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How Biden’s Data Mandate Could Help Schools Navigate the COVID-19 Crisis

By Evie Blad — January 22, 2021 4 min read
President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, in the State Dinning Room of the White House, on Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.

Ten months since the majority of U.S. schools shuttered to slow the spread of the coronavirus, there is still no federal data on how many have reopened their doors for in-person learning.

That stands to change after President Joe Biden signed an executive order this week that directs the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm to collect “data necessary to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators.”

The Jan. 21 order came as good news to third-party researchers who’ve sought to make up for the lack of federal data by tracking school and district reopening plans and a range of other issues, including virus cases identified in schools.

“We’re flying blind,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who has led such research efforts.

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Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.
Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.
Kathy Willens/AP
Federal Biden Launches New Strategy to Combat COVID-19, Reopen Schools
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Data on how things like schools are operating, how they are measuring student learning, and how many students aren’t signing into remote classes at all will help address equity concerns and identify solutions, she said.

And information on the precautions schools are taking and whether they’ve identified cases among their students and staff could help reassure a weary public about returning to classrooms, she said.

“On some level, it’s about time. It’s past time,” Lake said. “It’s a little shocking that we haven’t had basic data on school and district status and health data. Putting those things together has been a long-term need since March, really.”

Biden’s order doesn’t set a time frame for when the data should be collected or when and how frequently it should be reported to the public. So it’s not clear exactly what the scope of the collection will be.

The new data may help the president track progress on one of his early pledges, to reopen “the majority of K-8 schools” within the first 100 days of his administration.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in October that she didn’t believe it was her agency’s role to collect such data, which some education groups called “a missed opportunity.”

Cautions about ‘reinventing the wheel’

Lake cautioned that the Institute of Education Sciences, the federal agency charged with collecting the new data, shouldn’t attempt to “reinvent the wheel.” There’s much to be learned from private efforts to document the state of education during the pandemic, she said.

The CRPE tracks various facets of reopening plans put in place by states and large districts, including how they count attendance and what health metrics they use for determining whether a school should close. It also analyzes web pages of a sample of districts to estimate how many schools offer in-person learning nationwide.

The CRPE data is frequently cited in school reopening discussions. That’s also true of a “dashboard” from Brown University Professor of Economics Emily Oster and a coalition of education groups that allows school leaders to voluntarily input data about their mitigation strategies. But that data is more limited than what a federal agency can collect.

Private researchers have learned there’s great inconsistency in how states and school districts measure student attendance during remote learning, what counts as being “open” or in hybrid learning modes, and how they determine or publicly report if there is a virus case linked to a school, Lake said.

As a federal agency, the IES will be tasked with determining consistent measures for reporting information without making requirements too cumbersome or time-consuming. And it will have to provide federal notice of its intent to survey states about new information, which could extent the timeline of when the information is available to the public.

Another challenge: The executive order requires the data to be disaggregated by student demographics, including race, ethnicity, disability, English-language-learner status, and “free- or reduced-[price]lunch status or other appropriate indicators of family income.”

Even in schools that are"open” for in-person learning, many families have opted to continue remote learning at home. Statisticians will have to consider how to account for that in student-level data.

Lake’s “blue sky suggestions” for what the new federal data should entail include:

  • Monthly reports on schools’ operating status and schools closed due to outbreaks;
  • What percentage of students choose to opt out of in-person learning, and what groups schools prioritize to bring back to classrooms first;
  • Case and vaccination rates of students and staff;
  • Information about academic supports like assessment of learning loss and availability of tutoring;
  • Data on students who are accessing emotional and mental health supports; and
  • Information about staff and teacher turnover.

If data is made available quickly, it can help schools and districts navigate the remainder of the school year and the start of the 2021-22 school year.

And, in the long term, it can help researchers track the effects of unprecedented large-scale interruptions to schooling, Lake said.

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