- Jeremy Singer
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How much school students attend is a powerful indicator of their well-being and a strong predictor of their future success in school. Prior research has documented the myriad in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to high levels of student absenteeism, many emerging from the root causes of poverty and disengagement. The shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic likely disrupted prior barriers to attendance and may have created new ones. This sequential explanatory mixed-methods study examined student absenteeism during the 2020–2021 school year in Detroit. We used administrative data to show whether and how attendance patterns changed, and we linked family survey and interview data to explain those patterns. We found that 70% of students were chronically absent, with 40% of parents reporting that computer problems contributed to absenteeism. While measures of socioeconomic disadvantage and computer/internet issues were associated with lower attendance and higher probability of chronic absenteeism, reported levels of hardship during the pandemic were not. Despite significant investment in technology, the district’s strategies for engaging students were not sufficient in overcoming economic hardships and the new challenges of online learning.
Purpose: Nearly all schools in the United States closed in spring 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We analyze traditional public and charter school reopenings for the 2020-21 school year in five urban districts. We provide a rich and theoretically grounded description of how and why educational leaders made reopening decisions in each of our case districts.
Research Methods: We used data from a multiple-case study from March 2020 to July 2021. The research team conducted 56 interviews with school, district, and system-level leaders; triangulated with publicly available data; and also drew on interview data from a subsample of parents and guardians in each of our sites. We analyzed these data through qualitative coding and memo writing, and conducted detailed single- and cross-case analyses.
Findings: School system leaders in our case sites generally consulted public health authorities, accounted for state-level health and educational guidance, and engaged with and were responsive to the interests of different stakeholders. Districts’ adherence to and strategic uses of public health guidance, as well as a combination of union-district relations and labor market dynamics, influenced reopening. Parents, city and state lawmakers, and local institutional conditions also played a role, helping to explain differences across cases.
Implications: In contrast to the “politics or science” framing that has dominated research and public discourse on school reopening, we show that local pandemic conditions and local political dynamics both mattered and in fact were interrelated. Our findings have some implications for how educational leaders might navigate future crises.
After near-universal school closures in the United States at the start of the pandemic, lawmakers and educational leaders made plans for when and how to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. Educational researchers quickly assessed how a range of public health, political, and demographic factors were associated with school reopening decisions and parent preferences for in-person and remote learning. I review this body of literature, to highlight what we can learn from its findings, limitations, and influence on public discourse. Studies consistently highlighted the influence of partisanship, teachers’ unions, and demographics, with mixed findings on COVID-19 rates. The literature offers useful insight and requires more evidence, and it highlights benefits and limitations to rapid research with large-scale quantitative data.