Knowing What Schools Did in the Pandemic is Crucial. So Is Preserving That Data

By Evie Blad — June 15, 2021 6 min read
Kindergarten students wear masks and are separated by plexiglass during class at Milton Elementary School, in Rye, N.Y. on May 18, 2021.
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Key information about how COVID-19 created an unprecedented year for students is at risk of being lost if it’s not compiled in a way that can help track the effects of the pandemic for years to come, one prominent researcher says.

So even as schools look forward to recovery, Brown University economics Professor Emily Oster is looking back, leading a project to capture all of the data states collected about school operations in 2020-21 and to present it in a consistent format that can inform researchers and policy makers well into the future.

“I think we are at risk of losing this information,” Oster said. “If we just decide, ‘OK, forget it,’ and then we don’t think about the next six months, I think we may actually find ourselves in a worse situation than we would be otherwise.”

Oster played a prominent role during the last year as she led an early data project to track school precautions and related coronavirus cases, becoming a sometimes divisive advocate for in-person learning.

Without consistent data, schools were operating in the dark, she said, seeking to plan around a pandemic as public understanding of the virus evolved. Even as educators and district officials raised those concerns, federal officials didn’t start collecting official data until about a year into the crisis.

Oster’s “pipe dream” for her current project, set to launch in August: a data collection that would show how any school in the country was operating— in-person, remotely, or a hybrid of the two models— on any given week in the 2020-21 school year.

How has the pandemic affected schools?

But that’s easier said than done. There was no official, comprehensive federal school data collection throughout the pandemic. And states and districts operated a patchwork of different data collections and trackers using different terms and methods.

“Our data infrastructure over the last year has been quite poor,” Oster said.

But, even with limitations, the information will be useful, she said. In the first wave of her collection, Oster has started surveying states about the information they collected during the 2020-21 school year on key data points: school operating status, student and staff COVID-19 cases, and enrollment.

That information may help policymakers and educators as they consider how to focus recovery efforts, she said, but it may have more value in future years.

Education researchers will likely track fallout from the coronavirus for years, including its effects on factors like student well-being, academic achievement, and eventual postsecondary enrollment.

“I also think that this has revealed a lot about the schooling system,” Oster said. “It has highlighted some inequities, and it has also generated some variation that may be useful for answering questions about education in the long run.”

Researchers may be able to use the school operating information to add context to other datasets, like test scores, to look for longer term trends.

And they may be able to ask research questions that didn’t seem obvious at the peak of the pandemic. For example, will younger students who completed extended periods of remote learning have stronger computer skills than their peers? Will learning conditions correlate with mental health diagnoses or other indicators?

But there will be some limitations: The definition of “hybrid” learning can vary from school to school, states use different methods for counting school-related COVID-19 cases, and many families chose to remain in virtual learning, even when their schools offered an in-person option.

Calls for data on COVID-19 and schools were ignored

Education groups have sounded the alarm throughout the pandemic about the need for more and better data about how it was affecting students.

“The reason that it always matters to have information about how students are learning is because they are facing incredibly different experiences within our education system,” said Rachel Anderson, the director of research at the Data Quality Campaign, an organization that advocates for collecting and reporting education data. “We suspect that most of those differences were broadened during the pandemic.”

It’s always been important to have this information, she said, but it’s especially important now.

As states ordered broad school closures in spring 2020, Education Week provided one of the first sets of national data on the subject, tracking the numbers of students affected on a map that served as a reference point for U.S. government agencies, international health organizations, and media outlets.

Later other organizations, including a collaboration between Oster and education organizations, developed various ways of collecting and reporting data on school closures.

Educators and policymakers debated whether that data could be used to assess the effects of closures on virus spread or even to draw correlations between an area’s political leanings and the likelihood of in-person learning.

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. Some education groups called that “a missed opportunity.”

The first official federal data on the pandemic was collected in February following an executive order from President Joe Biden. But that monthly collection draws from a representative sample of schools with 4th and 8th grade students, leaving out older and younger children.

The federal data collection fell short of the level of detail sought by some education researchers, who wanted information about factors like student attendance, how schools measured learning progress, and whether remote learners signed into classes. But school administrators also cautioned against making too many requests of their time as they navigated the crisis.

The most recent federal data showed a continued increase in in-person learning, and continued racial and socioeconomic disparities in which students have access to full-time in-person instruction.

Preparing for future crises

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced plans for a new “pulse” survey during the 2021-22 school year that will ask a sample of 1,200 schools questions related to recovery and operations.

“It will be one of the nation’s few sources of reliable data on a wealth of information focused on school reopening efforts, virus spread-mitigation strategies, services offered for students and staff, and technology use, as reported by school district staff and principals in U.S. public schools,” the agency says in an announcement published in the Federal Register June 11.

But Oster thinks it’s also important to look back at the year when students were most heavily affected by closures and the churn between remote and in-person learning.

Even as policymakers have increasingly stressed the importance of data in evaluating schools and driving policy in recent years, the difficulty in tracking the pandemic’s effects on schools shows a lack of agility in collecting that information.

For example, federal surveys require time-consuming public comment periods to assure that the collections are reasonable and feasible for school leaders, so it can be difficult to query new data points in the middle of a crisis, said Anderson, of the Data Quality Campaign.

Ideally, data on the pandemic would be at the student level, allowing information about how individual children learned to be analyzed next to other indicators, she added. But any efforts to document the year, at the school level or otherwise, will be helpful, Anderson said.

In the future, federal officials could provide guidance to help states determine what information to track, what terms to use, and how to best report that information to the public, she said. That would allow them to collect information more quickly while increasing the likelihood that data will be comparable across states.

It would also ensure there “isn’t so much of a scramble next time,” Anderson said.

“Unfortunately this is not going to be the last time that schools are going to be disrupted on a large scale,” she said.


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