The disruption in K-12 education due to the coronavirus is way more than anyone could have imagined just a couple of months ago. A system that has relied primarily on face-to-face interactions in school buildings for generations is now operating almost entirely virtual. That big, rapid shift has dampened morale among both teachers and students, and it has exposed huge equity problems in K-12 schools.
At the same time, it has forced educators to learn how to use new technologies, such as video conferencing, very quickly. That rush to use new technologies, though, opened the doors for a wave of data privacy and security problems, especially with the wildly popular Zoom videoconferencing platform.
The EdWeek Research Center, the research arm of Education Week, is also pivoting quickly in this environment, conducting twice-monthly national surveys of teachers and district leaders to help the K-12 system navigate these unprecedented times. The surveys provide an evolving view of how schools are addressing challenges around communication, equity, attendance, and academic performance as well as the eventual reopening of school buildings.
Following are 10 key insights from our most recent survey, a nationally representative, online poll of 1,720 educators administered April 7 and 8. Stay tuned for future survey results: Our next poll is scheduled to launch April 22nd.
1. Student and teacher morale are down.
Maybe it’s the loneliness or disconnection from colleagues and friends caused by stay-home orders and school closures. Or the frustration with the limitations and technical glitches of online learning. Or maybe the constant drumbeat of news about the rising coronavirus death toll, skyrocketing unemployment rates, and the uncertainty of what’s ahead is just too much to handle.
Whatever it is, the reality is that student and teacher morale is suffering (as reported by teachers and district leaders), declining considerably between March 25 and April 8. In March, the teachers and district leaders we surveyed reported that morale was lower than prior to the pandemic for 61 percent of students and 56 percent of teachers. This week, educators told us that 76 percent of students and 66 percent of teachers are in lower spirits than they were before the crisis. Teacher and student morale are especially low in the western United States. Compared to district leaders, teachers report lower morale rates both for themselves and for their students.
Timing: Every two weeks
Method: Nationally-representative online surveys of educators
There are multiple possible reasons for the declines. Teachers and students miss seeing each other every day. (Morale among teachers is especially low in elementary schools, which are more likely to cultivate a family-like environment.)The rituals of school—from mundane daily routines to milestone celebrations like prom and graduation—have suddenly been struck from the calendar. Teachers worry about the challenges and inequities that their students will face when the supports that schools provide are that much harder to access.
“This is a serious loss for both students and teachers,” Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, told Education Week in a recent story. “When you experience those kinds of loss, it is perfectly reasonable, acceptable, and human to feel grief around that.”
Interestingly, administrator and hourly employee morale remained relatively stable, according to the survey.
2. Teachers say they’re spending more time on instruction and communication. But equity problems persist.
More teachers are engaging in instruction now than in March. In fact, nearly all teachers (90 percent) say they are engaging in instruction now, compared with 74 percent in late March. Teachers are also engaging in more communication with students. The percentage of teachers who had had no contact with most students declined while those engaging in weekly contact nearly doubled during that time period.
That said, some students are having more contact than others.
More than half of teachers (56 percent) in lower poverty districts (with poverty rates under 25 percent) are interacting with their students at least once a day, compared with about 1 in 3 in districts in which three quarters or more students come from low-income families.
Science teachers and elementary educators who teach all subjects report the highest levels of daily contact. Special education and arts teachers report the lowest.
Pren Woods, a 7th grade teacher at Alston Middle School in Summerville, S.C., sings to his students in class for their birthdays when school is in session. Now that schools are closed, he has called several students to sing “Happy Birthday” over the phone, continuing the tradition.
Woods said he tries to pay particular attention to those kids who might be facing very difficult circumstances.
“When a kid says, ‘My mom doesn’t have a job and there are four of us, and she’s alone and I’m worried.’ That’s somebody I want to pick up the phone and call, and somebody’s mom I want to email,” he said.
3. Email is the most common form of teacher-student interaction. Videoconferencing is also popular.
When teachers interact with students, it’s most likely to occur via email. A majority also communicate by posting written messages online, and through online communications or video conferencing platforms.
The use of Zoom has raised some big student data privacy and security issues, prompting a growing number of districts to prohibit the use of Zoom for school-related business. So far, though, most educators have not experienced problems. Just 16 percent of teachers and district leaders say someone in their district has been “Zoombombed” on Zoom or a similar video conferencing platform.
More than 1 in 5 elementary teachers (but just 6 percent of high school teachers) have communicated with their students in-person, with social distancing, through car parades, neighborhood wave-and-walks, and other approaches.
Emily Richley, a 5th grade teacher at Dennis Elementary School in Springboro, Ohio, told Education Week that video-chatting with students, being able to see their faces, has been important for building community. She hosts chats on Google Meet throughout the week. It helps her connect with the kids, but also gives them a chance to see each other.
“They miss each other,” she told Education Week. Her 5th graders show each other their dogs or introduce the class to their siblings. “In a way, it has made the community a little more personal, because we’re almost meeting in each other’s homes,” she said.
Overall, just 2 percent of teachers have interacted with their students without social distancing since schools closed due to the pandemic. But that rate is 9 percent for special educators. Special educators are also significantly more likely to have had one-on-one phone conversations with their students (77 percent versus 40 percent overall).
4. More than a fifth of students are not participating in school, with larger truancy rates in high-poverty communities
Even as teachers amp up communications and instruction, they report that, on average, 21 percent of their students are essentially “truant” during coronavirus closures (not logging in, not making contact, etc.)
The percentages are highest among districts in which more than three-quarters of students are from low-income families. Nearly 1 in 3 students in those communities are not participating in remote learning, compared with 12 percent in districts in which a quarter or fewer students live in poverty.
Given that income is strongly associated with opportunities to learn, this means that the students who are most likely to need it most may be receiving the least instruction, opening up the possibility that closures will widen existing equity gaps.
In his two years working at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Va., Malcolm Jones had turned Room 123 into a sanctuary for vulnerable students.
As a site coordinator for the organization Communities in Schools, Jones was at school from morning until evening, supporting nearly 100 teenagers struggling with poverty, family upheaval, and other obstacles to learning.
The coronavirus pandemic upended that work.
“These students were distracted from their world by coming to this building that was outside of the community where they faced all these barriers,” Jones said. “Now, they’re stuck at home in that chaos. Who can really expect some of these students to do that [academic work packet] when they’re at home starving or they’re at home taking care of their siblings?”
5. District leaders are trying to address equity
Ninety-nine percent of district leaders say they’re at least doing something to address equity during closures.
Offering pick-up/delivery of free or reduced-price meals is the most common measure. A majority of administrators also say they provide devices to all students who need them, make additional online tutoring available, and provide online/phone therapy.
Unfortunately, these efforts are not necessarily reaching the students who need them most. For example, 62 percent of leaders in districts with poverty rates under 25 percent say everyone who needs home internet access gets it. Among leaders in districts where poverty rates exceed 75 percent, the rate is roughly half that amount (31 percent).
In fact, the coronavirus has exposed the digital divide that exists in K-12 schools. In response, many urban districts are scrambling to purchase digital learning devices such as Chromebooks and iPads so that students without those technologies are not left behind. Other districts are outfitting school buses with WiFi hotspots and locating them near apartment complexes to help students get access to the internet.
The New York City schools moved quickly over the past few weeks to purchase 300,000 iPads; Boston public schools put together an initiative to put 20,000 laptops in the hands of students; and Chicago is in the process of purchasing 37,000 new digital learning devices.
“Everybody is fighting for them,” Mark Racine, the chief technology officer for the Boston Public Schools, told Education Week. “We had some districts reach out to us and say, ‘Can we buy some off of you?’”
6. Educators are most concerned students will fall behind in math
Educators are most likely to be very concerned that students will fall behind in math during school closures, although English/language arts is a close second. More than half are very concerned about math.
Of course, as schools have moved online, teachers are turning more and more to services like the Khan Academy, which provides online video lessons on math concepts. They are also using services such as Illustrative Mathematics, Zearn Math, and Core Math Tools provided by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
However, math teachers are concerned that students having difficulty understanding certain concepts will not be able to get the one-on-one attention they would usually receive in a regular classroom. As a consequence, kids who struggle with math might fall further behind during school closures.
Additionally, across the board, in every subject included on the survey, educators in higher poverty districts are significantly more likely to be concerned that students will fall behind. For example, two thirds of educators in districts where three quarters or more students live in poverty are very concerned that students will fall behind in math as compared to 38 percent of those in districts with poverty rates of 25 percent or less.
7. The arts are tough to teach remotely
Educators are relatively unlikely to say they’re very concerned about students falling behind in the arts during closures.
But teachers perceive that the arts are the toughest topics to teach remotely: 27 percent say it’s very challenging.
Parent Maggie Hunter, an instructional designer and technical writer in Holmdel, N.J., told EdWeek that she was thrown by an art assignment that asked her son to demonstrate six different shading techniques.
“There was crosshatch, hatching, and ‘scumbling’,” she said. “I have no idea what scumbling is.”
Fortunately, the art teacher sent a video explanation. But Hunter’s struggles suggest some of the challenges faced by teaching the arts to children at home. Unless they participate in or frequently listen to or watch a particular art form, parents may be less familiar with the terminology—even at the elementary level—than they are with, for instance, fractions or syllables. In addition, many arts require specialized materials or equipment (e.g. musical instruments, paint) that families may or may not have at home.
Physical education/health/wellness is the subject teachers are most likely to say is very easy to teach from a distance. It’s certainly possible to exercise without specialized equipment by taking a walk, or doing calisthenics at home. That said, just 16 percent of teachers say physical education is very easy to teach from afar.
8. More students may face consequences for schoolwork not done during closures
Since late March, more teachers are reporting that they are partially or fully counting work assigned during closures toward final grades (57 percent versus 50 percent).
However, practices vary significantly by grade level. Less than half of elementary teachers (43 percent) have decided to fully or partially count work, compared with 59 percent of middle school teachers and 76 percent of high school teachers.
A larger share of leaders are also saying that there will be consequences if students don’t do their work during closures (22 percent versus 13 percent). But these leaders are still in the minority—48 percent say there will be no consequences. And roughly 1 in 3 have yet to decide if there will be consequences.
A failing grade is the most common consequence (now as in March). The share of leaders who say students who slack off during closures could fail a class has also increased substantially.
“We realize that if we tell kids today, ‘Hey, your grade can’t be any lower than it is now,’ or if we tell them we’re not going to grade them for the rest of the year, we’re going to have a big chunk of kids check out,” Curtis Hicks, the assistant superintendent of the Salem City Schools in Virginia, told Education Week. “And that’s not healthy for them for the short run, and it’s not healthy for the long term, if students are underprepared for what comes next.”
9. The jury is still out on reopening schools
More than a quarter of district leaders say schools are closed for the remainder of the school year, up from 3 percent in late March. That share is significantly higher in districts in which three quarters or more students come from low-income families than in districts with poverty rates under 25 percent (43 percent versus 16 percent).
However, most still haven’t announced when schools will re-open—-especially in the Northeast—where school years start and end later and the indecision rate is 82 percent. (It’s under 50 percent in the West and the South).
Among those who have made this announcement, 80 percent say schools will re-open in May. The remainder say they’ll re-open in April.
In Iowa, the governor announced that schools would remain closed through at least April 30. But some local districts in the state have now decided to close schools for the remainder of the year.
In Des Moines, the state’s largest district, Superintendent Thomas Ahart said he won’t resume in-school classes this spring and would release a plan next week to instruct students over the internet or on paper worksheets.
“I believe that re-opening our school doors before the COVID-19 pandemic may have even reached its peak in Polk County is not in the best interest of the health and well-being of this community,” he said, noting that about 40,000 people pass through the city’s schools daily, according to an Associated Press story.
10. Most districts don’t have a finished plan if the crisis continues into the fall
It is certainly possible that the coronavirus pandemic will continue or recur in the 2020-2021 school year.
But just 7 percent of district leaders said they have a thorough and extensive plan for moving forward if that happens. However, close to half say they have at least started planning for that possibility.
Top education officials in two states warned this week that schools may have to continue online education in the fall if the spread of the coronavirus continues or resurges.
The cautions in Maryland and Washington came as Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House briefing that the country would be “in good shape” to reopen schools in the fall.
“I’m not sure we are going to be doing school in the same way going forward,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon told state lawmakers, according to the Baltimore Sun. “We’re not sure that [school building closures] is not something that we’re going to revisit in the fall or the winter.”
Education Week writers Evie Blad, David Rauf, Christina Samuels, Stephen Sawchuk, and Sarah Schwartz contributed to this article.