Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

Survey: COVID-19 Masks for Teachers, But Not Kids; Student Engagement Drops

By Holly Kurtz — June 29, 2020 8 min read
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The spring of 2020 was a very bumpy ride for everyone involved in K-12 education, and it appeared to grow even bumpier as the school year wound down. Teachers grew increasingly frustrated about students not logging in to instructional sites or connecting with them, more students appeared to be having trouble focusing on school work at home, and over a quarter of educators reported overeating more than they had before the pandemic.

The EdWeek Research Center recently asked a nationally-representative sample of 1,150 district leaders, principals, and teachers to take stock of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the 2019-20 school year as well as what they might see and experience when they return to their school buildings in the fall.

Here are five top takeaways from the survey:

1. Most District Leaders to Require Face Masks for Employees, But Not Students When School Buildings Reopen

Most district leaders (55 percent) say that employees will be required to wear face masks when in-person instruction resumes in the fall. But just 36 percent say the same will be required of students.

Coronavirus-related safety measures have become increasingly politicized, especially when it comes to masks, with 75 percent of Democrats versus 48 percent of Republicans telling Gallup in mid-April that they’d worn one. The poll also found that mask wearing is more common in cities and in suburbs than in rural areas.

The EdWeek Research Center survey results reflect some of these trends. For example, 49 percent of Western leaders and 42 percent of Northeasterners will require students to wear masks, compared with 24 percent of Midwesterners and 33 percent of Southerners. Similar trends exist for employee masks, with 71 percent of Northeastern leaders but less than half of Midwesterners and 52 percent of Southerners requiring them. Although less likely to require masks, Southerners are more likely than those in other regions to implement other safety measures including checking student and employee temperatures and requiring students exposed to the virus to stay home.

Compared with white people, Hispanic and Black people are much more likely to suffer adverse effects, including death, from COVID-19. Yet administrators in districts where 75 percent or more of students are white are significantly more likely to require employees to wear masks than are their fellow educators in districts with larger shares of minority students.

However, the reverse is true when it comes to student mask requirements. Student masks will be required in 28 percent of districts in which the student body is 75 percent or more white, compared with 69 percent of districts that are 75 percent or more nonwhite.

2. Did Students’ Work “Count” During the Coronavirus Closures? It Depends

Almost as soon as schools shut down for the pandemic, educators, parents and students around the country started agonizing over what to do about grades and other evaluations and consequences related to the quantity and quality of student work during school closures. Some argued fiercely that students needed grades for motivation, for college, or to avoid so-called “deficit thinking” that assumes that some students are incapable of learning without the support and structure of school. Others worried that it was unfair to hold students accountable as they faced obstacles, such as unequal access to technology, that were beyond their control, in an environment in which many teachers were learning new approaches to pedagogy on the fly.

In the end, educators appear to have taken multiple approaches.

At the time of the June 18 EdWeek Research Center survey, with 90 percent of respondents reporting that school was out for summer, just 22 percent of teachers said they had fully counted work assigned during the closures toward students’ final grades. However, only 36 percent said the work did not count at all. Instead, the most common approach, adopted by 43 percent of teachers, was to partially count work assigned during the public health crisis.

Approaches varied by grade level, with high school teachers more than twice as likely as elementary educators to fully count work assigned after the closures (37 percent versus 15 percent). By contrast, elementary teachers were more than three times more likely than their high school teaching colleagues to say the work did not count at all (47 percent versus 13 percent).

Even if teachers did count assignments toward final grades, it’s unclear how much the grades themselves will matter. Most principals and district leaders (63 percent) say that, ultimately, students did not face consequences if they failed to do their work and/or meet standards during the closures. Twenty-six percent said students would face consequences. And 10 percent were undecided.

Among the 26 percent of school and district leaders who did attach consequences to coronavirus school work, a failing grade was the most common penalty, followed by assignment to summer school or another form of credit recovery. More severe consequences such as retention in grade or denial of high school diplomas were relatively rare.

3. As the School Year Ended, Teachers’ Top Challenge Was Students Not Logging In/Communicating

With schools largely closed for the summer, the EdWeek Research Center asked educators to take stock of the challenges they faced during the sudden shift to remote learning. The first time the Center asked this question was on March 25, when schools had only just shut down in response to the pandemic. Back then, the most frequently reported challenge, cited by 58 percent of teachers, was that it was difficult to tell whether students were learning or if they needed more help. As the school year came to a close, that remained a major challenge for most educators (59 percent).

However, a different concern shot to the top of the list during the spring semester. Nearly two out of three teachers reported that a major challenge during the closures was that students were not logging in or interacting with them, up from 44 percent in late March. This should come as no surprise as teachers surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center during the closures consistently reported that more than 20 percent of students were essentially missing in action during the closures, compared with just 3 percent prior to the pandemic.

Student focus was also a big issue that grew challenging for more teachers as the closures wore on. In March, 1 in 3 teachers said it was a major challenge that students were having a lot more trouble focusing on work at home than at school. This month, that share nearly doubled to 62 percent. Finally, as the year drew to a close, teachers grew increasingly concerned that students were having trouble using technology effectively for learning.

4. Live Videoconferencing Is Educators’ Top Tool for Teaching Social Studies/History/Civics

Since early April, the EdWeek Research Center has been surveying educators about the tools they say are more and less effective for teaching specific subject matter. This most recent survey addressed social studies/history/civics.

As was the case with science, English/language arts and math, teachers and district leaders were most likely to say that live videoconferencing tools like Zoom were very effective for remote social studies instruction during this difficult time. Sixty-nine percent of educators say this tool is very effective for social studies, compared with 63 percent who say it works well for English/language arts, 62 percent for science, and 57 percent for math.

However, district leaders are significantly more likely than teachers to say videoconferencing tools are effective for social studies (80 percent versus 59 percent).

5. Stuck at Home During the Pandemic, Most Educators Are Working on Home Improvement Projects

And now for a slightly lighter topic.

With most schools out for summer, the EdWeek Research Center asked teachers, principals and district leaders which activities—other than working—they had been doing more of since the pandemic started. At the top of the list is home improvement/maintenance. Fifty-eight percent of teachers and administrators report that they’re spending more time painting, sanding, hammering, and otherwise improving their homes.

More than half of educators also say they’ve been devoting more hours to cleaning/chores, watching TV, interacting with family, and reading. Reading and watching TV were especially popular with teachers. Perhaps not surprisingly, devoting more time to reading is significantly more common among English/language arts teachers (72 percent) than math teachers (53 percent).

On a more serious note, the survey also asked whether educators were spending more time on potentially self-defeating behaviors (overeating, drinking alcohol, using marijuana or tobacco, or gambling) that are sometimes embraced during times of stress. The good news is that no educators reported turning more frequently to gambling and virtually no one said they were using more marijuana or tobacco.

However, 28 percent say they’re overeating more than before. (A survey conducted in April by the loan company Self found that 19 percent of Americans are generally eating more and that 32 percent are eating more junk food, but the survey did not specifically ask about overeating.) Teachers and district leaders are more likely than principals to say they’ve been overeating more than usual.

Just 15 percent of educators say they are drinking more alcohol than they did before the pandemic. However, overall alcohol consumption in the U.S. has declined during the pandemic, largely driven by decreases in consumption at restaurants and bars that have remained closed in many areas of the country.


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