I was celebrating my sister’s birthday in Kirkland, Wash., last Feb. 29 when I started receiving texts from my husband to leave immediately. News had broken that there was a major COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home just a few miles away. In the following days, Washington state became the epicenter of the virus, and the University of Washington and the Northshore district became the first school systems in the country to move to all-virtual instruction.
I knew we were about to face an epic crisis in education—and an unprecedented opportunity to learn.
We needed to understand how to help school districts respond effectively and document why some couldn’t. We had to learn how educators used technology and what choices parents would make when they directed their child’s education. Inequities would be magnified, but we couldn’t let that become an excuse for inaction. Politics and science would come into conflict. We’d need evidence to ensure science won.
At the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, which I lead, we decided to dive headfirst into these questions. Within days, we were conducting interviews, amassing knowledge where we could, and coordinating with other researchers and funders of research to zero in on the most critical questions.
The national situation was changing rapidly. Hundreds of school districts closed in a matter of weeks with little national or state help. No one knew exactly what was happening or how to best help parents, teachers, and school system leaders. In response, we launched databases of state and school district plans. We were overwhelmed with calls from policymakers, foundations, and school-support organizations wanting more information.
To satisfy the hunger for data, we gathered researchers from more than 100 organizations to coordinate, share, and synthesize knowledge. We created working groups to identify priority research questions; we formed consensus panels to advise on the responsible use of diagnostic assessments and other critical questions; and we launched a website to serve as a central knowledge hub for surveys and summaries of findings. We formed an expert panel to surface the best examples of school reopening plans. We launched large-scale research projects on learning pods, student engagement, and learning loss. We’ll next look to inform leaders about rebuilding public education to be more nimble, effective, and equitable.
There was no road map or precedent for our research agenda, so we trusted our instincts and followed five basic principles:
1. In times of crisis, knowledge must flow quickly. Traditional research timelines and strategies would have made our work irrelevant. During the first few months, we worked through nearly every weekend to post timely data of, for instance, emerging evidence and examples of leading districts and states. We connected daily with reporters, district leaders, parent advocates, and policymakers. Twitter became an essential outlet for our work. Organizational turf wars and egos had to be set aside to get the work done quickly and efficiently.
2. Researchers cannot work in isolation. Researchers who typically competed for funding and recognition started sharing data and collaborating on projects. We made all our methods freely available and helped others create district databases in at least four other states. Several other research organizations used our data and approach to go deep on topics like teacher training.
3. Keep looking around the corner. Through the year, we tried to identify emerging problems and solutions. We regularly responded to requests from the news media or policymakers by doing new research within days or hours. In response to media requests, we figured out a way to track student attendance consistently across districts. Policymakers and donors wanted to know what provisions were in place to support vulnerable populations and how federal and private funding could address urgent district needs. Getting these answers often meant shifting or abandoning other plans.
4. Something is better than nothing. We had to work with imperfect data, gathering information from publicly available sources like district websites. We often started research looking at small numbers of school systems and built up to representative samples. Some information was better than no information, but we were transparent about limitations.
5. Be helpful, be brave, and be good humans. Our job as researchers is to surface hard truths, like inequities and rigid institutional responses, and be brave enough to call them out. At the same time, we had to be cognizant that everyone, especially the system leaders, educators, and families we were working to serve, was under intense stress. We always tried to be helpful and kind-spirited.
Pandemic research pushed us outside our comfort zones. We couldn’t have pivoted so quickly without trust and goodwill from each other and funders and organizational partners.
This has been the most challenging year of my career. And the most rewarding. Even when this crisis is over, we’ll try to hold onto the sense of urgency and the clarity it inspired.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as A Road Map to Guide Crisis Research