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Research Questions

  1. What are school districts' and charter management organizations' (CMOs') needs and approaches to school operations in the 2020–2021 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. What influences and inputs do school district and CMO leaders seek when making these school reopening decisions?
  3. Which innovative practices that districts have made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic do they anticipate keeping after the pandemic has ended?

School districts in the United States have approached reopening public schools during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in notably different ways. The authors of this report developed a national picture of school districts' needs and approaches to school reopenings by fielding a survey to the new American School District Panel, which consists of leaders of more than 375 school districts and charter management organizations. The authors surveyed these individuals in fall 2020, asking them about areas in which districts need additional resources or guidance, anticipated challenges for the 2020–2021 school year, staff-related challenges, professional development, sources of input and influence on plans for the school year, and approaches taken to school operations. The authors looked at both focus districts (where at least 50 percent of students are Black or Hispanic/Latino or at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) and nonfocus districts (all those remaining).

Key Findings

  • About two in ten districts have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. District leaders cited reasons related to student and parent demand for continuing various forms of online instruction in future years.
  • Among a wide variety of school instructional and staffing matters, three widely shared concerns rose to the top for district leaders for the 2020–2021 school year: disparities in students' opportunities to learn during the COVID-19 pandemic, students' social and emotional learning needs, and insufficient funding to cover staff.
  • School district leaders reported that the U.S. Department of Education had the second-least amount of influence on their COVID-19 plans; state and local health departments had the most.
  • School district leaders diverged in terms of the degree to which they emphasized certain needs for the 2020–2021 school year. More leaders from focus districts than from nonfocus districts rated fundamentals (such as internet and technology access) as a greatest need. In contrast, more nonfocus district leaders rated student mental health and high-quality instructional resources as greatest needs.

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The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

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