Millions of parents, teachers, and students shared their frustrations about school shutdowns and other changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic on social media, but they neglected to reach across their peer groups and engage each other, a new Brookings Institution report found.
The report analyzed more than 14.5 million social media posts from July 15, 2019 to Oct. 31, 2021 to find out what conversations American teachers, parents, and students were having around education and how those conversations differed and shifted over time.
Using Talkwalker, a platform that gathers public media content, including news stories, Twitter posts, and Reddit forums and blogs, Brookings researchers Lauren Ziegler and Rebecca Winthrop compiled posts from millions of parents, teachers, and students containing terms associated with education.
The sample was skewed strongly toward teachers, with 58 percent of the conversations in the sample coming from forums and 39 percent from Twitter posts. The rest originated on blogs and interest-based websites.
“COVID and what happened to schooling is really driving more people to talk about education on social media,” Ziegler said, adding that the increased attention to education issues “quite possibly” played into political tensions that rose over the course of the pandemic.
Here are five ways the researchers say the conversation has shifted among teachers, parents, and students from pre-pandemic times until now.
COVID-19 widened conversations around education
The number of unique social media users and sites talking about education more than doubled during the first 20 months of the pandemic compared to the 20 months before it.
The biggest conversational spikes occurred in mid-March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, and in July and August 2020, the months leading up to the new school year.
“Initially, people were really driven to social media to talk about education because they were reacting to these major changes,” Ziegler said.
In the early days of the pandemic, Ziegler said she saw an “outpouring of support for teachers” from parents on social media. Teachers also increased their posting frequency, but often did so to offer resources, ask for advice, or share student stories with other teachers.
Teachers, parents and students voiced different concerns and did not engage each other about them
“Teachers and students and parents—they’re not talking about the same things,” Ziegler said.
Teachers mostly offered support and resources to fellow teachers in their posts, while parents posted primarily about their child’s learning experiences and their opinions about changing school policies on remote learning, mask mandates, and their child’s curriculum.
Student conversations, on the other hand, focused on their immediate remote schooling experience and were mostly negative, especially in 2020. Many discussed missing out on in-person traditions like graduation and prom.
Importantly, only 7 percent of the sample self-identified as students, compared to 66 percent who identified as teachers and 24 percent who identified as parents. Students may have used other platforms that Talkwalker cannot display like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to express their opinions. Twitter, in contrast, is dominated by teachers.
“We don’t have a very good picture of pre- and during COVID for students, but you can definitely see the changes among teachers and parents,” Ziegler said.
While teachers, parents, and students sometimes mentioned each other in their posts, the groups did not directly engage each other, according to the report.
The lack of communication between the groups surprised Ziegler.
“I do think that if you’re only talking about one thing with your in-group, it’s really hard to relate to others,” Ziegler said. “So it could be a reason why we’re seeing such divisiveness when we look at some of the conversations we saw … it might just be harder to talk to these other groups if you don’t necessarily have teachers in your circle or you’re a student or you’re a parent.”
Parental views diverged the most and were the most polarized
Parents’ reactions to changes in their children’s education became increasingly politically polarized throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, parents mostly shared everyday stories about their child’s field trip or a joke their child told, but that changed with the onset of the pandemic. Conversations shifted focus to remote schooling, and then to how schools teach the role of race in United States history.
The later controversy centered around whether “critical race theory” is being taught in K-12 schools.
Critical race theory maintains that racism is embedded in the laws and practices of American institutions, including the education system and leads to racial inequalities. The term went viral in 2021, but was virtually absent from parents’ posts in 2019 and 2020.
Despite some parents’ public frustrations, on the whole, their child’s learning was less of a concern in 2021 than in 2020, a separate survey of K-12 parents by the Understanding America Study Education Project found.
Anger over critical race theory may not be as widespread as the news and social media posts suggest. Ziegler thinks social media may amplify ideological extremes. “We are hopeful that maybe these contentious things that we’re seeing are really a smaller group and not indicative of everyone,” she said.
Teachers are leaning on each other for resources more than for supplies
Teachers regularly turned to each other for help purchasing school supplies, both before and during COVID-19. But when schools went remote, they no longer needed it, and teachers switched to offering resources to support one another and their students.
“Perhaps a silver lining of COVID is that we saw a huge decline in teachers asking for supplies, and we think that they probably didn’t need to,” Ziegler said.
In 2021, when many schools returned to in-person learning, the number of supply requests from teachers increased but did not come close to reaching pre-pandemic levels.
Public support for teachers has declined since the beginning of the pandemic
Teachers experienced an outpouring of support from parents, school administrators, and fellow teachers on social media during the early days of the pandemic, but it died down as the pandemic wore on. These supportive posts declined from 2020 to 2021 and were largely limited to national Teacher Appreciation Week in May.
This waning support for teachers comes amid rising concerns about teachers leaving the profession. Between January 2020 and January 2022, there were about 600,000 fewer educators working in public education, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fifty-five percent of those remaining are considering leaving the field earlier than they had planned, according to a 2022 survey from the National Education Association.
“It could be indicative that pandemic fatigue is also contributing to the fatigue of recognizing the wonderful things that teachers do,” Ziegler said.