COVID-19 has been a challenging time for America’s public schools and students. The pandemic highlights many issues that already impacted education but have now become far more transparent as the forced school building shutdowns and transition to online learning have spread across the nation. However, during these challenging times, there are also many opportunities for public schools to transform how instruction is being provided that better meets the needs of all students —particularly those most systemically underserved. To fulfill those opportunities, there must be a careful analysis of what did not work during the pandemic and how that data and information can be used to promote improved learning and school transformation in the future across the nation.
The challenges of student learning in the time of the pandemic
“The Results Are In For Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work,” the Wall Street Journal reported on June 5, 2020. Many school districts have struggled to provide students with high-quality remote learning since schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the reality is that one-third of districts were not been able to provide instruction for the first two months after the shutdown and one-fourth of students went absent without a trace when school closed. “The consensus view, unsurprisingly, has been that the past few months have been a disaster,” according to a blog published on Education Week.
How to safely and effectively operate schools in the fall has become a tremendous challenge. "Public school districts faced a great test to continue educating schoolchildren, providing meals, and stretching their resources to do more to help students and their families,” Anna Maria Chávez, Executive Director & CEO of the National School Boards Association, said in a recent statement regarding schools opening in the fall. She also pointed out that “parents, school boards, superintendents, principals, educators, and administrators adapted to an upended environment with great speed and agility to meet students’ needs.”
As each community is unique with different student needs, different infrastructure, and different resources, it is best that decisions on returning to schools be made at the local level. Whether to keep students learning remotely, reopen school buildings or implement blended learning models is currently the subject of intense debate. To inform school leaders of how schools and districts responded to the pandemic, researchers from the NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) dived into some large-scale, nationally representative data collected during the COVID-19 school building closures. We focused on examining good practices and improvement that schools and districts need to better serve every student.
Why do we say schools encountered an unprecedent challenge?
The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every school in the United States. More than 100,000 public schools across the country closed their physical doors between March and May 2020, leaving more than 50 million students with no choice but to continue their education at home. As of mid-May, 42 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Northern Marianas, ordered schools closed for the academic year (Figure 1).
Figure 1. State Closure Status Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Going remote was a drastic but necessary step to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, but schools were not prepared for a long-term shutdown. According to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2016), many school districts include procedures for unexpected school closures in their crisis/emergency preparedness plans. However, over half of the districts with crisis/emergency plans did not incorporate procedures for ensuring the continuity of education (e.g., online classes, prepackaged assignments) during unplanned school building closures.
“The COVID-19 pandemic forced fundamental changes to the nation’s schools at a breathtaking pace,” stated researchers from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). From March to May 2020, AEI conducted a COVID-19 Education Response Longitudinal Survey and sampled 250 public school districts with 10,289 schools. The data show a clear picture of how schools have adapted to changing circumstances and became better equipped to facilitate remote learning (Figure 2).
- Within one and a half months, the school closure rate jumped from 10% to almost 100%, but almost all schools maintained their services of providing meals to students.
- Within one and half months, over half of schools offered help for both internet access and devices.
- In 2019, only 26% of teachers in the U.S. reported that their schools or districts provided computers for students to take home on a long-term basis. In contrast, 65% of schools had a program to provide devices to students at home during the COVID-19. This percentage increased 28 points from March to May.
- In 2019, only 8% of teachers in the U.S. reported that their schools or districts provided mobile hotspots for students to take home. During the pandemic, 68% of schools provided some form of assistance for students to access the internet. This percentage increased 22 points between March and May.
Figure 2. School Closures and School Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Note: *Percentage of teachers in the United States that reported their schools provided technology assistance in 2019. The data are from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020048.
How have schools used technology to meet students’ needs?
Closing school buildings and creating virtual classrooms for all K-12 students within two months was unprecedented in any existing education system. Data show that school districts broke a record. As shown in Figure 3, at the end of March, only 1% of school districts were able to offer synchronous instruction (i.e. teaching and learning that happen in real time like in a face-to-face classroom environment), but by the end of May, the percentage of districts had increased by 36 times.
Likewise, at the end of March, only 19% of school districts offered asynchronous instruction, but by the end of May, this percentage had tripled. Although asynchronous instruction completely differs from a face-to-face classroom setting, asynchronous platforms allow students to engage with teacher-posted learning material at their own pace. Three-quarters of school districts in the U.S. offered this type of remote learning in May.
Before mid-April, none of the districts in AEI’s surveys could provide students with learning experiences like attending a virtual school system. Yet, by May, over half of the U.S. school districts had developed the capabilities to transfer schooling to a separate independent virtual school, with its own independent and preexisting curriculum. In Figure 3, “Relying mostly or wholly on online platform” refers to a district that can offer an independent online virtual school as an educational platform for students.
Figure 3. School Districts Response to the Pandemic – Technology Use for Remote Learning
Researchers from Tulane University started visiting 3,511 school websites after most schools had shut down in-person instruction. The data they collected focused on student personalization (e.g., live video classes and office hours outside of class), progress monitoring (e.g., tracking attendance and grading assignments), and equity of access (e.g., having plans for students with disabilities and English language learners). While there are limitations in data collected from school websites, the findings are enlightening. For instance:
- Schools in neighborhoods with more widespread internet access responded more extensively than those with less internet access. School leaders are unlikely to use techniques like live classes if they know many students cannot access them.
- Technology guidance and supervision is crucial for students to learn at home. Even if schools respond the same way, students are likely to have varying experiences due to differences in home environments.
- Although school districts provided remote learning and access to computers/internet, they appear to have done less to serve disadvantaged students, such as students with disabilities and English language learners (https://www.reachcentered.org/publications/how-americas-schools-responded-to-covid).
What are some issues related to expectations for students during remote learning?
Currently, one national concern is the consequences of inefficient and ineffective remote learning. “When schools are closed to in-person instruction, disparities in educational outcomes could become wider, as some families may not have capacity to fully participate in distance learning (e.g., computer and internet access issues, lack of parent, guardian, or caregiver support because of work schedules) and may rely on school-based services that support their child’s academic success,” explains Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020, a new CDC document.
Researchers estimate that students will return in the fall of 2020 with about 70% of the learning gains they had already achieved in reading and less than half of the learning gains in math. In some grades, the loss would be equivalent to almost a full year behind what they would have had in normal times. For school leaders, a big challenge is to meet every students’ needs by supporting teachers to deliver coherent and effective instruction in the context of the COVID pandemic.
The data from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) show that two in three school districts failed to clearly communicate how teachers were to provide instruction while schools remained closed. Only half of districts nationally expect teachers to track their students’ engagement in learning through either attendance tracking or one-on-one check-ins. The AEI’s survey data show similar patterns (Figure 4):
- By the end of May, nearly half of school districts did not mention on their websites that student assignments were being graded.
- Many districts instructed schools to grade student work based on completion (i.e. simply turning in assignments); only one fifth of districts asked schools to grade students based on performance (i.e. grading work for accuracy).
- At the end of the 2019-20 school year, three out of 10 schools were grading student work based on completion, another three were grading student work based on performance, and the remaining four were not grading student work or did not specify how student work would be graded.
Figure 4. Percentage of schools and districts, by expectations: May 2020
Another key issue related to school expectations was whether teachers should help students to review what they had learned before COVID-19 or teach new content via remote learning. Researchers from the RAND Corporation conducted the Spring 2020 American Educator Panels COVID-19 Surveys. One question in their survey was, “While you are providing distance learning, to what extent are you focusing on reviewing content that was taught before COVID-19 versus presenting new content?”
After surveying more than 25,000 teachers and more than 7,500 school principals, researchers found that schools that used remote learning mostly for reviewing the content learned before COVID-19 were more likely to be elementary schools, high-poverty schools (i.e. more than 75% free or reduced-price lunch), schools serving students who are mostly students of color, and schools in in towns (i.e. located outside a metropolitan area) or rural areas (Figure 5). By contrast, schools that spent more time learning new content were more likely to be secondary schools, low-poverty schools (i.e. less than 25% free or reduced-price lunch), schools serving students who are mostly white, and schools in suburban areas.
Figure 5. Review or Learn New Content During COVID-19, by School Characteristics
Data source: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA168-1.html
Note: The statistics in some bars do not sum up to 100% due to rounding.
To what extent does remote learning amplify equity issues?
Data from multiple sources show a disturbing pattern in terms of equal learning opportunities for all students. An EdWeek Research Center survey in April found that 62% of leaders in districts with low poverty rates (i.e. under 25%) said everyone who needed home internet access had it. For leaders in districts where the poverty rates exceed 75%, the reported rate of access was just 31%.
More researchers have found new evidence that the shutdowns caused by COVID-19 could exacerbate existing achievement gaps. “Learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, black, and Hispanic students,” according to the statistical models created by researchers of McKinsey & Company.
- Data show that only 60% of students from low-income families were regularly logging into online instruction, whereas 90% of students from high-income families were.
- In schools serving predominantly Black and Hispanic students, only 60-70% of students were logging into online instruction regularly and engaging in learning.
- In addition to learning loss, COVID-19 closures may increase high-school dropout rates. Based on data following Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane Maria (2017), which show that 14-20% of students never returned to school after the natural disasters, researchers estimated that as a result of the coronavirus and the COVID-related school closures, 232,000 to 1.1 million ninth-to-11th graders may drop out of school.
In the RAND surveys, principals were asked to what extent each of the factors listed below had limited the amount or type of distance learning materials that schools were able to provide to students while their school building had been closed. “Concerns about providing equitable instruction to all students” was ranked as the number one major limitation for carrying out remote learning (Figure 6). Next to it was the digital divide, commonly described as the Homework gap, which refers to students lacking internet access and/or technology devices.
Figure 6. Principals’ Views on Factors as Major Limitations for Remote Learning
Data source: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA168-1.html
Note: The results in some bars do not add up to 100% due to rounding.
What is on the educators’ wish list for school reopening?
During the COVID-19 school building closures, teachers and school leaders have made great efforts in working with parents to keep learning alive. Nevertheless, “these efforts are not likely to provide the quality of education that’s delivered in the classroom,” especially for disadvantaged students. Evidence shows that our school system was not built to deal with extended physical shutdowns like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, although educators and school leaders have set a record transforming the system from bricks and mortar to virtual classrooms within two months.
In the RAND surveys, both teachers and principals expressed their hope to get more support form district leaders to address the loss of opportunities to engage in hands-on learning that students have suffered.
- Forty-five percent of principals from high-poverty schools, 37% of principals from city schools, 36% of principals from schools with large non-white student population, and 29% of teachers hoped their districts could offer strategies or resources to address the loss of students’ opportunities to engage in hands-on learning.
- Forty-five percent of teachers hoped their districts could provide strategies to keep students engaged and motivated to learn remotely.
- Principals from both high-poverty and low-poverty schools listed “planning for future school closures or other emergencies” as a top priority when school buildings reopen (Figure 7).
- Compared with principals from low-poverty schools, more principals from high-poverty schools listed “addressing disparities in academic performance among students” and “ensuring students’ health and safety” as high priorities when their school buildings reopen (Figure 7).
Figure 7. High Priority Areas When School Buildings Reopen, as Reported by Principals in High- and Low-Poverty schools
Data source: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA168-1.html
Providing every student with high-quality education is the top priority of public schools, regardless of remote learning or in-person instruction. Data show a clear picture of how schools have rapidly adapted to changing and challenging circumstances and became better equipped to facilitate remote learning within two months. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, equity issues in remote learning seem substantially amplified.
- Schools in neighborhoods with more widespread internet access responded more extensively than those with less internet access. Research suggests that school leaders are unlikely to use techniques like live classes if they know many students cannot access them.
- Data show that although school districts provided remote learning and access to computers/internet, they appear to have done less to serve students with disabilities and English language learners.
- Research suggests that schools serving a high percentage of high-poverty students and non-white students are more likely to use remote learning for reviewing content that students learned prior to COVID-19, whereas schools serving students who are mostly white and from affluent families are more likely to provide remote instructions teaching new content.
- Researchers predict that learning loss may be greatest among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, as this student group is more likely to lack access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment (e.g., a quiet space with minimal distractions, personal technology devices, high speed internet, and parental academic supervision).
As the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) stated recently, “State and district leaders face many challenges heading into the next school year, leaving them to make tough decisions about what to prioritize and where to invest resources.” Therefore, reviewing current research and data to inform those decisions is imperative right now.
Moving forward, public schools will need to focus on the future of learning through innovation, teacher recruitment and engagement, the effective use of technology, and more student personalization that addresses many of the equity issues raised during the COVID-19 emergency but also focuses on the need to better prepare students with the 21st century skills that build critical thinking and collaboration required in today’s modern and increasingly digital world — an issue that needed to be addressed prior to the pandemic. There are many challenges to be addressed, but also many opportunities in the path forward to improve and transform learning.