Broadband, SEL, and Racial Equity Rise to the Top of State Board Agendas in 2020

By Joseph Hedger

Nearly all states required or recommended that public schools close their doors in 2020 due to the pandemic. As schools moved to distance learning, the state policy landscape shifted as well, with broadband and internet access, social and emotional learning, and racial justice rising to the fore of the agendas of state boards of education as compared with their agendas in 2019.

Between January and October 2020, 18 state boards addressed broadband and internet access issues during their meetings, while only 3 did so in the comparable period in 2019, according to NASBE’s State Board Insight database. For example, boards took these actions in 2020:

  • Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, and Oregon approved funding contracts and proposals related to the E-rate matching-grant program, which assists in funding telecommunications and information services for schools and libraries;
  • the Alaska State Board of Education adopted emergency regulatory changes to 4 Alaska Admin. Code 33, Article 6, which relates to funding for the improvement of internet speed at public schools; and
  • Georgia’s board authorized receipt of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds for supporting student connectivity by providing schools with more options to connect students to the internet.

The U.S. Department of Education announced flexibility for states to skip federal testing requirements for the 2019–20 school year. Data show that 37 state boards put assessment-related issues on their agendas in 2020, whereas 43 addressed the topic in 2019.

For many students learning from home in 2020, the stresses of a high-fatality pandemic and social isolation represented a new hurdle for their social and emotional well-being. Twelve state boards discussed social and emotional learning (SEL) in 2020, up from the nine that discussed it during the same timeframe in 2019. In September, the Maryland board voted to add as a SEL as a priority for 2020–21 in order to ensure the state’s department of education and local school systems address the social-emotional needs of students and staff in all programs and school instructional models. In October, Nebraska’s board adopted revisions to their 2021–22 Legislative and Regulatory Priorities in order to add social and emotional supports for youth affected by isolation and other traumas during COVID-19.

In a June analysis, “State Boards Renew Commitments to Racial Equity in Schools,” NASBE’s Valerie Norville described how state boards in Washington, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina, Utah, and Kentucky responded to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others by committing or recommitting their boards to taking action to promote racial equity. Seventeen state boards focused on racial justice issues during 2020, while only three did in 2019.