Student Engagement During COVID-19
The pandemic presents many challenges for schools in monitoring and measuring student engagement. With new modes of instruction, often mixed within a school and even an individual classroom, capturing student attendance and engagement with instruction, assignments, and discussion is difficult. School administrators and teachers are struggling to assess student interaction and progress in a meaningful, fair, and equitable way for students facing different challenges and engaged in different instructional approaches.
Parent Plans for Student Enrollment
Survey research captured perspectives of parents of school-aged children (n=730) in June, finding that 31% of parents would “probably” or “definitely” keep their child home even if their school reopened for in-person instruction in the fall. The study highlights that low-income households and households where parents were experiencing unemployment or had flexible or modifiable work schedules were more likely to plan on keeping children home. The researchers note that these households may also be more likely to have an individual at high-risk for serious COVID-19 illness in their home. Importantly, these findings illustrate the possible disconnect between school system-wide policies and variation across households in decision-making for their own children’s enrollment.
Impact of Absenteeism
COVID-19 introduces substantial complications for students’ consistent attendance and participation—an important factor contributing to student success—whether students are in virtual or in-person classrooms. Evidence from spring 2020 shows that many students were absent from virtual schooling more often than they typically would be. A recent working paper speaks to the potential impact of poor attendance and engagement on student outcomes. Using data from six large school districts in California, the authors find that absenteeism negatively influences student test scores, with a larger effect on mathematics achievement than English language arts performance, and more pronounced effects on middle school students compared to other grades. In addition to its negative impact on academic outcomes, the study notes that absenteeism also negatively affects social emotional development (e.g., social awareness, self-efficacy, and self-management) for all students, but again especially for middle school students.
Among the COVID-related challenges to consistent engagement is that many students are not able to participate reliably in online programming due to technology barriers like a lack of regular access to a computer or device and/or reliable internet at home. Even when districts have worked to acquire this technology for students that need it, hurdles remain. CEO of Baltimore City Schools Sonja Santelises noted that shipping delays for at least 10,000 devices meant that many students continued to lack access to their classes and instruction. School districts across the country have struggled with technology crashes due to overloaded traffic, and cyber attacks or viruses on their networks.
Even in the absence of technology issues, it is unclear what the best way to measure student engagement and participation is, and who should be responsible for keeping track of student attendance (e.g, students themselves? their primary caregiver? the school?) given these conditions. As a result, some districts have broadened their definitions of attendance to include something as small as one interaction between teachers and families during the day. Others believe that a broader approach will be necessary to effectively measure student engagement and progress. Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, for example, noted that schools and districts should focus on student progress, not just replacing in-person attendance measures with remote ones.
An important common thread across research covering student engagement challenges is that schools should put effort into clearly communicating and working directly with parents and caregivers to address their concerns and to encourage student engagement. Moreover, while measuring attendance and engagement in the context of virtual schooling is challenging, researchers are urging schools to be encouraging and welcoming rather than adopting a disciplinary approach. As reported by NPR, Hedy Chang, an education researcher who directs Attendance Works, argues that, “being punitive is just not the way to get students to engage, especially when you can’t compel them to physically attend school.”
What could prevent effective school responses going forward, including those related to student engagement? Recent research documents the variation in school responses to COVID-19, including activities relevant to student engagement with instruction and other student-teacher communication, by school type. As with other evidence about schooling challenges during COVID-19, the authors find that internet access was one of the strongest factors contributing to the relative success of schools’ new engagement activities. While traditional public schools were slower to shift to remote learning, they did ultimately catch up with a lag of only a few days. Indeed, many traditional public schools ultimately surpassed their charter and private school peers in terms of the breadth of services they offered and in equity of access. The researchers highlighted the importance of parents and caregivers to successfully promote student engagement and learning. In particular, they suggest that schools and/or local governments accommodate parents and caregivers facing remote learning challenges and, by extension, support the learning environment of their children.