When the pandemic is over, there’s at least one thing that’s likely to stick around in many K-12 schools: online learning.
Twenty percent of district and charter management organizations said in a new survey that they had started or were planning a virtual school or fully remote option this academic year and expected those options would remain after the pandemic. Another 10 percent said the same about hybrid or blended learning, while 7 percent said some lesser version of remote learning will continue when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
Those are among the findings from a new survey of leaders of nearly 300 traditional school districts and charter management organizations that was released by the Rand Corporation on Tuesday. The survey also revealed that school system leaders had major anxiety about their ability to address students’ emotional well-being and mental health as well as concerns about disparities in the opportunities students have to access schooling, especially among leaders running systems where at least half the enrollment are eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals or are Black and Hispanic.
The survey is the first of its kind of district leaders by RAND, which has conducted similar polling from its panels of teachers and principals.
When district leaders noted the staying power of remote learning beyond the pandemic, they cited increased flexibility for students, parent or student demand, and addressing a variety of students’ needs among the reasons. And virtual schools were the “innovative practice” that most system leaders foresaw lasting for years.
Remote learning and virtual schools have been challenging for many students and districts, particularly those serving large numbers of students in poverty, where lack of devices and internet access continue to be a problem. Some students are often juggling multiple duties – balancing schoolwork and household chores. And across the country, millions of students have not logged on.
“It’s notable that school districts plan to offer more online options. Some students and teachers really value the flexibility,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which worked with RAND and Chiefs for Change to set up the district leaders’ panel. “Now the challenge will be to ensure virtual schoolrooms provide high-quality instruction and equitable access.”
CRPE has examined school districts’ reopening and operating plans for the new school year and recently published a deep dive into six school systems’ remote learning programs.
Public education will never be the same post– COVID-19. The pandemic has forced public education to adopt new practices on the fly, and many will become lasting changes to the way we do business. Flexible scheduling and virtual instruction are just two practices that will become a part of how we educate children.
With district leaders expecting some form of remote learning to be a mainstay of their educational programs in the future, RAND recommends more state and federal aid to help districts improve technology, including expanding internet access, hire qualified teaching staff, and partner with organizations to provide additional academic supports —like tutoring—to help students. It also emphasized the need for “coherent, high-quality instructional systems for online instruction in academics and social and emotional learning,” as well as continued professional development for teachers, especially those working with students with IEPs and English-language learners. Publishers also must increase support for high-quality instructional materials, and federal funding can help states work with publishers to make those more accessible to school systems, according to RAND.
Internet access also continues to be a top concern for school system leaders, especially those running systems where at least half of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals or are Black or Hispanic. Forty-four percent of those school systems’ leaders said internet access was an area in which they needed support and guidance this school year, according to the survey. And 40 percent of those leaders said making sure that teachers and students were able to access the internet for remote learning was a “significant challenge.” Only slightly more than a quarter, 26 percent, of leaders in schools where fewer than half the students lived in poverty or were Black and Hispanic said the same.
SEL, Student Mental Health Are Major Challenges
Overall, addressing students’ emotional well-being and mental health continued to be the overwhelming challenge for school system leaders this academic year, with 67 percent of those leading school systems where fewer than half of the enrollment qualified for free and reduced-priced meals listing SEL and student mental health as the area they most needed guidance and resources. Among those leading school systems with higher numbers of poor students, that number was 53 percent.
Providing specialized instructional supports for students and delivering high-quality instruction to all students also ranked among the top three areas where system leaders needed additional resources and guidance, according to the survey.
The survey, conducted between Sept. 15 and Nov. 11, included seven questions that covered areas such as staffing challenges, professional development, and approaches to the 2020-21 school year.
The survey was sent to leaders in 317 regular public-school districts and charter management organizations, who are part of RAND’s district panel. The response rate was 84 percent.
School system leaders expected dealing with disparities in students’ opportunities to learn to be the most significant challenge this school year, with half of the respondents anticipating that to be the case. Again, that need was even more pronounced in systems serving large numbers of students in poverty, with 62 percent of those leaders saying that was the case. Even among their colleagues leading lower-poverty districts, 39 percent said they expected addressing disparities in students’ opportunities to learn would be a major hurdle this school year, according to the survey.
Forty-five percent of high-poverty systems also expected state accountability requirements to be a top challenge this year.
School system leaders expected funding to ensure adequate staffing to be a major barrier this school year, with that concern more heightened in systems serving fewer students in poverty. While 39 percent of the respondents overall said they expected funding to be a “major hindrance” to staffing this year, 45 percent of those leading systems with fewer numbers of students in poverty said that was the case.
Slightly more than a quarter, 26 percent, were worried about not having enough qualified instructional staff to cover teaching.
Surprisingly, the number of teachers with health issues did not rank high on the list of concerns, with only 9 percent of leaders listing it as an area of worry.
And they said their staff needed professional development in a wide variety of areas, especially in addressing students’ social and emotional well-being, learning loss, and the needs of English-language learners and students with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
The creation of virtual learning communities for teachers and principals, flexible staffing models for teachers, and adjusting instructional time policies were among the most common approaches districts considered this school year.
Unsurprisingly, school system leaders said guidance from local health departments held more sway over their 2020-21 decisions than the media and the U.S. Department of Education.The latter two ranked behind every other option on the survey, including parents, teachers, community members and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And only 13 percent said that guidance from national organizations, like AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the Council of the Great City Schools, the national organization that represents 76 urban school systems, influenced their decisions.
Principals held slightly more influence in those decisions in schools where at least half of the students qualified for free and reduced-price meals or were students of color.
Interestingly, districts with fewer students in poverty often looked to other districts’ plans for guidance in comparison to districts with higher levels of poverty, according to the report.
In answer to an open-ended question, district leaders noted the lack of funding, unclear guidance and substitute teacher shortages as major challenges.
Amid all of those difficulties, district leaders highlighted offering students more choices and flexibility as well as delivering meals to students among the bright spots this school year.
There are also some things that districts would like to do but don’t have money to: like hiring more tutors to help students back on track. Twenty-four percent of the districts said they’d like to do so, but couldn’t afford it or did not have the flexibility. That barrier was more acute in districts and charter management organizations serving fewer students in poverty.
You can read the full report here.