School & District Management From Our Research Center

Most Educators Want Schools to Stay Closed to Slow Spread of COVID-19

By Holly Kurtz & Kevin Bushweller — June 03, 2020 13 min read
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As school district leaders struggle to solve the complex equation of reopening buildings in the fall or maintaining virtual learning, several factors are weighing heavily on their minds. How do you make educators feel comfortable in their work environments when more than half of them prefer school buildings stay shut to slow the spread of COVID-19? What about educators and students with underlying health conditions? And what if remote learning must continue in the fall even though the approach led to declining student engagement this spring?

The EdWeek Research Center’s sixth coronavirus-focused survey reveals 10 key findings related to those and other questions, drawn from questions answered by 1,907 educators (1,014 teachers, 447 principals, and 446 district leaders) between May 20 and 28. The findings, taken together, show how messy the challenges of maintaining high quality teaching and learning in the fall will be, whether school buildings reopen or not.

“I don’t think the public was as aware of how complicated the decisionmaking is,” said Jeanné Collins, superintendent of Vermont’s Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, a rural school system with about 1,500 students.

1. 65 percent of educators say schools should stay shut to slow the spread of the coronavirus

Nationwide, 74 percent of Americans say many businesses should remain closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus while the remainder would prefer to open up businesses to get the economy going–even if it results in more infections, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted April 27 to May 4.

Asked a similar question about closing or re-opening schools, 65 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center expressed a similar sentiment, saying that school buildings should remain closed to slow the spread of the disease. The remaining 35 percent say the U.S. should open up schools and get the country going again, even if that means more people would get the coronavirus.

High school teachers and principals are more supportive of reopening schools than were educators working with younger students. And educators are significantly more likely to support a reopening if they or a close loved one do not have an underlying health condition associated with a higher risk of suffering ill effects from the virus.

A new report by the American Enterprise Institute examines the “wide-ranging implications” for schools, state by state, given that it might not be safe for many educators to return to school buildings until a vaccine is developed. This could lead to districts having to come up with alternative staffing plans, as well as figuring out how to address potential teacher shortages.

The severity of the problem will vary by state, according to an AEI analysis of federal data. In Hawaii, for instance, 45 percent of principals are 55 and older, compared with only 9 percent in Illinois. More than a quarter of public school teachers in Maine and New Mexico are in this age group, compared with just 10 percent in Colorado and 8 percent in Kentucky.

2. More than 1 in 3 educators say they have a physical condition associated with a higher risk of suffering serious illness from the virus

Thirty-six percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they have a physical condition associated with suffering adverse effects of the coronavirus. An even higher percentage, 69 percent, report that a close loved one they see often has such a condition.

In addition, seven percent of respondents are age 65 or older, which the CDC indicates is a risk factor for severe illness. And 26 percent are male, another risk factor.

Teachers in those categories worry about the implications of returning to school.

Cossondra George, a middle school math teacher in Newberry, Mich., has asthma and will turn 59 in August. The thought of returning to school in the fall has led to “lots of sleepless nights.”

“I’m really concerned about my health, I’m concerned about my students’ health,” she said. “I just feel like opening schools back up has to be a really well-thought-out process.”

But so far, when it comes to maintaining social distance in the classroom, “there are so many more questions than there are answers in my mind,” George said.

3. Nearly 2 of every 3 educators are concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction

Sixty-six percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders are somewhat or very concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction in the fall.

Regionally, the percentage of educators who are very concerned ranges from 22 percent in the West to 32 percent in the Northeast. Urban educators are also significantly more likely to be very concerned than are their rural counterparts (34 percent versus 22 percent). And 35 percent of educators who have physical conditions that put them at greater risk of suffering severe illness are concerned, compared with 21 percent of those who don’t have such conditions.

“In a situation where people carry the virus asymptomatically, ... we’re going to have to have all these different options for kids, as well as teachers,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Let’s not put people who may be immunocompromised in a scary or threatening position.”

4. 12 percent of teachers say the pandemic may lead them to leave the profession even though they were not planning to do so before the crisis

One in 5 teachers say they are somewhat or very likely to leave the classroom at the end of the 2019-20 school year. (This survey question was developed in partnership with Teach for America.) However, that percentage is somewhat deceiving because 38 percent of those who now expect to leave say they were already likely to do so prior to the pandemic.

A more accurate accounting of the impact of the pandemic on teacher turnover is evident in the overall percentage of teachers who were not likely to leave prior to the pandemic but now plan to do so. Overall, that percentage is 12 percent, more than 1 of every 10 teachers.

Seventy-nine percent of those who indicate that the coronavirus may be pushing them out of the classroom report that they have a close loved one with a physical condition believed to make people more vulnerable to the impact of the disease.

Offering early retirement to at-risk teachers or staff has been proposed by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. According to an AEI report, this could also be a cost-saving measure for districts, which are expected to face steep budget cuts that could lead to teacher layoffs.

“You want it to be one option among multiple options,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at AEI and one of the authors of the report. “I don’t really want to see us pushing educators out of the profession. That’s not preferred.”

5. Teachers say they’re less effective working from home, but the vast majority will return even if virtual learning continues in the Fall

In-person interactions play a key role in education. So it is perhaps not surprising that the majority of educators say they are more effective working in offices or schools rather than working from home. That said, perceptions do vary by role, with 82 percent of teachers versus 64 percent of district leaders saying that they are more effective in offices/schools.

Most teachers (80 percent) predict that the vast majority of their colleagues (more than 80 percent) will return to the classroom in the fall even if school remains virtual or becomes a hybrid of in-person and online learning. (The question about the percentage of colleagues returning to the classroom was developed in partnership with Teach for America.)

For Education Week’s latest annual Technology Counts report, teachers were asked what impact the coronavirus school building closures and the shift to full-time virtual learning had on their teaching, for better or worse. The frustrations of working from home were clearly high, but many teachers also reported that, by necessity, they had learned new technology skills and approaches to reach students more effectively in virtual environments.

“This shift to remote learning … has required me to use innovation and creativity for the most critical assessments while highlighting the importance of the teacher-student relationship,” said Liz Russillo, a 9th grade science teacher at Smithfield High School in Rhode Island. “I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day.”

6. Nearly a quarter of educators say they would not return to their school buildings if they reopen without social distancing measures

The CDC recommends staying at least six feet away from others to limit the risk of contracting the coronavirus. Twenty-four percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say they’ll leave their jobs if schools reopen without these kinds of measures in place. Educators with conditions that put them at risk of suffering severe consequences of the virus are much more likely to say they’d leave if schools reopen without social distancing, compared with their peers without such conditions. (32 percent versus 19 percent).

However, 35 percent of educators also say social distancing measures will make it very difficult to have all students in school at the same time, meaning they’d need to implement extreme approaches such as double or staggered sessions to pull it off.

Julie, an elementary school computer science teacher who requested that her last name and the name of her school not be used, said her husband is 57 and has an upper respiratory disease. If he contracted COVID-19, he might not survive, she said.

The thought of returning to her job in an elementary computer lab keeps her awake at night. She sees more than 400 children a week, and “they touch everything.”

7. Less than half of teachers have taught live, interactive classes during closures

The stereotype of coronavirus instruction is one of a teacher interacting with students online, the Hollywood Squares like Zoom interface displaying student faces. Only that’s not necessarily the reality, according to survey results.

Since schools closed due to the pandemic, less than half of teachers (48 percent) say they’ve taught live, online classes in which they interact with students and students interact with one another. The most common means of instruction is collecting and returning work online.

That said, the share of teachers who’ve engaged in live, interactive internet instruction has increased considerably since the EdWeek Research Center last asked about it on March 25. Back then, just 21 percent of teachers had used that method.

Elementary teachers are most likely to teach live, interactive classes: Fifty-six percent say they do so, compared with 40 percent of middle school teachers, and 38 percent at the high school level. And rates of live, interactive instruction are higher in the lowest poverty districts.

Among teachers who do teach live classes, the majority (59 percent) spend less than one hour per day doing so.

Laura Peden, a kindergarten teacher in rural Paxton, Ill., said her district, following a state directive, tried to stick to a five-hour day remotely and proceed with its usual curriculum. But it quickly heard that parents, many of whom are essential workers, were overwhelmed, she said.

Now she conducts one Zoom session with her class per week, sends paper packets home, and communicates with parents once or twice a week through Facebook and Class Dojo. District officials told schools not to teach new material, she said, because they worried that the “huge discrepancy” in parents’ abilities to manage at-home teaching could exacerbate achievement gaps.

8. Less than half of principals are interacting daily with teachers, parents, and students

On a typical day, when schools are not closed due to a worldwide pandemic, most principals have at least some kind of interactions with teachers, students and probably even parents. Yet with schools closed, less than half of principals say they interact daily with these groups. Forty-seven percent of school leaders interact daily with teachers, a quarter interact daily with students, and 17 percent interact daily with parents.

But many principals are trying to maintain communication under difficult circumstances.

Sergio Garcia, the principal of Artesia High School in suburban Los Angeles, stays in “constant communication” with his staff through texts, online meetings, and drop-ins to instructional sessions.

He has also reached out to give them face masks with the school’s mascot on them, and lawn signs proclaiming that they’re “all in this together.”

“Knowing how distant you can feel, I knew we needed to support our teachers,” Garcia said.

9. Student engagement continues to decline

Seventy-six percent of teachers report that student engagement has declined a lot or a little in the past two weeks. That’s way up from the last time the EdWeek Research Center asked that question two weeks earlier, when 59 percent of teachers reported declines.

High school teachers were slightly more likely to report declines than elementary or middle school educators.

Those findings are fueling worry about students’ academic erosion. EdWeek data suggest that risk is even greater for students in high-need neighborhoods. There, students are more likely to have teachers who communicate with them less frequently, and who report spending less time teaching new material. Teachers in those districts also say their students spend only two hours a day on learning now, an hour less than what teachers overall report their students are spending.

“The picture is very uneven. Not all of our kids are getting access to the same things,” said Michael Casserly, who leads an advocacy group for large districts, the Council of the Great City Schools. If these patterns persist, he said, they could create “a permanent underclass” of young people who lack the skills for work and civic responsibility, an inequity that “harms the national economy and offends one’s sense of moral equity.”

10. Live, synchronous videoconferencing is educators’ top tool for science, English/language arts, and math instruction

Three times, on three different surveys, the EdWeek Research Center has asked teachers and district leaders to identify the tools they say are very effective at teaching three different subjects (math, English/language arts, and most recently, science) during the coronavirus closures.

For all three subjects, respondents are most likely to point to live, synchronous videoconferencing tools such as Zoom. Sixty-two percent say this is a very effective way to teach science. Sixty-three percent say it’s a very effective way to teach English/language arts. And 57 percent say it’s a very effective way to teach math.

For science, experiments students can do with materials they have at home are a close second, with 58 percent of educators saying this method is very effective. Shared documents, such as Google Docs or Word Online, is cited as the second most effective virtual teaching method for English/language arts. Pre-recorded videos on specific concepts produced by the teacher is number two for math.

It’s very possible those live, video conferencing teaching skills will be necessary in the fall too.

Public-health officials have warned of a possible resurgence of COVID-19 cases this fall, and the specter of the virus will loom until a vaccine is widely available. Seventy percent of educators who responded to an EdWeek Research Center survey in early May said they’re already planning for multiple reopening scenarios for the fall.

“It seems prudent, if you’re a district leader, to be planning for the possibility that sometime in school year 2021, or multiple times, you’re going to have to close for one, two, maybe three weeks at a time,” said John Watson, the founder of Evergreen Education Group, a K-12 digital learning research and consulting firm. School leaders who work with Evergreen’s Digital Learning Collaborative have told Watson they’re preparing for “a significant percentage of parents who don’t want to send their kids back to the physical school.”

Education Week writers Evie Blad, Catherine Gewertz, Elizabeth Heubeck, Mark Lieberman, and Madeline Will contributed to this article.
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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