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In Pandemic, Digital Access and Parents' Education Made the Biggest Difference in Schools' Response

Across all sectors, from traditional public to charter and private campuses, schools moved quickly to restart academics in the aftermath of the pandemic school closures this spring. But the most comprehensive look to date at U.S. schools' response finds that online access and parents' education made the biggest difference in how fully schools responded.

In a study of more than 3,500 schools released this week by the National Center on Education Access and Choice and the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, researchers found no significant difference in response based on whether schools had poverty rates more or less than 50 percent nor among schools in neighborhoods that were more than half white, Black, or Hispanic.

What did make a difference? Parent education. Schools whose parents and adult community members had higher levels of education have been more likely to provide comprehensive academic and other student supports during the closures, suggesting districts may need to plan for more substantial support for parent engagement next fall to make complex hybrid school models work.

"Parents with higher levels of education are less likely to become unemployed, at a time when unemployment rates are at record levels," noted Douglas Harris and his coauthors. "Even if they are unemployed, they have greater wealth to fall back on, providing economic security. The jobs they hold are also more amenable to work at home, allowing parents to support their children's learning. Since educators are increasingly dependent on families to facilitate instruction in the current crisis, it is not surprising that schools would adjust what they do based on what parents can and wish to do themselves."

Moreover, while schools that spent above their state average in per pupil dollars provided no more comprehensive supports for students than those that spent less, the digital divide made a big difference. Schools in neighborhoods with greater internet access than the national average scored on average two points higher on the 35-point response index devised by the researchers than schools with more limited access. Prior studies have found families who make less than $50,000 a year were significantly less likely than wealthier families to have their own home computer and internet.

Nearly 75 percent of schools used some kind of online learning tool, with more than half opting for Google Classroom. In video conferencing, more than a third chose Zoom or Google Hangouts for online classes or teacher-student meetings. But the researchers could not identify how much time teachers spent on average with students in face-to-face instruction.

Tracking School Plans

Tulane University researchers from the National Center on Education Access and Choice and the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans tracked the Web sites of more than 3,500 traditional public, charter, and private schools beginning in May, roughly six weeks after schools nationwide closed in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. They analyzed how schools developed their response in five areas: 

  • personalization and engagement in group instruction, such as video conferencing or paper packet work
  • other academic supports such as teacher office hours or check-ins;
  • non-academic supports, including meals and mental health services;
  • progress monitoring, such as grading students' work or tracking attendance; and
  • educational equity, such as planning to ensure students with disabilities and English-language learners could access remote learning. 

While private and charter schools on average launched their remote learning plans a few days before traditional public schools did, the researchers found the different kinds of schools offered similar depth of academic engagement and personalized instruction once classes got up and running. Traditional public schools were more likely than schools in other sectors to provide students with meals and other support services, and they were somewhat more likely to have plans to help students with special needs continue to learn during the closures.Harris-CH.jpg

To put that in perspective, though—albeit a somewhat dismal one—only 37 percent of all schools made any reference at all to an academic plan for students with disabilities, and only 17 percent  noted a learning plan for their English-language learners. Equity issues for these students are likely to become landmines for district leaders this fall, as parents in Hawaii, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have already filed lawsuits arguing that their children have not gotten access to education during the pandemic-inspired closures.

The researchers suggested that schools will need to work much more closely with parents to provide remote-learning services for students in the next school year, particularly for those with special needs.

"Early studies suggested that student experiences under COVID-19 were related to students' family income. But that could have just reflected internet access or school spending that are correlated with poverty and which could be rectified through schools and changed policies," the researchers said. "The strong role for parent education may be because such parents are better situated to facilitate learning at home.If so, then this may make it more difficult to address rising opportunity gaps."

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