Schools Pivot Online in Wake of COVID-19: Q&A with RAND Experts


Apr 2, 2020

Chrissy Brackett and grandson Caidence Miller learn to navigate an online learning system at her home in Woodinville, Washington, March 11, 2020, photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Chrissy Brackett and grandson Caidence Miller learn to navigate an online learning system at her home in Woodinville, Washington, March 11, 2020

Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

Nearly all school-age children in the United States are no longer in the classroom as districts shut down to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. Many states have already indicated campuses will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year. Many have shifted to distance learning, but many schools are trying this for the first time.

The ramifications of an educational disruption like this could be felt for years to come. We asked four RAND education researchers to discuss how this situation might exacerbate educational inequities, how districts and teachers are innovating and what they need, and what parents can do.

  • V. Darleen Opfer is vice president and director of RAND Education and Labor and holds the Distinguished Chair in Education Policy at the RAND Corporation.
  • Laura S. Hamilton is distinguished chair in learning and assessment and co-directs the American Educator Panels, RAND's nationally representative survey panels of teachers and principals.
  • Heather L. Schwartz is the director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program. She researches education policies intended to reduce the negative effects of poverty on children and families.
  • Julia H. Kaufman is a senior policy researcher who focuses on how states and school systems can support high-quality instruction and student learning.

They spoke on a conference call with RAND media relations director Jeffrey Hiday on March 31. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Can you talk first a bit about the scope of this disruption? Are there any parallels?

Darleen Opfer: This is a situation that we've never faced before. Obviously, we've had localized closures as a result of hurricanes: Katrina, the hurricanes in 2017, or Maria that affected particular regions in the United States. But the closest parallel to this would have been the Spanish flu in 1918. Of course, it was a very different time period when most mothers were at home, which is not necessarily the case now. We were also in World War I then, so there was this huge sense of patriotism and trust in institutions.

What kind of learning loss might we expect from COVID-19—even if you have plenty of online learning?

Opfer: Although it's impossible to predict, we know from our research that children lose some of what they learned while they're out of school every summer. It particularly affects low-income students and students with special needs. Those students start kindergarten with achievement gaps already. The combination of existing achievement gaps and being out of school for a long period is going to exacerbate the situation.

Our research on online learning shows that these programs do not do as well as face-to-face programs. And that's assuming that students have access to them to begin with.

What are some things that schools ought to be doing at a time like this?

Laura Hamilton: We're seeing principals, teachers, and other school staff spring into action. Many of them recognize the limits of online learning and are aware of summer learning loss, and they're working hard to address that. But a lot of schools are first trying to ensure that students' basic needs are met. Some students rely on schools for meals, and in some places even for things like laundry. Meeting those needs is obviously very challenging, particularly while engaging in physical distancing.

To learn academically, kids need to feel socially and emotionally supported. They need to feel safe, be engaged, and have good relationships with teachers and other adults.

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Laura Hamilton

Schools also need to consider kids' social and emotional needs. We know from research that to learn academically, kids need to feel socially and emotionally supported. They need to feel safe, be engaged, and have good relationships with teachers and other adults. Many students have a particular adult whom they've connected with, and now they're feeling like that relationship has been severed. So schools need to find ways for staff to continue to have those relationships through things like video chatting or a friendly, personal email.

And of course educators need to worry about enabling high-quality instruction—in providing the bandwidth, resources, and an academic curriculum that will work in a distance-learning format. So, they have their hands full. We're seeing many educators around the country step up and work incredibly hard to meet all these needs.

Is it something school districts can manage, or are they going to need help? Should the federal government, for example, be stepping in somehow?

Heather Schwartz: The federal government could play a crucial role by giving children home internet access and a device like a tablet or laptop to connect to the internet. While online learning has its limitations, it far exceeds the potential of hard-copy materials like worksheets, which some schools are distributing through school bus routes or pickup spots. Worksheets can only go so far, and they place a burden on parents, especially parents of young children or children with disabilities, who have to provide instruction in lieu of a teacher.

The recently signed stimulus package did not include funding to expand E-rate, an existing program that highly subsidizes broadband rates for schools and libraries. But local education agencies can use grants from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to purchase technology—including hardware, software, and connectivity—to aid educational interaction between students and teachers. The federal government could also contract directly for these services; that might help prevent districts or states from competing with one another to acquire technology.

The second thing that the federal government is doing—and this is actually something crucial and ongoing—is providing waivers for mandatory spring state testing. Most states have already passed along a waiver for schools so that they no longer need to do spring testing.

Then the third thing the federal government might do is provide funding to states to work in networks and share best practices in dealing with COVID-19 thus far. It could also fund the research that would help districts prepare themselves for the next prolonged school closure.

Standardized testing is out the window now. What are the implications for that?

Schwartz: The lack of spring tests could, in essence, freeze the school accountability rating system.

There's a lot attached to the school rating system in some districts; if schools get consecutive low grades for two or three years in a row, it could trigger principal turnover and school takeovers. A pause on the annual school accountability or school grading system could also put a hold on those districts that decide which students to promote or retain a grade based on spring testing.

Hamilton: Schools often rely on those spring test scores to evaluate students' needs when they come back in the fall. They use them to figure out, for example, which kids might be far behind in terms of their reading level and might need a little bit of a boost or an intervention.

Schools and districts will have to find other ways to do that. This situation may end up reducing the reliance on standardized tests as a sole measure of how kids are doing, and that might not be a bad thing.

What might quality academic instruction look like during this crisis?

Julia Kaufman: School leaders and teachers I've heard from are thinking about the coherence of instruction—how what they're providing online builds on what they were already doing in the classroom.

For better or for worse, they are being inundated with suggestions for digital materials to use, and some of these materials are great. But digital materials do not necessarily constitute curricula, which are sets of lessons that build on one another, like a scaffold. Curricula is typically the foundation for instruction for subjects students are learning in school.

Good curricula are also tied to academic standards for each subject and each grade level. Unfortunately, a lot of curriculum isn't provided online. It's in a textbook. So, what do teachers do in that case? We have seen many getting really creative and posting PDFs of materials online.

There are online curricula that are free, such as EngageNY, LearnZillion, and Open Up Resources, that are aligned to most state standards. (There are also paid versions of some of these curricula, which might have more bells and whistles.) So teachers could start there and then branch out to think, “OK, how could these digital materials help reinforce and support what I'm teaching in my curriculum?” This is probably the easiest way to think about building on and extending what students have already learned.

Schwartz: There are so many free resources now. The amount of digital content, the availability of learning management systems [software platforms for the online delivery of classes that enable uploading lessons, scoring student work, and linking learning resources]—these things have really changed and matured in the last decade. These are tremendously important for the COVID-19 crisis. But there is a cost in getting all students online in a reliable and systematic way. And if many of your students don't have internet access at home, the inequity of relying on online instruction is really worrisome.

Why don't we have universal internet in America?

Opfer: I'm not sure we can come up with the answer. E-rate was developed about a decade ago to try to solve this problem for schools specifically, but it was really about school connectivity and not individual home connectivity. And that's something that hasn't been tackled by either the federal government or state government.

The innovative ways that districts are thinking about getting wireless and broadband access out to students are just beginning to grow.

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Julia Kaufman

Kaufman: The innovative ways that districts are thinking about getting wireless and broadband access out to students are just beginning to grow. We're seeing, for example, Wi-Fi on school buses that are driven into low-income neighborhoods so students can get internet access that way. I think broadband networks are thinking about how to provide these services beyond the places that they have typically gone to. That's exciting, and it might take a bit more time, but those are innovations that I think are going to be really important in the long term.

As teachers are trying to do it all remotely, what resources and equipment are teachers saying they need?

Kaufman: Computers and laptops are really important right now. Some districts were ahead of the game and made sure they knew who needed those before schools were closed. But some schools and districts are trying to figure that out right now. Training for the many learning management systems that are being used right now is probably also important.

Hamilton: Remember that some teachers don't have internet access in their home. Or they may have internet access to one computer, and now they've got a spouse working from home or kids who are doing home learning using that computer. Districts also need to make sure that their teachers have the equipment and connectivity that they need to be able to do this distance education.

The separation from their students, combined with concerns about how their students are doing, has been stressful and, in some cases, traumatic for teachers. They need to feel connected to their students and to their students' families. So, in addition to dealing with concerns about their own health, their family, and maybe caring for their own children, teachers are really worried about the kids they teach.

Another challenge is that teaching can be a lonely profession, and school closures are just exacerbating that. Teachers no longer run into each other in the hall to chat or have coffee together. One of the things we're hearing from teachers is that they need opportunities to collaborate with their peers.

At the same time as they're dealing with all that, they're being inundated with new ideas and resources: “Here are 10 ways to create a remote classroom, and here are 15 resources you can adopt!” As a result, they are calling out for clear, manageable guidance that's aligned to the needs of their students and the context in which they're working.

Teachers love to be creative, to develop lessons, and come up with new ideas—but there's a huge burden on them right now to ramp up a full distance learning curriculum very quickly. Opportunities to collaborate with and learn from their colleagues using online tools can provide the support they need to do this work, along with a way to share worries or even just vent like so many of us need to do every once in a while.

Can you elaborate on the implications for inequities?

Kaufman: On one of our RAND American Teacher Panel surveys that we did last spring, two-thirds of teachers reported students lacking access to devices or reliable internet at home as a barrier to using digital materials. We also found that teachers and schools with more low-income students were more likely to note lack of access to devices or reliable internet. This raises major questions about whether students are getting equitable instruction.

Access to devices is only one aspect of equitable instruction. Laura mentioned food services; many are providing those but it may be hard for some parents to get to the schools that are providing them, especially if services like Lyft aren't working.

Another concern is that districts themselves might not have contact information for all their students, especially for their homeless students and more disadvantaged learners. We don't have great data on this, but a recent article from the Los Angeles Times noted that about 15,000 students in Los Angeles public schools are what they termed “AWOL” right now, meaning that the district hasn't had any contact with these students. All these students may be losing out during school closures.

Finally, we've already mentioned the possible inequities because some students have special education needs that they're not getting right now, which could be limiting what learning they can do. The same goes for English language learners. It boggles the mind to think about all the inequities that we are facing. But at the same time, there are some great innovations happening.

Paying attention to social and emotional inequities is going to be just as important as academic inequities.

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V. Darleen Opfer

Opfer: Beyond test scores, there's social and emotional inequity that is going to occur. Our previous work on closures after Hurricanes Katrina and Maria show that there are huge increases in depression and anxiety amongst kids. Those things have a much longer-term impact—they impact life outcomes, they impact whether kids graduate or not. Paying attention to social and emotional inequities is going to be just as important as academic inequities.

Kaufman: And not only are we concerned about the inequity between students, but also between school districts. The Center for Reinventing Education has been looking closely at learning plans in the largest districts. It's humbling to see all the work that is being done in these districts to get students online. But some districts haven't even started classes yet, so I think it's incumbent upon those districts, especially if they're serving low-income students and a lot of below-grade-level students, to get things started. It's hard to figure out where to start, especially in the largest districts, so it's important for these districts to network with each other to figure out what's working.

Can you talk about the differences between online education and homeschooling?

Opfer: In a homeschooling situation, the parent is the teacher. Most of the online charter schools that exist don't expect the parent to play a large role; they are structured to allow students to work more independently. That has some disadvantages, meaning the students have to want to work independently. But those are two very different models in thinking about how you school at home.

What might happen to private K–12 schools and colleges if they cannot open in the fall? Will there be any changes in pricing?

Schwartz: As a parent with a child in a private school, my assumption is that if school continues to be closed next year, the tuition would remain the same, but that there would be a version 2.0 of the online learning we have right now. I assume that universities, private schools, and public schools won't fundamentally change their whole delivery model come next year, but they may continue the use of online learning to at least some degree.

Hamilton: Now is when seniors are making decisions about what they're going to do next year. One of the challenges is how to reach out to those students and make sure that those students have the information they need to make good decisions about college.

Kids are losing access to their guidance counselors who might walk them through those decisions, including understanding financial aid. There are kids who may not be able to complete the courses or amass the credits required for high school graduation. There's a whole host of challenges that are rising up now from the transition from high school into college.

There are distinct challenges in the career and technical education sector, too. A lot of kids in high school are enrolled in very high-quality career and technical education programs that will give them a certification to go directly into the workforce when they graduate. Those programs often involve a lot of hands-on interaction with folks or work in labs and things like that. So finishing up those programs is challenging.

Schwartz: I do think the COVID-19 crisis is likely to push schools to get serious about the use of online learning. There's lots of brick-and-mortar schools which, before the COVID crisis, offered online courses—in other words, they took a hybrid approach of offering both face-to-face and online instruction. I expect that this will be far more common post-pandemic.

Does that mean that brick-and-mortar schools go away? No. But I could imagine that online learning will be a much bigger feature in both the pre-K through 12th-grade span as well as in higher education.

Could this situation, this crisis, open a window for lower-cost education?

Hamilton: Everybody from the classroom level all the way up to the state and federal levels is being forced to think about how can we deliver higher-quality and more equitable instructional resources in a way that's cost-effective. It's hard to predict what that'll look like, but there's certainly a lot of incentive to innovate right now and to do it in a way that saves money.

Opfer: At the same time, we're never going to be in a situation where teachers aren't needed. And teachers' salaries and benefits are the big cost driver in most school systems. Even in fully online schools, teachers are present at the time of instruction. It's not that students are working entirely on their own.

Is the public's trust in public education at risk in this rocky shift to a new way of teaching? And if so, how might school systems respond?

Opfer: I do think that there is a danger, mostly driven by this inequity problem. If at the end of this crisis we see a lot of kids left out and further disadvantaged because their schools were not able to respond effectively and provide instruction for them, I could absolutely see that people will be disappointed in their schools and feel underserved by them.

Hamilton: I don't disagree, but it could go another way.

I'm hearing from neighbors and friends: “Oh my gosh, I had no idea how hard my kid's teacher worked!” Or, “I can't believe how the school is pulling together in such an incredible way to try to deal with this massive disruption to their operations.”

So there is, at least in some quarters, growing appreciation for the hard work that educators do, which isn't always visible to the public like it is now.

What can help districts in building trust is extremely good communication and transparency during the pandemic: Here's what we're doing and here's why.

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Heather Schwartz

Schwartz: What can help districts in building trust is extremely good communication and transparency during the pandemic: Here's what we're doing and here's why. This will help parents understand what districts are up to rather than have this black hole of no communication.

I think the parents understand that distance learning can't all be in place on day one of the crisis. But knowing that the district has a plan for rollout would go a long way towards building trust in even a struggling institution.

Bargaining groups are seeking additional compensation to facilitate aspects of distance learning. Does this affect trust between teachers and the public?

Opfer: Sure, but it's not just about teachers. We're seeing the same thing with workers at Amazon or other places who are concerned about them taking a bigger risk or having to do a lot more work for their current compensation.

That said, without a federal stimulus, budgets are already set, and so the ability to top up teacher pay right now, I think, is quite limited. I guess the issue is: How far are teachers willing to push it to be able to get that?

Are there concerns about the negative effects of increased screen time, especially on younger children, as we move education online?

Schwartz: This is a rub for young children especially. There's not as much online lesson content for the youngest students in pre-K up through grade two. It's more challenging because children are not expected to just sit and self-direct their instruction for 50-, 60-, 80-minute sessions at that young age. So, yes, there are concerns about screen time. But there aren't easy alternatives when parents are working at home.

Hamilton: This is probably not the time to worry too much about the time kids are spending on screens and social media. For a lot of kids, it's a lifeline to their friends, and it's giving them a social outlet as well as a way to remain connected with the world while they're stuck at home.

What else should parents be thinking about in terms of keeping their kids learning?

Hamilton: Some parents are very fortunate to be in a school district where their kids are getting a full curriculum online. Some parents don't work or are able to work from home and it's easier for them to handle their child's education. Others have no time to supervise home learning, or aren't in school districts that provide a complete curriculum.

There need to be policy changes to really address these inequities going forward. This isn't something that parents are going to be able to fix on their own.

Parents' most important task is to just be a supportive, loving, stable presence for their children. This is going to matter much more in the long term than whether you figure out how to operate that new system or nifty app.

Remember that along with significant academic needs, children also are likely to be experiencing stress, anxiety, and a sense of loss. Your child's losses—a missed soccer season, a canceled prom—may seem small compared to the losses that we're seeing around us. But it's important to realize that to children these losses loom very large in their lives. So parents need to help them process this and just be there for them.

Also be careful about the news and information that your child is exposed to. Kids may be spending even more time on social media, and there's a ton of misinformation out there. Parents can help them understand, in an age-appropriate way, what is going on and how they should be responding to COVID-19.

This is super important to avoid anxiety and also to avoid negative effects. We're hearing, for example, about kids bullying other children who are of Chinese descent because they blame them for the coronavirus. Actions like these stem from misinformation, but also inappropriate use of social media and lack of supervision.

When it comes to academic instruction, parents are being pulled into a supporting role whether they wanted to or not. No one should be expected to set up an entire homeschool system all at once.

Start gradually. It's helpful to establish routines that engage in activities like reading or maybe working on a math app, especially if your school isn't providing you with a curriculum. Start with these things that are easier and then gradually work your way up to the full curriculum. It's also important to build in physical and social activities for your kids' overall well-being.

Finally, stay in touch with your child's teachers and the other educators in their lives. Thank them for what they're doing because they're working incredibly hard.