Instruction During COVID-19: Less Learning Time Drives Fears of Academic Erosion

By Catherine Gewertz — May 28, 2020 10 min read
Natasja Billiau’s two children, Victor, 8, and Anna Laura, 5, study at the kitchen table in their Seattle area home during the coronavirus school building shutdowns. Billiau devised a learning schedule for her children that closely matches what they would have done at school.
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The picture of instruction that has emerged since the coronavirus forced students and teachers into remote learning is clear and troubling: There’s less of it, and the children with the greatest need are getting the least. These dynamics carry serious implications as schools plan to reopen in the fall.

But even though the picture of diminished instruction is clear, it’s not simple. Pandemic learning is complex and contradictory.

Some students are getting live video lessons for hours daily and staying in close contact with their teachers, while others get no real-time instruction and hear from their teachers perhaps once a week. Many teachers are pulling 12-hour days, while many others work less than they did a few months ago. Some parents push angrily for stronger academics during home-learning, while others demand relief, saying they can’t handle home-schooling along with their other obligations.

These crosscurrents put teachers and education leaders in a bind: How do they maintain high-quality instruction while providing the flexibility families—and they themselves—need to survive a national crisis? That is an especially important question if remote learning, or some version of it, continues in many districts next fall due to the coronavirus.

See Data: Students Are Getting Less Instruction Time During Coronavirus

The defining question in K-12 education right now is “balancing the tension between high expectations and the need for flexibility” as everyone in the system tries to regain their footing, said Bree Dusseault, who’s been leading an analysis of districts’ coronavirus responses for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

It’s a tricky high wire: If districts and schools allow too much flexibility, they can be accused of letting children fall behind. If they refuse to soften their expectations, their communities might demand more compassion.

‘The Picture Is Very Uneven’

The national picture shows a system providing less for children, whether it’s by choice or by limited ability to shift suddenly to distance-teaching.

In surveys by the EdWeek Research Center, teachers report they’re spending less time on instruction overall, and they’re spending more time on review and less on introducing new material. Nationally, on average, teachers say they’re working two fewer hours per day than when they were in their classrooms. And they estimate that their students are spending half as much time on learning—3 hours a day—as they were before the coronavirus.

Those dynamics are fueling worry about students’ academic erosion. But EdWeek data suggest that risk is even greater for students in high-need neighborhoods. There, students are more likely to have teachers who communicate with them less frequently, and who report spending less time teaching new material. Teachers in those districts also say their students spend only two hours a day on learning now, an hour less than what teachers overall report their students are spending.

“The picture is very uneven. Not all of our kids are getting access to the same things,” said Michael Casserly, who leads an advocacy group for large districts, the Council of the Great City Schools. If these patterns persist, he said, they could create “a permanent underclass” of young people who lack the skills for work and civic responsibility, an inequity that “harms the national economy and offends one’s sense of moral equity.”

Robin Lake, the executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, warned the House education and labor committee in recent testimony that without a major improvement in schooling soon, students could descend into “academic death spirals.”

So many teachers are working longer hours now than before their schools closed that they found the EdWeek survey data hard to believe. Rebecca Sorenson, a 3rd grade special education teacher in rural Michigan, said that in addition to lesson planning, she holds four or five Zoom sessions a day, each with one student, and spends hours weekly driving to her students’ homes, which are spread over 116 square miles, to drop off books and study materials. “I’m working longer hours now than ever,” she said.

Instructed to Scale Back Expectations

Interviews with teachers, however, surface a host of dynamics that have reduced teachers’ work hours and led them to focus on review instead of new material. Some arose from state and district directives.

Laura Peden, a kindergarten teacher in rural Paxton, Ill., said her district, following a state directive, tried to stick to a five-hour day remotely and proceed with its usual curriculum. But it quickly heard that parents, many of whom are essential workers, were overwhelmed, she said.

Now she conducts one Zoom session with her class per week, sends paper packets home, and communicates with parents once or twice a week through Facebook and Class Dojo. District officials told schools not to teach new material, she said, because they worried that the “huge discrepancy” in parents’ abilities to manage at-home teaching could exacerbate achievement gaps.

Giselle Berastegui, 9, works on math problems at home in Laveen, Ariz., with her older brother during the coronavirus school closures.

Many states have signaled the need for flexibility during coronavirus, waiving seat- and instructional-time requirements. Many districts offered flexibility by using pass/fail grading systems or deciding that students’ remote-learning work wouldn’t lower their grades.

But those policies might have affected student engagement. High school teacher Angie Black, who teaches accounting, business law, and personal finance in Leadwood, Mo., said she’s working maybe two or three hours a day now, compared with six or more before, because so few of her students are signing on. She’d planned multiple sessions per day, to cover all 100 of her students, but she needs only one.

“They’re like, ‘I’m passing this, so I’m not doing any more work,’” Black said.

In some cities, teacher unions negotiated agreements capping work time. In Los Angeles, for instance, teachers are expected to work no more than four hours daily, including meetings, planning and professional development.

Gloria Martinez, the elementary vice president for United Teachers-Los Angeles, said the agreement was necessary to accommodate the time teachers needed for professional development on distance-learning, as well as juggling care for their own loved ones at home. It also sought to protect children from too much screen time, and parents from exhaustion managing work and family care, she said.

Some Duties Disappeared

Some duties teachers performed in their schools have dropped off their schedules.

Kelly Carver, a 2nd grade teacher in Ralston, Neb., said she no longer has the 25-minute daily lunch duty, or the 40 to 45 minutes she tacked onto each end of her workdays for tutoring. Susan Shelton, a high school English and journalism teacher in Pleasant Grove, Utah, no longer stays “after school” to help students produce the yearbook.

Jackie Wagner, a K-5 special education teacher in Broken Bow, Neb., said that the lessons she once conducted herself—filled with hands-on activities—she can’t do remotely.

“Before, I’d plan lessons and then do them with the kids,” Wagner said. “Now I plan lessons and hand them over to parents.” she said. Given the responsibilities her students’ parents are juggling, “I’m lucky if my kids get one hour a day” to practice her lessons at home, she said. She’s worried that students like hers, with special needs, will be harmed “for three or four years down the road” from this year’s learning losses.

Katie Arnold, left, works in her home office in Portland, Ore., while her son Rowen Arnold, a 1ST grader at Mannahouse Christian Academy, plays educational games on her iPad.

Some teachers reported that even though they wanted to cover new material, distance learning made that tough.

“Without being in front of them, so I could walk around, look over their shoulders at their work, see the looks on their faces to see if they’re getting it, it’s really tough to introduce anything new,” said Shelton.

Before schools closed, she conducted 80-minute class sessions every other day, each with 90 minutes of homework. Now she assigns 40 minutes’ worth of work every other day.

Parents are concerned about the decline in their children’s learning time. In a few cities—such as Arlington, Va., and Newton, Mass.—they’ve started petitions to demand more instructional time for their children. Gallup polls showing rising concern among parents about a negative impact on their children’s learning. And a poll conducted by AP-NORC found that lower-income parents are particularly worried about their children falling behind in the sudden shift to home learning.

Dennisha Rivers, who has two sons in the Louisville, Ky., schools, said her children spend “maybe an hour” each day on schoolwork. She has little time to help them, and no doubt that they’re falling behind. She’s confident her 13-year-old can bounce back, but she wonders how her 7-year-old, who has a learning disability, will regain lost ground.

‘No Such Thing as a COVID-19 Pass’

Districts are taking very different approaches to instruction as they balance flexibility and expectations.

Providence, R.I., requires students to “attend” class from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., a schedule similar to their brick-and-mortar classes, except for a longer midday break to let their parents get to district-run meal sites.

Teachers take attendance, and use monitoring apps, to track student participation, said its chief equity officer, Barbara Mullen, and have consistent engagement from about 80 percent of the district’s 24,000 students in this working-class, predominantly minority community. Bus monitors have been redeployed to work call centers, so fewer than 100 students still elude contact.

“There’s no such thing as a COVID-19 pass,” said Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters, who said he got some pushback from families wanting more leniency.

“We were very sentimental about what kids are going through right now, but at the end of the day, this world will still expect these kids to perform. I have to have high expectations for children of color who already start behind the eight ball.”

Miami-Dade County, a big, high-poverty district, stuck with its planned curriculum, making an unusually smooth transition to remote learning because of good planning and an aggressive push to distribute devices and WiFi hotspots. The district had already been incorporating digital learning into its system, but Superintendent Alberto Carvalho kicked that transition into high gear in January, when he saw the virus take hold in China.

When buildings closed, the district didn’t attempt to replicate its seven-hour, 20-minute school day, moving instead to an approach in which students cycle through live online instruction and independent work on assignments. Instead of starting and ending “school” at fixed times, Carvalho said, students and teachers are “playing a wider field” of time, interspersing work and breaks across a 12- or 14-hour period.

The district’s i-Ready learning platform for grades K-8 shows a consistently high level of engagement, with 90 percent or more of students in every income bracket and ZIP code using the platform every week since buildings closed, Carvalho said.

‘Abdication of Responsibility’

Martha Basulto, a 2nd grade teacher at Coral Reef Elementary in Miami, divides her 49 students into two 90-minute Zoom sessions daily, and with her co-teacher, moves through the district’s curriculum. She boasts 100 percent attendance, and she reports that formative assessments taken between September and May show that except for one student who needs extra support, all her students have gained academic ground and are ending the year on or above grade level.

“We followed that pacing guide to the dot,” she said. “We didn’t drop the ball.”

Cleveland, another high-poverty district, opted for a long-range approach when it switched to distance learning. Christine Fowler-Mack, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said the district deemphasized new material in favor of review because it knew that a large swath of students lacked computer access. It scrambled to distribute thousands of devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, but a large gap still persists.

“We knew we couldn’t, in an equitable way, ensure that students, if presented with instruction on new material, would be able to engage,” Fowler-Mack said. So the district prioritized learning continuity, distributing paper packets designed to review and strengthen core content areas, while it dove deep into planning for summer and fall instruction that will recapture missed material, and build in extra supports and interventions for students who are struggling academically or emotionally.

Experts anticipate that most districts will face steep challenges in the fall when they must help students recover lost academic ground, especially since many aren’t tracking attendance or progress. That makes it tough to know what students need and how to be ready to support them, said Dusseault, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

But if districts aren’t better prepared in the fall, with “plans to address the different types of access gaps, instructional gaps, then it’s an abdication of responsibility to those students and their families,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2020 edition of Education Week as Instruction During COVID-19: Reduced Learning Time Drives Fears of Academic Erosion


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