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November 2020

RAND Gulf States Policy Institute

From the Director

Serious African American teenage girl wearing headphones, doing homework, photo by fizkes/AdobeStock


As a researcher and research director living in the hurricane-prone U.S. Gulf States region, I think about resilience a lot. That now includes resilience in a pandemic, as well as hurricane season. As a parent, I am thinking a lot more about our kids. How resilient are our schools in the face of mass closures and disruptions? How and what are our kids learning—and are they learning enough? Have we learned any lessons that might help us if we find ourselves in a situation like this again?

Recently, I spoke with my colleague Heather L. Schwartz, the director of the pre-kindergarten (pre-K) to 12 educational system program and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. In spring 2020, Heather and her team conducted a survey of K–12 teachers and principals from across the country to ask them about school practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recall that these survey instruments, the American Educator Panels, were the tools that first prompted RAND researchers to look more closely at Louisiana’s education standards and the unique and important ways districts, schools, and educators were sharing them.

What the team found this time illuminated the depth of the challenges schools faced in the spring—and many continue to face to this day. There are some unpleasant surprises, sure. But there is also hope: We now know how to do better in the future.

Gary Cecchine

Researcher Spotlight

Q&A with Heather L. Schwartz

Heather L. Schwartz

This quarter, I am happy to share my discussion with Heather L. Schwartz about the effects of widespread and lengthy school closures across the country and the Gulf States region. Heather is the director of the pre-K to 12 educational system program and a senior policy researcher at RAND.

First, tell us a little about the survey you conducted. You conducted it during the height of pandemic-related school closures, right?

Right. We surveyed 2,000 teachers and 3,500 principals in May 2020 for about two weeks. This group is a part of our ongoing American Educator Panels, which are a standing group of educators from across the country. They agree to take online surveys periodically so our team can take the pulse of what’s going on in the educator community at any given time. We were so grateful to already have a tool in place that could collect teachers’ and principals’ thoughts and experiences directly and quickly as it became clear that schools were not going to fully open before summer.

How many of the teachers and principals answered the May survey?

Of those we invited, half of the teachers and a little over a quarter of the principals completed our spring 2020 survey about COVID-19.

Out of the those you surveyed, how many offered distance learning to their students?

Almost every school offered some kind of instruction after face-to-face instruction stopped in the spring. But how much, how often, and whether it was online or in hard copy is where schools widely deviated.

By way of context, about three-quarters of the schools our educators work in had been closed for five to six weeks when they took our survey. And 99 percent of the teachers didn’t expect their schools to reopen in the school year, so they knew that remote learning would be around for the long haul.

So how many teachers taught online? How many were sending materials to students’ homes?

Generally speaking, schools usually took a couple weeks in the immediate aftermath of closing to assemble some kind of daily instruction again. By five to six weeks after closing the brick-and-mortar schools, 83 percent of teachers were using online systems, such as Google Classroom or Schoology to organize class assignments and instruction. But many schools were using a both/and approach: About half the teachers were also providing materials to students in hard copy. This is because only half the principals estimated that 75 percent or more of their students had internet access at home at that time.

That is a lot of students without access to online learning.

I should mention too that about a quarter of teachers said that their own access to high-speed internet from home was a moderate, major, or very major need. And the same proportion of teachers reported the same about needing up-to-date computers or tablets to use at home. The lack of universal internet access and dedicated internet-connected devices at home for students and teachers was a major barrier to distance learning that could approximate what schools offered pre–COVID-19.

What did distance learning look like in the spring?

Teachers’ responses show how widely varied instruction was in spring 2020. Even after five or six weeks of schools closing, about a quarter of teachers had no live meetings with students via video or phone. Only a third did so weekly, about a quarter did several times a week, and about a tenth did daily.

Likewise, about a third of teachers never posted videos of themselves providing instruction, while more than half did so at least weekly. A large majority of teachers said that they provided feedback on students’ work at least sometimes, and a little less than two-thirds gave feedback for several days per week or daily.

Were students keeping up?

No. Tellingly, only 15 percent of teachers said that all or nearly all students were completing the distance-learning activities teachers provided—and that was five or six weeks after schools closed. A full quarter of teachers said that 25 percent or less of their students were completing the activities.

What were students learning?

Well, teaching new content came grinding to a halt once schools closed. Only 12 percent of teachers said that they covered all or nearly all of the formal curriculum content via distance learning that they would have if the school building had not been closed. A shocking 40 percent of teachers said that they covered less than 25 percent or none or almost none of what they would have covered if the school building had not been closed. Instead, almost half of teachers said they did mostly or all review of previously taught content.

We hope that having mass school closures doesn’t happen again. But in case it does, what do schools need in order to be prepared?

It so happens that, in 2017, well before COVID-19, we assisted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in finding out whether schools offered instruction during prolonged closures of ten or more days after hurricanes in Houston. Few of the more than 1,000 schools did. When we asked school leaders why there weren't more, they gave the common-sense answer that schools need a technology infrastructure in place before a crisis. Once schools are closed, they said, they need to provide online learning instead of hard-copy distance learning to better approximate the synchronicity and feedback of face-to-face instruction. This means schools need one-for-one computing so that all students have both internet-connected devices and home internet access. In that same study, the school leaders also stressed that both parents and teachers needed training prior to a crisis in how to deliver and help students consume online learning.

With these lessons in mind, we asked principals in spring 2020 how prepared they were for COVID-19. Not surprisingly, the more markers of preparedness a school had in place before the pandemic, the more likely it was to assign letter grades to students during COVID-19 and the less likely principals were to expect lower levels of student achievement once students came back in fall 2020. Looking ahead, we need to make home internet access universal, get laptops or tablets for students who still lack them, and train teachers in the effective delivery of online instruction. Although COVID-19 is extraordinary, schools are likely to experience (hopefully shorter) closures in the future, whether for extreme weather or disease transmission, and we can be better prepared next time.

The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute provides objective analysis to federal, state, and local leaders in support of evidence-based policymaking and the well-being of individuals throughout the U.S. Gulf States region. We invite your suggestions for researchers, projects, centers, and funding or collaboration opportunities to highlight in future issues. Write to director Gary Cecchine at Gary_Cecchine@rand.org.

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