This week’s post focuses on recent research on the role of school closures as a non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) in curbing COVID-19 spread, and survey results from educators on how the pandemic has shaped and shifted teaching and learning.
School Closures and COVID Spread
A new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour is garnering a lot of attention. The authors explore relationships between various NPIs and infection rates, and find school closures are one of the strategies most associated with curbing COVID-19 spread. The authors say:
“The most effective NPIs include curfews, lockdowns and closing and restricting places where people gather in smaller or large numbers for an extended period of time. This includes small gathering cancellations (closures of shops, restaurants, gatherings of 50 persons or fewer, mandatory home working and so on) and closure of educational institutions.”
While the research team points to another study that reached a similar conclusion when exploring school closures across U.S. states, these results should be interpreted with caution. First, they are—as the authors state—correlations, and not evidence of causal relationships. In particular, the researchers in both studies rely on observational data on NPIs implemented in March and April of this year when there was not substantial variation in the timing of school closures. Moreover, to the extent there is variation, it is important to consider other ways places that closed schools may differ from places that did not that may separately influence community spread. Leveraging the various ways that schools have reopened this fall and variation in timing may prove more informative in trying to parse out the effects of in-person schooling policies on COVID-19 infection rates.
How has the pandemic shaped school experiences this fall? A recent report, summarizing October 2020 principal (n=1,147) and teacher (n=1,082) surveys from a nationally representative sample, sheds light on this important question. The authors note, for instance, that most schools (80%) are still providing at least partial remote instruction. Despite the shift to a new mode of learning, an overwhelming majority of schools (90%) had not increased provision of student supports, such as tutoring. Other constraints—lack of access to technology, difficulty contacting students, and shortages of qualified substitute teachers—have made carrying out remote instruction challenging.
Many teachers reported that their students are less prepared for their grade level than in years past, and their classes are falling behind. Less than one-fifth of teachers had covered all or nearly all of the content they typically would have at this point in the academic year, and they estimate that a sizable portion of students (31%) had not completed the majority of their assignments. Teachers, perhaps not surprisingly, reported dissatisfaction with their school leaders’ decisions about instruction this fall, higher levels of burnout, and higher rates of considering leaving their profession. These findings point to priorities for school leaders going forward, including providing greater resources for remote instruction, especially for schools serving high-poverty or high-minority student populations, and focusing on actions to facilitate the safe return to in-person instruction.
Several of these themes were echoed in the early October administration of the monthly EdWeek Research Center Survey of school district officials, principals, and teachers (n=790). Among the findings:
- 16% of district leaders indicate that their district’s instruction is fully in-person while 15% report that they are providing full-time remote instruction.
- The most common mode of instruction is a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, with 69% of district leaders reporting this approach, and the most common form that hybrid instruction currently takes is that of families choosing either fully remote or fully in-person instruction. 37% of districts report using this choice-based model.
- Fully remote instruction is more common in school districts serving larger shares of students of color and students from low-income families.
- Student absences have increased, regardless of instructional type.
- Teachers report working more hours, up three hours from seven hours per day in May to 10 hours per day in October, and working hours did not vary by instructional type.
- Class sizes have not decreased in districts that are fully in-person though they have in places offering remote and in-person instruction.
Teachers and administrators are working harder to make instruction work in a pandemic, and some students face considerable challenges engaging with that instruction, though the challenges vary by instructional mode and family and community characteristics.