Emerging research, including new survey evidence, helps to illuminate how students and their families have been affected and are continuing to navigate the challenges of COVID-induced schooling disruptions and changes.
The Student Attendance Crisis
While the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated school building closures and instructional shifts have affected all students’ learning experiences, some—especially those that lack the tools they need to learn from home—have experienced much more severe ramifications of remote schooling. A lack of technology access is just one of the factors contributing to an attendance and engagement crisis for schools, which a previous post highlighted. A new report by Bellwether Education Partners, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis, quantifies the impact of the pandemic on student attendance, describes the potential consequences, and provides recommendations to school leaders and administrators.
- The authors estimate that over three million students (spanning all ages, and areas of the country) are not attending school, and likely have not since March. For some, this is due to a lack of internet access or necessary devices. For others, such as English learners and students with disabilities, barriers may go beyond technology constraints, including fewer supports, tools, and accommodations they need to learn effectively.
- To assess the potential impact of widespread disengagement, the authors turn to previous research about schooling interruptions and learning losses. These studies report lasting academic and economic effects for students, even though they are considering breaks that are much shorter in duration than the current pandemic-caused disruptions. Because attendance issues disproportionately affect students from low-income families, this crisis will likely widen social and economic inequality long after the direct threat of COVID-19 ends.
- In their recommendations to leaders, the authors highlight the importance of public health efforts for containing community infection rates, which facilitate safe in-person schooling. For states and school systems, they recommend investments in tracking attendance data in real time, as well as for directly following up with missing students. The authors encourage officials to focus on providing for students’ needs to support their engagement with school rather than invoking punitive approaches to deal with attendance issues.
Surveys of parents reveal similar concerns about remote learning and pandemic effects on children’s academic growth and development. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of parents of K-12 students (n=2,561), parents with children engaging in some level of remote learning, rather than fully in-person instruction, were more likely to be dissatisfied with the way that their school is handling learning during the pandemic, and more likely to be concerned about their children’s progress. Two surveys summarized in a Brookings Institution piece (n=272 and 314) that followed parents of young children from before the onset of COVID-19 through the pandemic have shown similar parental concerns, with three-quarters of parents of preschoolers reporting being somewhat or very worried about their children’s learning and social skills.
Notably, the Pew survey reports that low-income families are more likely to be engaged with fully remote instruction this school year. While that is due in part to differences in schooling modes across districts, this finding is augmented by an Education Trust-New York poll (n=352) of parents, which reports that approximately half of low-income respondents ruled out any potential in-person instruction options this school year, compared to 28% of those with household incomes over $50,000. Moreover, 44% of parents of color said that they would not consider a return to in-person learning, compared to just 10% of white parents. While many of the parents deciding against in-person schooling are not completely satisfied with remote instruction, it was not enough to shift their perspective.
Survey results in the Brookings summary highlight a decline in parental mental health due to the pandemic, coupled with increased rates of stress and worry about their economic security. Parents also increasingly report feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a parent, losing their temper with their children, and spending less time supplementing their children’s learning (e.g., reading at home). The researchers authoring the piece emphasize the importance of policy proposals to support low-income families, which could in turn support the “three pillars of parenting” noted in their report: economic stability, parental mental health, and support for children’s learning and development.