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Covid-19 Education Research for Recovery

Meira Levinson, Alan C. Geller, Joseph G. Allen.

At least 25 million K-12 students in the U.S.—disproportionately children of color from low-income families—have been physically out of school for a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These children are at risk of significant academic, social, mental, and physical harm now and in the long-term. We must determine how to help all students gain access to safe, in-person schooling. In this interdisciplinary Viewpoint, we review the literature about the association between school reopening and COVID-19 transmission rates, and about the political, social, and environmental conditions that shape families’ and teachers’ choices to return to in-person schooling. Even though schools can safely be opened with appropriate mitigation measures, we find four reasons for schooling hesitancy: high community transmission rates; the Trump administration’s politicization of school re-openings in Summer 2020; long-term histories of mutual mistrust and racialized disinvestment in urban districts; and rational calculation about vulnerability due to the social determinants of health that have led Black and Latinx parents disproportionately to keep their children at home and White families disproportionately to send their children to school. Given the deep interconnections between the social determinants of health and of learning, and between schooling hesitancy and community vulnerability, stark inequities in in-person schooling access and take-up are likely to persist. In addition to ramping up safe and speedy school reopening now, we must make a long-term commitment to supporting schools as both sites of and contributors to public health, especially in historically marginalized communities.

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Benjamin W. Domingue, Heather J. Hough, David Lang, Jason Yeatman.

Education has faced unprecedented disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence about the subsequent effect on children is of crucial importance. We use data from an oral reading fluency (ORF) assessment—a rapid assessment taking only a few minutes that measures a fundamental reading skill—to examine COVID’s effects on children’s reading ability during the pandemic in more than 100 U.S. school districts. Effects were pronounced, especially for Grades 2–3, but distinct across spring and fall 2020. While many students were not assessed in spring 2020, those who were seemed to have experienced relatively limited or no growth in ORF relative to gains observed in other years. In fall 2020, a far more representative set of students was observed. For those students, growth was more pronounced and seemed to approach levels observed in previous years. Worryingly, there were also signs of stratification such that students in lower-achieving districts may be falling further behind. However, at the level of individual students, those who were struggling with reading prior to the pandemic were not disproportionately impacted in terms of ORF growth. This data offers an important window onto how a foundational skill is being affected by COVID-19 and this approach can be used in the future to examine how student abilities recover as education enters a post-COVID paradigm.

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George Bulman, Robert Fairlie.

Enrollment increased slightly at both the California State University and University of California systems in fall 2020, but the effects of the pandemic on enrollment in the California Community College system are mostly unknown and might differ substantially from the effects on 4-year colleges. This paper provides the first analysis of how the pandemic impacted enrollment patterns and the academic outcomes of community college students using administrative college-level panel data covering the universe of students in the 116-college California Community College system. We find that community college enrolment dropped precipitously in fall 2020 – the total number of enrolled students fell by 4 percent in spring 2020 and by 15 percent in fall 2020 relative to the prior year. All racial and ethnic groups experienced large enrollment decreases in spring and fall 2020, but African-American and Latinx students experienced the largest drops at 17 percent in fall 2020. Enrollment fell the most for first-year students in the community college system, basic skills courses, and fields such as engineering/industrial technology, education, interdisciplinary studies, and art. There were smaller decreases for continuing students, academic courses transferable to four-year institutions, and business and science fields. Enrollment losses were felt throughout the entire community college system, and there is no evidence that having a large online presence in prior years protected colleges from these effects. In terms of course performance, there was a larger disruption to completion rates, withdrawal rates, and grades in spring 2020 than in fall 2020. These early findings of the effects of the pandemic at community colleges, which serve higher percentages of lower-income and minority students, have implications for policy, impending budgetary pressures, and future research.

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Emily Rauscher, Ailish Burns.

Mixed evidence on the relationship between school closure and COVID-19 prevalence could reflect focus on large-scale levels of geography, limited ability to address endogeneity, and demographic variation. Using county-level CDC COVID-19 data through June 15, 2020, two matching strategies address potential heterogeneity: nearest geographic neighbor and propensity scores. Within nearest neighboring pairs in different states with different school closure timing, each additional day from a county’s first case until state-ordered school closure is related to 1.5%-2.4% higher cumulative COVID-19 deaths per capita (1,227-1,972 deaths for a county with median population and deaths/capita). Results are consistent using propensity score matching, COVID-19 data from two alternative sources, and additional sensitivity analyses. School closure is more strongly related to COVID-19 deaths in counties with a high concentration of Black or poor residents, suggesting schools play an unequal role in transmission and earlier school closure is related to fewer lives lost in disadvantaged counties.

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Andrew Camp, Gema Zamarro.

A growing body of research and popular reporting shows racial differences in school modality choices during the COVID-19 crisis, with white students more likely to attend school in person.  This in-person learning gap raises serious equity concerns. We use unique panel survey data to explore possible explanations. We find that a combination of factors may explain these differences. School districts’ offerings, political partisanship, and local COVID-19 outbreaks are all meaningfully associated with and plausibly explain the in-person learning racial gap. As schools start offering more in-person learning, significant efforts may be necessary to ensure that families and students attend those in-person learning opportunities.

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Qing Zhang, Maria Sauval, Jade M. Jenkins.

COVID-19 has created acute challenges for the child care sector, potentially leading to a shortage of supply and a shrinking sector as the economy recovers. This study provides the first comprehensive, census-level evaluation of the medium-term impacts of COVID-19 on the county child care market in a large and diverse state, North Carolina. We also document the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on different types of providers and disadvantaged communities. We use data from two time points (February and December) from 2018 to 2020 and a difference-in-differences design to isolate the effects of COVID-19. We find that COVID- 19 reduced county-level child care enrollment by 40%, and reduced the number of providers by 2%. Heterogeneity analyses reveal that family child care providers experienced not only less severe reductions in enrollment and closures than center providers, but a small growth in the number of family providers. Declines in enrollment were most substantial for preschool-aged children. COVID-19 did not appear to further exacerbate inequities in terms of enrollment amongst low-income communities, communities with a larger share of Black residents, or rural communities, although communities with a larger share of Hispanic residents had more provider closures. Our findings underscore the importance of family child care providers in the child care sector and providing continuing and targeted support to help the sector through this crisis. Implications for future policies are discussed.

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Drew H. Bailey, Greg J. Duncan, Richard J. Murnane, Natalie Au Yeung.

A survey targeting education researchers conducted in November, 2020 provides both short- and longer-term predictions of how much achievement gaps between low- and high-income students in U.S elementary schools will change as a result of COVID-related disruptions to schooling and family life. Relative to a pre-COVID achievement gap of 1.00 SD, respondents’ median forecasts for increases in achievement gaps in elementary school by spring, 2021 were very large – from 1.00 to 1.30 and 1.25 SD, respectively, for math and reading. Researchers forecast only small reductions in gaps between spring 2021 and 2022. Although forecasts were heterogeneous, almost all respondents predicted that gaps would grow during the pandemic and would not return to pre-pandemic levels in the following school year. We discuss some implications of these predictions for strategies to reduce learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic as well as the mental models researchers appear to employ in making their predictions.

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Matt Grossmann, Sarah Reckhow, Katharine Strunk, Meg Turner.

The COVID-19 pandemic created enormous challenges for public education. We assess the role of political factors and public health in state and local education decisions, especially the continuation of learning during COVID-19. Using an original dataset of state education policies since the start of the pandemic, we find that governors took the lead on ordering school closures in Spring 2020 but left decisions to districts in the Fall, regardless of partisanship. Partisanship played a much stronger role in local decisions than state decisions. We analyze local district reopening plans and public opinion on reopening in the politically competitive state of Michigan. Partisanship was much more associated with district reopening plans than COVID-19 rates. Republicans in the Michigan public were also far more favorable than were Democrats toward in-person learning. States' decisions to leave reopening plans to their districts opened the way for students’ experiences to be shaped by their area's partisanship.

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Michela Carlana, Eliana La Ferrara.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the governments of most countries ordered the closure of schools, potentially exacerbating existing learning gaps. This paper evaluates the effectiveness of an intervention implemented in Italian middle schools that provides free individual tutoring online to disadvantaged students during lock-down. Tutors are university students who volunteer for 3 to 6 hours per week. They were randomly assigned to middle school students, from a list of potential beneficiaries compiled by school principals. Using original survey data collected from students, parents, teachers and tutors, we find that the program substantially increased students’ academic performance (by 0.26 SD on average) and that it significantly improved their socio-emotional skills, aspirations, and psychological well-being. Effects are stronger for children from lower socioeconomic status and, in the case of psychological well-being, for immigrant children.

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Beth Schueler, Martin R. West.

We study an early effort amid the Covid-19 pandemic to develop new approaches to virtually serving students, supporting teachers, and promoting equity. This five-week, largely synchronous, summer program served 11,769 rising 4th-9thgraders. “Mentor teachers” provided PD and videos of themselves teaching daily lessons to “partner teachers” across the country. We interviewed a representative sample of teachers and analyzed educator, parent, and student surveys. Stakeholders perceived that students made academic improvements, and the content was rigorous, relevant, and engaging. Teachers felt their teaching improved and appreciated receiving adaptable curricular materials. Participants wanted more relevant math content, more differentiated development, and less asynchronous movement content. Findings highlight promising strategies for promoting online engagement and exploiting virtual learning to strengthen teacher development. 

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