School & District Management

When Schools Shut Down, We All Lose

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 20, 2020 12 min read
Joyce Dagner, a support manager in Prince George’s County Public Schools, hands a “Grab and Go” sack lunch to a student at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, Md.
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This was the week that American schools across the country closed their doors.

It was the week that our public schools—often dismissed as mediocre, inequitable, or bureaucratic—showed just how much they mean to American society by their very absence.

The unprecedented shutdown of public and private schools in dozens of states last week has illuminated one easily forgotten truism about schools: They are an absolute necessity for the functioning of civic culture, and even more fundamentally than that, daily life.

Schools are the centers of communities. They provide indispensible student-welfare services, like free meals, health care, and even dentistry. They care for children while parents work. And all those services do much to check the effects of America’s economically stratified systems of employment and health care on young students.

These insights came into focus last week as the nation’s governors, in the absence of a coherent message from federal officials, took charge and shuttered tens of thousands of American schools, affecting tens of millions of students, in an effort to curb the menacing spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Education historians and researchers struggled to come up with a historical precedent to this brave new school-less world. The only certainty, they said, is that the long-term impacts for students will be severe, and most likely long lasting.

Student learning will suffer in general—and longstanding gaps in performance between advantaged and vulnerable students will widen, they predicted, a combination both of weakened instruction and the other social consequences of the pandemic.

“I don’t think we’ve had a shock to educational systems of this magnitude, at least to instructional time,” said Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of economics at Brandeis University. “And part of that is the number of weeks and months of school students are going to be missing. But it’s also the fact that a bunch of parents will be unemployed, or that their savings will have vanished, or that someone in their family is sick.

“It’s a shock to school life—but it’s also a shock to home life,” he said.

No Element Spared

No element of the K-12 system has been untouched by COVID-19 and the wave of mass school closures that followed it.

Long-term financial impacts are likely: With the economy in a tailspin, school funding—highly dependent on state and local sales taxes, property taxes, and other fluctuating revenue sources—will start to dry up. One economist last week estimated the cost of extended school closings on the economy could be at least $50 billion.

Annual testing, the linchpin of two decades of school reforms, is coming to a screeching halt, as state after state cancels the exams used to rate schools and prioritize interventions to improve them.

State rules about the length of the school year, credit hours, and graduation requirements are crashing against the reality of hundreds of hours of lost instructional time. All are likely to be examined, waived, or even rewritten within the next few months.

School districts’ hourly workers and those who are not typically included in labor contracts, like their peers in other low-wage jobs in the United States, are facing reduced hours and layoffs. For educators, the job has morphed radically. Superintendents and principals have, in effect, become social-service coordinators—organizing child care, providing meals for students, cobbling together internet access, and trying to arrange continued learning opportunities for students.

They’re committed to the task, even as the duty of modeling effective leadership is starting to take its toll.

“There is always that strong sense of how can we help our students. That has been consistent, and probably even more pronounced,” said A. Katrise Perera, the superintendent in the Gresham-Barlow district near Portland, Ore., who like others, has been focused on keeping food services and social-emotional learning supports in place. But, she added, “This is stressful. I’m trying to maintain myself, and keep a level head, and be an example to my employees by staying calm and collected, even though inside, I may feel like I’m falling apart.”

Principals echo those sentiments.

“I think my role shifts completely into this symbolic keeper of hope,” said Paul Kelly, the principal at Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “My role in this family is to make sure that we know that we are trying to get them whatever they need, having staff members feeling like we care about them as humans and as families, and all of the details of their professional lives will get resolved.”

Giselle Berastegui, 9, works on math problems in her home in Laveen, Ariz.

And the message for students?

“We are here,” Kelly said. “We are still going to be here. We’re going to pick up the phone. We’re going to answer the emails. School is such a critical cornerstone of a stable society, and ... a principal needs to be a big part of that.”

Perhaps more than in any other affected country, the COVID-19 pandemic has also underscored the harsh reality that in the United States, school quality and resources tend to reflect the relative wealth and poverty of the communities they serve.

Deep Divides

Take the inevitable discussion over “remote” or online learning. There is no good national gauge of how many districts are planning to attempt to deliver meaningful instruction via online platforms, and many districts don’t have the capacity to do it at all.

Many areas of the country lack the broadband access necessary even for a basic online-learning program. Those that could at least theoretically assume access for students don’t always have “one-to-one” devices or link-ups so each family and student can access their teachers. And those that manage to cross those hurdles are frantically trying to source appropriate materials for each grade level—even as it’s clear that some topics, like highly structured sequences for early reading, appear to be nearly impossible to teach well online.

A nationally representative survey of school leaders, conducted by the Education Week Research Center earlier this month as the epidemic took hold in the United States, found that districts serving high proportions of needy students reported being less able to offer remote learning than wealthier ones, among several other disturbing disparities. And on the whole, 41 percent of leaders said they couldn’t support online learning at all.

Those inequities are only the beginning of the matter: English-language learners are also not well served online, advocates for those students said. And it’s far from clear that even the best-intentioned districts will be able to tailor instruction to students with disabilities’ individualized education programs.

Some districts like Philadelphia have concluded they can’t offer any formal instruction online or otherwise while schools are closed. Others like the Los Angeles Unified School District are using lower-tech solutions, such as broadcast television and printed homework packets to mete out some instruction, even as teachers point out the inevitable flaws in those approaches.

“If you think you’re going to send kids home with a packet, and that’s going to be a substitute for being in a classroom for two weeks, it isn’t,” said Anji Williams, a secondary English teacher in the Los Angeles district.

Still other districts are making an abrupt shift to a teaching method that few educators have been extensively trained in.

Jasmine Lane, a high school English teacher in a suburban Minneapolis district, is among them. Her district is providing Chromebooks to its students and commendably trying to keep some record of attendance by having students complete some task each day. Beginning March 30, teachers will be posting pre-recorded lessons online, and will facilitate through online messaging as students work them.

Even then, Lane says she thinks the set-up will benefit some students far more than others.

“There is so much useful optimism wrapped up on this. I’m thinking we’ll have anywhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of kids show up, and 60 percent is probably high,” she said.

“My biggest fear—really what I’m concerned about—is there are so many kids who need you to be there to check in with them every few minutes, especially our high English-learner population. Not having that basically ensures they’re going to be listening to a lecture for 45 minutes, and it’s much harder to check for understanding.

“It’s months of learning potentially gone, and less than 50 percent of kids read on grade level already,” she continued. “I’m worried that they’ll just fall farther behind.”

A Federal Breakdown

Of all the reckonings COVID-19 is sure to prompt, one of the clearest is schools’ complicated interaction with the federal government. Fallout from the virus has thrown into stark relief both the absolute necessity of federal support for schools, and how unsatisfactory the relationship often feels to state and district administrators.

With approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the national school meal programs, thousands of districts have shifted to “grab and go” programs that allow families to pick up bagged meals from centralized school locations or bus stops.

Angie Andrade and her children, from left, Angel, 10, Austin, 7, and Abigail, 3, pick up free sack lunches at J.T. Saldivar Elementary School in Dallas, Texas. The school provides breakfast and lunch during spring break.

But the confusing messages and lack of clear guidance from the Trump administration on closures has incensed school administrators.

In an extraordinary development earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly cancelled a teleconference briefing with AASA, the School Superintendents Association, that thousands of superintendents had signed up for in search of more clarity on when to close schools and how long those closures should last.

The move followed a whiplash of mixed messages. Earlier this month, the CDC issued guidance suggesting that closures of fewer than eight weeks would do little to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Then, the CDC advised against gatherings of more than 50 people, and then President Trump, in a televised news conference, pushed the recommended number down to 10 and said children should be home.

“We are an organization that basically our advocacy efforts are in terms of local control and state responsibilities, and more often than not are opposed to federal mandates, rules, and regulations,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA. “This is a different situation. This is unprecedented, and it is a national issue that requires national solutions, not serendipity or decision by local agencies and governors.”

Meanwhile, Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation to provide additional school meal flexibility and some paid sick leave for public employees; some other education proposals could be wrapped into a broader stimulus package still being hammered out on Capitol Hill at press time.

Those measures come none too soon because it’s clear that most, if not all, states and districts that have closed their schools will likely extend those closures into April and beyond.

On March 17, Kansas became the first state to shut its schools’ doors for the remainder of the academic year. The governors of both Ohio and California have mulled openly that schools in their states might need to pursue a similar course of action.

Is there any real parallel to this moment in U.S. history? Some historians point tentatively to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, in which cities where schools that closed earlier seemed to stave off infection rates more than those that did not.

But the useful comparisons stop there. Schools served far fewer students overall at the first half of the century. Compulsory attendance laws were haphazardly enforced then, especially at the secondary level. Jobs that did not require much beyond primary schooling were plentiful.

A Reassessment?

“Schools are always implicated in national crises, always,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, pointing to schools’ role selling war bonds during World War I and cultivating victory gardens in World War II. “But in prior crises, they were engaged in the struggle, because it was a struggle against a human enemy rather than a biological one. This is a struggle against a biological one that requires schools not to step up, but to stand down.”

And economists who study education all agreed that the impact of lengthy closures is likely to be disastrous, particularly for the nation’s most vulnerable students. While there’s little research specifically on pandemics’ effect on learning, research on adjacent topics—chronic absenteeism, the amount of learning time, online learning—is sobering.

Empty basketball courts and athletic fields at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, MD.

“The key thing is all these things point in the same way—it is not going to be good for student learning,” said Douglas N. Harris, professor and chair of economics at Tulane University.

Harris worries in particular about students who are just learning to read, and also about high school juniors and seniors on the cusp of graduating, where specific course sequences will be harder to make up. Low-income students who already face barriers to enrollment are probably less likely to take the required entrance exams for college, and are more likely to face financial barriers if their parents suddenly become unemployed.

“The biggest, starkest effect I think will be on college enrollment this fall—a fall off from low-income students relative to higher-income ones,” he said.

There’s no real silver lining in the pandemic, the researchers said.

But there is the specter of a rejuvenation in Americans’ attitudes toward schools, or at least a recognition that the role they play as a provider of social services is indispensible, and possibly even that those functions ought to be reinforced so that schools aren’t left alone to face future crises.

There’s some historical precedent, in that other national crises have led to new policies: the New Deal after the Depression, the creation of the Agricultural Extension Service and other food programs after WWII conscription led to the discovery of high levels of malnutrition in American youths.

What will COVID-19’s legacy for schools be?

“I think it’s going to start, hopefully, a conversation—a reminder that schools may not eliminate achievement gaps, but they do a lot to limit the size of them, and do a lot of good work in providing social services,” said Ethan Hutt, an assistant professor in the school of education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The push to break down the bureaucracy has tended to sideline some of those questions. I think this is going to bring them back into some pretty sharp relief.”

Reporters Evie Blad, Corey Mitchell, Sarah Schwartz, Sarah D. Sparks, Denisa Superville, Andrew Ujifusa, and Madeline Will contributed.

Librarians Holly Peele and Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as When America’s Schools Shut Down, We All Lose


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