How to Reopen Schools: Q&A with RAND Experts


Jul 23, 2020

Children stand on smiley faces to maintain social distancing in the courtyard of a school in Paris, France, May 14, 2020, photo by Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Children stand on smiley faces to maintain social distancing in the courtyard of a school in Paris, France, May 14, 2020

Photo by Benoit Tessier/Reuters

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, how should schools resume instruction for the next term? The debate over in-person or virtual classes is complicated not just by health concerns, but also disparities in access to technology, questions about what types of instruction are effective, and the understanding that home-based learning is placing a burden on many parents.

The debate is getting more heated by the day. A teachers' union has sued Florida's governor and education commissioner over an emergency order on reopening schools. In Iowa, teachers are writing their own obituaries and sending them to the governor in protest of that state's plan to hold at least half of classes in person.

With the start of the school year looming, RAND commentary editor Robin Rauzi convened an online conversation between researchers whose work focuses on children and education to discuss the difficulties in finding a way forward.

  • Laura S. Hamilton directs the RAND Center for Social and Emotional Learning Research and codirects the American Educator Panels, RAND's nationally representative survey panels of teachers and principals.
  • Shelly Culbertson is a senior policy researcher whose focus includes disaster recovery, international development, and education.
  • Shanthi Nataraj is director of the Labor and Workforce Development Program, and her research interests include economic development, labor markets, and workforce development.
  • Laura J. Faherty is a physician policy researcher and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine.
  • Julia H. Kaufman is a senior policy researcher who focuses on how states and school systems can support high-quality instruction and student learning, as well as methods for measuring educator perceptions and instruction.
  • V. Darleen Opfer is vice president and director of RAND Education and Labor and holds the Distinguished Chair in Education Policy.
  • Andrew McEachin is a senior policy researcher whose work focuses on assessing different approaches to education and school design.

Is there any consensus on how well or poorly remote or online learning went in the spring? Is there reason to suspect it would be better or worse in the fall?

Laura Hamilton: One challenge for fall is that kids and teachers won't have gotten to know one another yet. When schools closed in the spring, teachers understood their students' needs, approaches to learning, etc. And kids had figured out how to work effectively with their teachers. These relationships are really valuable and predictive of learning outcomes. But they'll be hard to establish at the beginning of the new school year if schools are totally remote, though there are strategies schools can use.

Shelly Culbertson: There are also huge equity issues. There are 50 million K–12 students who now must learn at home. At the beginning of the pandemic, about a third of them lacked access to the internet or a device (PDF). Some states and districts are rolling out initiatives to improve connectivity, in some cases drawing on CARES Act funding. But inconsistent device access and connectivity will affect a generation of kids.

There are huge equity issues. Fifty million K–12 students must now learn at home. At the beginning of the pandemic, about one-third lacked access to the internet or a device.

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Shelly Culbertson

What is driving decisions on where to reopen in person versus remote or online? Fear? Local parental pushback?

Hamilton: I've had conversations with district superintendents and organizations that work with them. Many argue that despite the limitations of distance learning, they believe schooling should be completely remote while the pandemic is still such a significant public health issue. Superintendents are terrified someone will get sick, and they're especially worried about staff. But they are feeling pressure from some parents and government officials to open schools.

At the same time, surveys of parents increasingly suggest the majority are worried about safety and would be inclined to keep their kids home, despite childcare concerns. This changes frequently, though. Several weeks ago, people were more optimistic that the pandemic would be under control.

A lot of the push to reopen schools seems driven by a desire to reopen the economy. Are the two things that intertwined?

Shanthi Nataraj: Very much so. That's because out of nearly 160 million people who were employed in 2019, about a third had a child under the age of 18. And while some have spouses who can watch the children while they work, there are nearly 15 million families where both parents work, plus another 8 million single-parent families where the parent is employed.

In other words, even though teachers are not babysitters, we have to acknowledge that schools serve a critical, secondary function of providing childcare for millions of working Americans. We're already seeing evidence that this is setting back women's progress in the workforce, as they most often bear the brunt of the added childcare responsibilities.

Of course, many parents who can afford to pay for childcare are now doing so, hiring nannies, tutors, and even poaching teachers from local schools. This means families who can't afford such things are going to fall further behind in terms of their children's education and their own ability to make a living.

Superintendents are terrified someone will get sick, and they're especially worried about staff. But they are feeling pressure from some parents and government officials to open schools.

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Laura Hamilton

Laura Faherty: What is not driving decisions, unfortunately, is much scientific evidence. Some knowledge about COVID-19 and children is certainly advancing, such as how transmission works and what places children at higher risk for serious illness. But we're not where we need to be.

The only way we'll know a few months from now whether reopening schools has affected community spread or what the optimal suite of strategies is to mitigate viral spread in schools is if we do our best to study these things right now. This is a huge challenge: Real-world experiments are going to be happening all over the country in a few short weeks.

It seems there's a real patchwork of approaches to reopening, even in neighboring communities. What's causing that, and is it problematic or to be expected?

Julia Kaufman: One problem is the lack of federal standards, guidance, or funding, even as the U.S. Department of Education is pushing hard for schools to reopen. Because of that, states are taking many different strategies on this. They're giving schools a lot of guidance on safety and health, but less on standards for remote instruction.

Nataraj: Part of the challenge with national guidelines—or even state guidelines—is that the local conditions in terms of the severity of the outbreak, and the resources that schools and parents have, is so heterogeneous.

Hamilton: For many districts, they have a sense of what they should do, based on CDC or state guidance. But they view it as too expensive, risky, or infeasible.

Kaufman: Beyond safety guidelines, I'm not sure districts are clear on the best plans for remote instruction, even though state departments of education are working hard to provide guidance. Tennessee has released a series of toolkits on everything from school nutrition to transportation to staffing when schools reopen. And Ohio has posted a remote learning resource guide and lots of instructional materials. But the larger issue is that every state is reinventing the wheel.

As a parent, I find the changing and conflicting messages confusing. I can't imagine what teachers are thinking!

When we surveyed teachers back in spring 2020, we asked if they were receiving too much guidance during school closures. About one-third of teachers said yes and reported being overwhelmed with all the online resources and messages they were receiving. The implication is states, districts, and schools could be doing more to improve the coherence and clarity of the messages they provide to teachers.

What is not driving decisions, unfortunately, is much scientific evidence. Some knowledge about COVID-19 and children is advancing, but we're not where we need to be.

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Laura Faherty

Andrew McEachin: I do think it's important for districts to have the flexibility to design an approach to the 2020–21 school year around their local needs, including the severity of COVID-19 community spread. So a positive of the patchwork approach is the flexibility to respond to students, families, and community, and adapt along the way.

But there's a downside: It'll harm the ability of policymakers, as well as researchers, to size up what is working or not. It may also make it harder to track COVID-19 risk levels if districts throughout a state are changing models throughout the year.

Culbertson: Education right now has so many functions. It is crucial to our students' educations and futures, to our workforce's ability to contribute to the economy, and to containing the pandemic—because of how it is physically organized. Education has become a “homeland security” or “national security” issue in this respect, and it would benefit from that kind of national coordination and investment.

Some plans seem focused on spreading students out physically or rotating them. Will that work?

McEachin: I imagine finding space to spread out in large cities (e.g., New York, Chicago) will look very different than suburban or rural areas. I also think weather will play a substantial role.

In much of California, we can use outside spaces throughout the school year, but this isn't possible in much of the country. It's difficult to see how districts can space students out without reducing the hours of synchronous learning—in-person or virtual—for at least some students. For example, if a district offers a homeschool approach with limited student-teacher interactions, it allows them to reduce the student-teacher ratio (and increase spacing) for those who want in-person instruction.

It's important for districts to have the flexibility to design an approach to the school year around their local needs, including the severity of COVID-19 community spread.

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Andrew McEachin

Faherty: Schools are a challenging place to implement distancing practices. Before COVID-19, we conducted a study where we asked over 150 school and public health officials about the feasibility of various physical distancing measures that could be used to slow down transmission of pandemic influenza. What we learned has a lot of relevance now.

School officials were skeptical that it would be possible to limit children's movement. They struggled to picture how they could enforce a rule of students walking single file, several feet apart in hallways. They said schools  would need more personnel, funding, and equipment to enforce such practices. Strategies such as canceling field trips and school assemblies would be more straightforward but would disappoint a lot of people.

Whatever the approach, school and public health officials agreed one of the most important things is to communicate clearly, frequently, and transparently with everyone involved.

Darleen Opfer: In the countries where they have opened schools without causing more virus spread, they used all available space—churches, libraries, even stadiums—to spread kids out. They also thought differently about staffing, such as having teachers rotate among small groups of students and using tutors when they aren't with the teacher. I'm surprised we aren't hearing more discussion of using other community spaces like libraries, community centers, gyms, hotel conference rooms, etc.

Kaufman: Many of those countries were not dealing with outbreaks as large as the ones we have. Some U.S. districts are asking their high schoolers to go remote so they can use the space for elementary children, which may be a good option given that parents of elementary kids are bearing the brunt of homeschooling.

Culbertson: If school transportation requires social distancing, then either (a) there is not enough bus capacity, (b) parents will have to provide transportation (on top of their jobs and homeschooling), (c) there will need to be staggered school schedules, or (d) this requires more investment.

Do these hybrid models—some time in school, some remote instruction—make sense? It sounds like they don't alleviate parents' childcare needs, make teaching twice as complicated, and may not keep schools from having outbreaks.

Hamilton: There's so much viral spread outside school that keeping kids apart in school might not be effective. However, bringing kids back into the classroom does help address concerns about quality of instruction. Our spring surveys indicated that teachers and principals were worried about loss of hands-on learning opportunities and student engagement. That could be addressed through a model with some in-person component.

Kaufman: Our research findings thus far indicate that remote learning—including hybrid models—are  likely to be considerably lower-quality for our most vulnerable students.

Our American Life Panel (a representative national survey group) looked at parents' needs during school closures last spring. Parents experiencing difficulty covering their expenses were far more likely—sometimes by up to 50 percentage points—to indicate they needed all the supports we asked about. That included ways to motivate their children and more space and time to support learning activities.

McEachin: I think hybrid approaches can make a lot of sense once it's safe again for any form of in-person instruction. Students would get some form of instruction that they're used to. And it would allow more social interactions with teachers and peers.

That said, hybrids are a different approach to instruction, one probably not covered in most teacher prep programs. To the extent possible, it would be great to provide teachers paid opportunities to learn how to prepare a hybrid lesson plan.

I also suspect that linking consecutive days of in-person instruction could provide better student learning, minimize the health risk, and make it easier to monitor and track outbreaks. For example, a week-on/week-off format gives teachers and students a lot of instructional time and minimizes the number of individuals in the building in a given week. Toward the end of the in-person week, teachers can prepare the students for their upcoming week of virtual instruction. It's also likely easier to arrange childcare for alternating weeks than a few half days a week.

There seems to be a consensus here that any remote or hybrid systems won't be quite as good, and could be quite bad for already disadvantaged kids. What haven't we mentioned that might mitigate that?

Kaufman: Both Darleen Opfer and I have advocated for building a tutor workforce that can support schools. I can think of many situations where one-to-one discussions with tutors remotely or in person could be extremely helpful, especially in math, where it can be pretty difficult to diagnose children's misunderstandings without asking them to talk through a problem.

We have advocated for building a tutor workforce that can support schools. I can think of many situations where one-to-one discussions with tutors could be extremely helpful.

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Julia Kaufman

States and philanthropists could play a major role here by connecting places with a potential supply of tutors (e.g., students of colleges and universities) with schools that need them and providing tutor training.

McEachin: Tutors make a ton of sense and can be built out through AmeriCorps, as bills in the House and Senate propose. I'm sure there are a lot of high school grads, current college students, and recent college grads you could leverage.

Culbertson: An additional important step would be making sure that every child has access to a device and access to the internet. This would take a lot of investment now but would also serve our country into the longer term.

Hamilton: I'd add providing some sort of childcare to teachers. This came up as a concern on our surveys of educators. It's nearly impossible for teachers to simultaneously provide good full-time instruction and care for their own children.

Kaufman: Now might also be the time to rethink instruction methods. Teachers might use the time when they interact with students to assess what each one understands or doesn't, then provide assignments and practice that meet each student where they are. These strategies may be unfamiliar, which underscores the need for more teacher training.