, including how live, remote observations compare with live, in-person ones. Louisiana also knows that, because enrollment in early childhood programs was down over 15%, the transitions to school in the fall are likely to be very different from what kindergarten and even preschool teachers have come to expect. These transitions will need attention and explicit support. Finally, and fundamentally, they’re renewing their commitment to expanding access to high-quality early childhood education and care. Especially with the traumas of 2020 and 2021, all children in Louisiana deserve it.

We aren’t quite out of the woods yet, but as Louisiana's leaders - and those in states and localities across the country - plan for the school year ahead, they do so with a better understanding of the risks and opportunities, more information, and a renewed dedication to ensuring support for all students.

Watch the full webinar here. Interested in learning more about Louisiana’s use of CLASS? Download the case study and see other resources here.