This article is part of a series where the Paper team connects with leaders in education to highlight different experiences and perspectives on the changing realities of education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Paper team reached out to Marlon Styles, Jr., Superintendent of Middletown City Schools in Ohio, after he gave a virtual presentation to the House Committee on Education and Labor. The briefing was about remote learning in the time of COVID-19. He gave a powerful portrayal of the challenges his students, teachers, and administrators are facing during school closures:

“One parent shared she is choosing to spend her last few dollars on food instead of paying her Internet bill. A parent of a visually impaired student shared she needs a braille reader at home for her daughter to be able to do school activities. One student wasn’t able to submit any assignments for two weeks until he received a school-issued device and Grandma got Internet service in the home. Simply put, our high-poverty students face the digital divide every day of their lives, and remote learning has only shined a brighter light on the unjust inequities. It is clear the remote learning challenges in our district center on families living in high poverty not having access to a device and/or reliable Internet. I lose sleep at night knowing the logged-in students have access to high-quality remote learning opportunities while the logged-out students are at home wishing they could be in class with their teacher.”

"I lose sleep at night knowing the logged-in students have access to high-quality remote learning opportunities while the logged-out students are at home wishing they could be in class with their teacher.”

In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Superintendent Styles gave his perspective on extended learning time, tackling the digital divide, and what it takes to enact meaningful change towards equity.

Paper: What has the distance learning experience been like at your district, and what’s it been like being a superintendent from a distance?

Mr. Styles: Being a superintendent from a distance is a struggle. You love people; you’re passionate about working with people and, more importantly, serving kids. Not being able to have that daily interaction tugs at your heartstrings a little bit. You miss them a lot. I really enjoy being around people, and being able to experience the culture of our district live and in-person. Being pushed away at a distance and having to try to connect with people virtually has been a little different and something to get adjusted to. But we still stay at our core beliefs, which is serving people and serving kids. We’re just finding unique ways to do that.


As far as distance learning in our district, I think it’s different from what some may or may not be celebrating across the country. I know for us that picture is a little bit different because we are a high-poverty district. We have a 100% free and reduced lunch rate; our median household income is slightly over $39,000. Our priorities are slightly different from most, and remote learning is not at the top of that list. We are really focusing on meeting the basic needs of our students and helping families who are in survival mode right now in any way we possibly can.


Making social connections with them virtually is the most important piece as far as virtual learning is concerned. We’ve got a large number of students who either don’t have devices or, more importantly, aren’t connected; they’re logged out right now. It makes the learning experience much different than those that have internet access. We’re plowing through it. We have two days of school left and excited to let kids get back out to playgrounds here in Ohio.

"We’ve got a large number of students who either don’t have devices or, more importantly, aren’t connected; they’re logged out right now."

Paper: During your presentation to the House Committee on Education and Labor, you said that students don’t have a choice in their learning experience when it comes to remote learning. It is already predetermined if they are either “logged in” or “logged out.” Do you think it’s fair to continue educating in these circumstances where some students can do remote learning, and others can’t?

Mr. Styles: I hope, and I pray that, given these circumstances we face right now in this pandemic as it relates to education, I hope that we do a better job as a society, not just talking about the problems or the inequities that our students face but actually doing something about it. We need to get into a “let’s do something about it” mode and find ways to get every student a reliable device, find a way to get every student no matter where they’re at in this country access to reliable internet in their home.  

Funding is desperately needed to knock down this barrier. This is a must. If every student was connected, then yes, we definitely should continue to explore a model and an approach to learning with a virtual lens. If we can tackle the homework gap in this country and do something about it, not just talk about it, I think in the education world we’d be all in to try to figure out a creative way to meet the needs of a variety of learners. We must Connect Kids Now!

"Funding is desperately needed to knock down this barrier. This is a must."

Paper: What do you think is the best way to enact meaningful change towards equity during this time?

Mr. Styles: It takes a village, rally the troops, whatever slogan you can come up with, but it’s all hands on deck to tackle this pandemic of students being logged out. First, I would say we need the federal government to step in and lend a helping hand. That’s four billion dollars in e-rate funding to expand reliable internet access in students' homes. That’s the first major step, and our providers have stepped up to the plate in very creative ways, going above and beyond to try to get families free internet access, but there are some hurdles and barriers inside that free service.

But funding is a major piece. If the federal government would step up with four billion dollars in E-rate funding, that’s an early indication that we’re ready to do something about it. So I’d list that first and foremost. If those funds are on the table and we got people’s attention, I believe that the stakeholders across this country and different communities will rise to the occasion to put a plan in place to really start giving our marginalized and historically under-resourced students the opportunity to have access.

"It takes a village, rally the troops, whatever slogan you can come up with, but it’s all hands on deck to tackle this pandemic of students being logged out."


Paper: In your address to the committee, you also said: “Funding will be needed to provide an elevated level of support to marginalized students and educators in the summer & extend learning time when school reopen and likely for the next few years.” What should summer school or extended learning time look like?

Mr. Styles: Well, I think that all depends on whatever the Coronavirus brings us, but the corona slide, the pandemic slide, the summer slide... the idea is that students are losing some of the academic gains that they had while school was in session. NWEA came out with a recent report about those gaps for marginalized students because of the loss of instructional time being significant. You’re talking about a 50 percent loss in math. So it’s definitely significant. Extended learning time for me, you’re talking about your most neediest students. Their desires as a learner to be met probably are not going to be on an online platform.

What I get interested in is can we find a way to reimagine this idea of summer school. Summer school has a punitive connotation to it, right? When I was in school, summer school meant Mr. Schumacher’s geometry class, and I didn’t get a passing grade, and I had to retake the class in the summer. That’s summer school. But if you’re talking about extending learning for kids outside the traditional school day, that’s where you really start being able to customize the experience for students based on what they need. I’d like to see us really think about how we can tailor some of the extended learning opportunities for students outside of the academic school year in this new-age concept of summer school.

Paper: Have you been collaborating with a lot of other district leaders?

Mr. Styles: Yes, one thing I’m most proud of is just how leaders across this country have rallied together and amplified our voices of the profession, and there are some key folks that really helped out with that. Alliance for Excellent Education, Future Ready, and Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools have been amazing partners and equity champions for all students.

I’ll shout out a couple of superintendents now just because they’ve really taken center stage to push the Connect Kids Now campaign forward. Susan Enfield (Superintendent Highline Schools), Baron Davis (Superintendent Richland School District Two), Kenny Rodrequez (Superintendent Grandview C4 School District), Tom Burton (Superintendent Princeton School District), Kim Smith (Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools), and Thomas Murray (Future Ready) are just a few leaders I am proud to stand alongside of in a call to action to Connect Kids Now.

In Southwest Ohio, we are doing our best to stay connected and stay unified in some of our decision-making because that’s what the right thing is to do. A lot of smart minds working together can be really powerful as far as planning is concerned, and we’re all working together here in Southwest Ohio. We’re talking on a weekly basis, not just about remote learning, but about safety protocols and some decision-making about the start of the school year. We’ve had some unified communications which have really helped our reaching-out to make sure we have the right message and right information we’re communicating out to the whole entire region based on whatever the direction is from our governor.

I think, in general, what you’re finding in education is a rallying cry for people to stand united, and have a unified voice that really speaks about what our needs are, what we want to do, and what we are doing for kids and more importantly just that amplified call for equity for all across the entire country.

"What you’re finding in education is a rallying cry for people to stand united, and have a unified voice that really speaks about what our needs are."

Paper: Do you have any closing thoughts as you continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic?

Mr. Styles: My closing comments would be: Celebrate educators. I’m not talking about us superintendents, but to celebrate the hard work of the educators over the last nine weeks across the country. I’ll celebrate the staff here in Middletown City School District. Educators are really stepping up to the plate, taking the bull by the horn, and going above and beyond to meet the needs of students. There are so many stories of people being brave and courageous, reaching out to maintain positive relationships with kids, writing personal letters, running virtual chats, and running group sessions. At the end of the day, educators were already doing this. An educator is a very powerful role model that means a lot to kids. I’m lucky to be part of the #MiddieRising family.  I’m glad to stand by the staff here in the Middletown City School District.

Note: This article is based on an interview conducted on May 18, and is centred around the final weeks of the school year. To read more from the leadership at Middletown City Schools about more recent developments since then, click here.

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